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Levi v. Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Co.

United States District Court, Second Circuit

October 21, 2013

LARRY LEVI, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMONWEALTH LAND TITLE INSURANCE CO., Defendant-Third Party Plaintiff,
v.
HENRY VARGAS, VARGAS REALTY GROUP, LLC, VANGUARD TITLE AGENCY, INC., PETER SKYLLAS, and EMELY OSPINO, as Administratrix of the Estate of VICTOR VARGAS, Third-Party Defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

SIDNEY H. STEIN, District Judge.

This fraud action is based upon Henry Vargas's false representation that he was the majority owner of an entity-2141 MD, Jr., LLC ("2141 MD")-that owned property located at 21-41 Lenox Avenue in New York City ("2141 Lenox Avenue"), when in fact Vargas had no such interest whatsoever. Posing as the managing member of 2141 MD, Vargas assigned a fraudulent mortgage to Peter Skyllas in exchange for $1 million. Skyllas then transferred the mortgage to Larry Levi, who purchased a title insurance policy on the property from Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Co. When Levi discovered that the mortgage was worthless, he sued Commonwealth. This Court granted summary judgment for the full amount of the policy in Levi's favor in a September 2011 Opinion and Order, see generally Levi v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., No. 09 Civ. 8012 (SHS), 2011 WL 4542904 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2011), and in March 2012, Commonwealth paid the judgment.

Commonwealth, meanwhile, instituted a third-party suit against the agent it hired to investigate the title, Vanguard Title Agency, Inc.; Vargas; Skyllas; Vargas's company, Vargas Realty Group, LLC; and Vargas's now-deceased father, Victor Vargas.[1] The only third-party defendant remaining in the case is Vargas; every other third-party defendant has either settled with Commonwealth or had a default judgment entered against it. Vargas is currently incarcerated after pleading guilty to charges of attempted grand larceny and second-degree forgery in New York Supreme Court, New York County. The conduct for which Vargas was convicted arises from the same scheme underlying Commonwealth's claims.

Commonwealth now moves for summary judgment, asserting that undisputed facts demonstrate that Vargas is liable to it for the amount it paid Levi under three alternative legal theories: fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud, and as assignee of the note and mortgage pursuant to the agreement between Commonwealth and Levi in satisfaction of the judgment. Commonwealth also seeks punitive damages. Vargas- who is defending this action pro se-raises a number of challenges to Commonwealth's factual and legal assertions.

For the following reasons, the Court finds that Vargas has failed to demonstrate any genuine dispute of material fact and that the undisputed facts support the entry of summary judgment in Commonwealth's favor on its fraud claim. The Court declines to award punitive damages.

I. FACTS

The following facts are supported by the uncontroverted documentary evidence in this record.

A. The 2141 Lenox Avenue Mortgage

In 2007, Henry Vargas, through his company Vargas Realty Group, entered into a contract with Manuel Duran, Jr.-the true owner of 2141 MD-to purchase property that entity owned at 2141 Lenox Avenue. ( People v. Vargas, Indictment No. 4987/09, Plea Allocution dated Apr. 9, 2010 ("Plea Allocution") at 9-10, Ex. J to Decl. of David William Tyler, Esq. dated May 2, 2013; Contract of Sale, Ex. Q to Tyler Decl.) Rather than completing the purchase, however, Vargas used the information gained about 2141 MD to draft an operating agreement for the corporation falsely designating himself as 60 percent owner; his father, Victor Vargas, as a 30 percent owner; and Duran as a 10 percent owner. (Operating Agreement, Ex. G to Tyler Decl.; Plea Allocution 10.)

Under the false premise that he was the majority shareholder of 2141 MD, Vargas entered into a May 2008 agreement with Peter Skyllas in which Skyllas paid $1 million, in multiple installments, [2] for the option to purchase Vargas's purported- but actually nonexistent-interest in 2141 MD for $4.8 million. (Option Agreement, Ex. K to Tyler Decl.; Dep. of Peter Skyllas dated Mar. 18, 2010 75:3-11, 76:3-14, Ex. M to Tyler Decl.) In the event Skyllas declined to exercise the option, he was to be repaid $1 million in accordance with the terms of a mortgage and mortgage note executed contemporaneously with the option agreement. (Option Agreement ¶ 5(D)(ii); Mortgage, Ex. F to Tyler Decl.) The purported mortgagor was 2141 MD; Skyllas was the mortgagee; and 2141 Lenox Avenue was the mortgaged property.

On July 14, 2008, Skyllas elected not to exercise the option to purchase Vargas's claimed ownership stake in 2141 MD. Levi, 2011 WL 4542904, at *2. Accordingly, Vargas's attorney released the mortgage and note, which had been held in escrow, to Skyllas. Id. According to its terms, 2141 MD was to pay Skyllas $1 million on September 10, 2009 in satisfaction of the debt. (Mortgage Note, Ex. F to Tyler Decl.) Skyllas thereafter recorded the mortgage.

