Duckworth v. Bernstein

Citation55 Md.App. 710,466 A.2d 517
Decision Date11 October 1983
Docket NumberNo. 1843,1843
Parties, 43 A.L.R.4th 659 Robert M. DUCKWORTH et ux. v. Manuel BERNSTEIN.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Paul J. Feeley, Baltimore, for appellants.

Gerald Danoff, Towson, for appellee.

Argued before LISS, ADKINS and GETTY, JJ.

ADKINS, Judge.

In September 1979, appellants Robert M. Duckworth and Angela M. Duckworth borrowed money from appellee Manuel Bernstein, the transaction having been negotiated by one Al Blank. The loan was secured by a third mortgage on the Duckworths' residence.

In 1982, the Duckworths filed a bill of complaint against Bernstein in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. In substance, the complaint alleged that the loan was a secondary mortgage loan governed by title 12, subtitle 4 of the Commercial Law Article. 1 They claimed that various aspects of the Secondary Mortgage Loan Law were "deliberately violated" by Bernstein and that he "fraudulently required" them "to sign false statements indicating that the loans were for a commercial purpose when they were not...." 2 They prayed for a declaration that the principal amount of the mortgage had been paid in full, and for the damages provided by § 12-413 of the Commercial Law Article. That section provides:

Except for a bona fide error of computation, if a lender violates any provision of this subtitle he may collect only the principal amount of the loan and may not collect any interest, costs, or other charges with respect to the loan. In addition, a lender who knowingly violates any provision of this subtitle also shall forfeit to the borrower three times the amount of interest and charges collected in excess of that authorized by law.

A hearing was had, but the chancellor did not determine whether the transaction was a commercial loan or a secondary mortgage loan, nor did he issue any declaration as to the rights of the parties. See Stevan v. Brown, 54 Md.App. 235, 248, 458 A.2d 466 (1983), cert. den. sub. nom. Tower Bldg. Corp. v. Stevan, --- Md. ---, --- A.2d ---- (1983) (if justiciable issue presented, court should give declaration even if not that sought by requesting party). Instead, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to show that Blank had acted as Bernstein's agent in negotiating the loan, he dismissed the bill.

We think the chancellor was wrong on the agency issue as a matter of law, as well as in failing to declare the rights of the parties with respect to the principal amount of the debts, an issue, as we see it, not dependent on the agency question. Because of the unusual posture of the case, we conclude that "the substantial merits of the case will not be determined by affirming, reversing or modifying the judgment" below and "that the purposes of justice will be advanced by permitting further proceedings in the cause." Rule 1071. See Mountain Manor Realty v. Buccheri, 55 Md.App. 185, 193ff, 461 A.2d 45 (1983). Accordingly, we shall vacate the judgment below and remand pursuant to Md.Rule 1071. Before expressing "the purpose for so remanding" and determining "all questions which may have been properly presented" we shall place the case in its factual and legal contexts.

Facts

At the hearing below, virtually all of the evidence before the chancellor consisted of testimony by the Duckworths and the introduction of certain documents. Neither Bernstein, the lender, nor Blank, his purported agent, testified. From the record so produced it appears that in the summer of 1979, the Duckworths were in serious financial need because of medical problems experienced by Mrs. Duckworth. At that time, their home was subject to a 1977 first mortgage to Baltimore Building and Loan Association in the amount of $21,000 and to a 1978 second mortgage to Maryland National Bank in the amount of $7,100. After unsuccessfully seeking an additional loan from Maryland National, Mr. Duckworth let his fingers take a walk through the yellow pages of the telephone directory and found an ad with the alluring invitation "We start where the bank stops." He phoned the number given in the ad, and reached Blank, who did business as Equitable Associates.

Blank indicated a willingness to look into a third mortgage on the Duckworth residence. A man visited the home to appraise it. Later, Blank and Bernstein appeared at the home and inspected it, agreeing that it was worth mortgaging. About a week after this, Mr. Duckworth phoned Blank and arranged to meet with him at Blank's office. The meeting occurred on September 4 or 5, 1979.

At the meeting, the accommodating Blank told the Duckworths to take a little time to think about whether they wanted a third mortgage, although he advised them that even if they declined, he would charge them a $1,500 service fee. They left, had a cup of coffee, and returned to the office determined to take the loan because, as Mr. Duckworth testified, "I was in desperate need of money." Blank had all the papers ready, laid out in overlapping fashion so that only the signature lines showed. At the direction of Blank, without reading the papers 3 or asking that they be explained, the Duckworths signed the documents and endorsed several checks. They left the office with a check for $5,100.

