The impact of a "time is of the essence" provision on a real property transaction delayed by the discovery of environmental contamination was the subject of the Court of Appeals decision yesterday in Phoenix Limited Partnership v. Simpson.

The decision supersedes and replaces a March 2009 decision by the Court, in which it had reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff (the buyer). After a rare grant of a Petition for Rehearing, the Court reversed itself and affirmed the trial court’s ruling in full, granting specific performance of the contract.

The property involved was the subject of a "put option" by which Plaintiff was required to purchase the property. After the exercise of the put, but before the date scheduled for closing, the Defendants discovered significant environmental problems on the property.

The Defendants informed the Plaintiff that they intended to clean up the property. Three years after the closing date called for in the contract, the Plaintiff asked about the status of the remediation, and learned the Defendants hadn’t finished the cleanup. Instead, they had contracted to sell the property to another buyer for approximately $400,000 more than the option purchase price.

Plaintiff sued for specific performance notwithstanding the three year delay. The Defendants argued that they were relieved from the obligation to complete the transaction because of the "time is of the essence" provision. They also contended that because the Plaintiff hadn’t sought to close within a reasonable time after the scheduled closing date, the option had terminated.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and said that the time is of the essence provision had been waived, ruling:

defendants’ conduct in pursuing an environmental cleanup — including hiring their own environmental consultant, telling plaintiff that they were conducting an environmental investigation, notifying plaintiff of the results of that investigation, and stating that they wanted to enroll the . . . property in the [North Carolina Dry-Cleaning Solvent Act program] — coupled with the fact that an environmental cleanup could take years to complete, indicated to plaintiff that defendants still intended to perform under the contract despite the passing of the original closing date. 

In the absence of a time is of the essence provision, the law in North Carolina is that the parties are allowed "a reasonable time after the date set for closing to complete performance." In its first opinion, the Court of Appeals had found a question of fact on this issue. It abandoned that ruling in the new opinion, however, finding that it was unnecessary to reach the reasonableness issue.

The Court, relying on the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in Fletcher v. Jones, 314 N.C. 389, 333 S.E.2d 731 (1985), held that "in order for the clock to start ticking on the reasonable time frame, defendants were required to notify plaintiff that they had completed their cleanup and were ready and able to perform." Defendants had never done so.