Also on July 14, Skyllas assigned the mortgage to plaintiff Larry Levi in exchange for a payment of $728, 000. (Ex. O to Tyler Decl.) In connection with the purchase of this mortgage, Levi acquired a $1 million title insurance policy from Commonwealth, issued through its policy issuing agent, Vanguard. (Title Insurance Policy, Ex. D to Tyler Decl.) As part of the title issuance process, Vargas executed an affidavit of title (the "title affidavit")-including his notarized signature-on July 21, 2008 in which he affirmed that he was the managing member of 2141 MD; that the company was mortgaging the 2141 Lenox Avenue property to Levi; that "[t]he Article of Organization of [2141 MD] was filed with the New York Secretary of State"; that "[t]here has been no change in the composition of [2141 MD] and that the Operating Agreement has not been amended nor repealed and remains in full force"; that the "affidavit [was] executed to induce Commonwealth to issue its policy of title insurance... knowing that it [would] rely upon the statements"; and that 2141 MD would "indemnify Commonwealth for any loss, claim, costs, or damages, which may ensue from reliance upon [those] statements." (Title Affidavit, Ex. R to Tyler Decl.) The title policy insured Levi against risks including invalidity of the mortgage lien due to, inter alia, "forgery, fraud, undue influence, duress, incompetency, incapacity, or impersonation." (Title Insurance Policy ¶ 9(a).)

B. Levi's Action against Commonwealth

In January 2009, Levi filed a claim with Commonwealth, seeking $1 million. (Ltr. from Michael Katz, Esq. dated Jan. 2, 2009, Ex. T to Tyler Decl.) He made this claim after learning from Skyllas and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office that the mortgage was fraudulent. ( Id. ) Commonwealth offered to bring suit against Vargas and Vanguard on Levi's behalf. Levi, 2011 WL 4542904, at *3. Levi chose instead to commence an action based on diversity of citizenship against Commonwealth in this Court. Id. Commonwealth, in turn, filed a third-party complaint against Vargas and the other third-party defendants, also invoking diversity jurisdiction.

In a September 2011 Opinion and Order, this Court granted summary judgment in favor of Levi against Commonwealth. It found that, because Vargas had no authority to bind 2141 MD, the mortgage in which he purported to do so was unenforceable and fell within the policy's coverage of unenforceability due to "forgery, fraud, undue influence, duress, incompetency, incapacity, or impersonation." Levi, 2011 WL 4542904, at *3. It also found Commonwealth's affirmative defenses-one of which was that the lack of a valid debt to collect, rather than Vargas's fraud, caused the loss-to be without merit. Id. at *4-5. Finally, the Court judged Levi's damages to be the $1 million in unpaid principal on the debt- also the full extent of the title insurance policy-plus prejudgment interest running from the date on which the mortgage debt went into default. Id. at *6-7.

Commonwealth paid Levi $1, 122, 500 in satisfaction of the judgment pursuant to a March 2012 agreement. (Settlement Agreement, Ex. U to Tyler Decl.) That agreement also provided that "[i]n consideration of the payment by Commonwealth to Levi of the Settlement Amount, Levi... assigns to Commonwealth all of his right, title, and interest in... the Mortgage and all of his rights against any third parties... [and] acknowledges and agrees that Commonwealth shall be subrogated to all of Levi's rights under the Mortgage and the Note." ( Id. at ¶ 2(c).)

C. Criminal Proceedings against Vargas

As Levi discovered, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office indicted Vargas in 2009 on a number of charges associated with his misrepresentations regarding 2141 MD and the 2141 Lenox Avenue property. In April 2010, Vargas pleaded guilty in New York Supreme Court, New York County to attempted grand larceny in the first degree and forgery in the second degree. (Plea Allocution at 3.) In a statement made under oath in open court, Vargas admitted to the following:

In the fall of 2007, I began misrepresenting to others that I owned or controlled an entity called 2141 MD Jr. LLC, which in turn owned a building at 2141 Lenox Avenue.... I had entered into a contract with the LLC's true owner, Manuel Durand, Jr. in August 2007. Based on that deal, I knew that the building was owned by the LLC and Mr. Durand. To convince people that I owned the LLC and the [] building and to further my scheme to steal and attempt to steal money and other property, I forged an operating agreement for the LLC that made it appear that I owned 60 percent of it, my father owned 30 percent and Mr. Durand, the true owner, the true 100 percent owner owned only 10 percent and had contributed no money to the LLC. I knew that I had no permission or ...

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