The papers the Duckworths signed but did not receive at closing including a "Commercial Promissory Note" to Bernstein in the face amount of $9,000, bearing interest at the effective annual rate of 22.5 percent on the face amount; a mortgage of their home to Bernstein, securing the note and including the statement "Mortgagors further warrant that the proceeds of the loan will be used for the carrying on or acquiring of a business or commercial investment within the meaning of the Annotated Code of Maryland--Commercial Law Article--Title 12"; an affidavit which recited that "[t]he undersigned [the Duckworths] hereby acknowledge that the loan which has been made on this date from Manuel Bernstein in the gross amount of ... $9,000.00 ... will be used for the purpose of acquiring, carrying on a business or other commercial purposes and is not in any way to be construed as a personal loan--for purchase of truck;" and a "Statement of Transaction". The last document, which the Duckworths testified they did not receive until sometime after the meeting in Blank's office, included the following information:

BORROWERS: Robert M. Duckworth and

Angela M. Duckworth

                LENDER: Manuel Berstein
                GROSS AMOUNT OF NOTE AND LOAN        $9,000.00
                LESS THE FOLLOWING EXPENSES
                 Service Fee - Equitable Associates   3,725.50
                 Title Search                            50.00
                 Court Costs - Baltimore County          49.50
                 Preparation of Documents                75.00
                                                     ---------
                 Total Expenses                      $3,900.00
                NET AMOUNT OF LOAN TO BORROWERS      $5,100.00
                

The Duckworths further testified that they were not engaged in any business transaction or commercial enterprise and that no such commercial activity had ever been mentioned to or discussed with Blank. In addition, Mr. Duckworth said he had never owned a truck, did not intend to purchase a truck, and that he had never told Blank he intended to purchase a truck. Introduced in evidence, however, was an undated handwritten letter, which Mr. Duckworth denied writing but admitted signing. He said the letter had been sent to him and he had signed and returned it because Blank said "this had to be done this way so he would not get into trouble...." This was addressed to "Mr. Allen" (the name by which Mr. Duckworth designated Blank) and read:

I would like to make a loan for $8,000 so I could get a better tractor. I would like my monthly payment about $200.00.

* * *

* * *

P.S. This loan will be for commercial purposes.

The letter was contained in an envelope addressed to "Equitable Mortgage Co." at Blank's address and postmarked August 27, 1979. Mr. Duckworth testified that he had never owned a tractor and didn't need a tractor.

There was also testimony that during their visit to Blank's office, they had never sworn to anything before a notary although the mortgage and the affidavit were both notarized. No notary testified at the hearing.

The Duckworths made twenty-eight payments of $215.58 each on this loan, for a total of $6,036.24.

The Maryland Secondary Mortgage Loan Law

By Chapter 390, Acts of 1967, the General Assembly enacted the Secondary Mortgage Loan Law "to provide for the regulations [sic ] of ... such loans ... [and] to provide penalties for violations...." The law was codified as part of the Commercial Law Article by Chapter 49, Acts of 1975. Obviously intended to protect a certain class of consumers from unscrupulous lenders, the law, as it existed at the time of the Duckworths' loan in 1979, defined a secondary mortgage loan as

a loan secured in whole or in part by a mortgage, deed of trust, security agreement, or other lien on real property located in this State, which property:

(i) Is subject to the lien of one or more prior encumbrances, except a ground rent or other leasehold interest; and

(ii) Has a dwelling on it designed principally as a residence with accommodations for not more than four families. Commercial Law Art. § 12-401(j) (now subsection (i)).

If a transaction falls within the definition, as the Duckworths' 1979 loan plainly did, various protections are afforded the borrower. These protections then included among others:

A maximum effective annual simple interest rate of 16 percent on the principal balance (§ 12-404(b));

A limitation of 2 percent of the net proceeds of the loan with respect to an origination fee collected by the lender and a prohibition against the lender's collecting "from the borrower any other commission, finder's fee, or point for obtaining, procuring, or placing a loan." (§ 12-405(a)) A requirement that "[e]xcept as permitted by § 12-405(a), any commission, finder's fee, or point shall be paid by the lender...." (§ 12-406(a));

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