ProPublica publishes interesting heirs’ property story

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Check out the July 15, 2019 story by Lizzie Presser

NC oceanfront property

Image courtesy of ProPublica.org

Several of our staff members stay well informed about current events, and Cris Hudson, our IT professional, is no exception. Cris pointed me to this story published by ProPublica on July 15 entitled “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery”. The subtitle is “The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave it.” Cris told me I should blog about this story, so here goes.

ProPublica calls itself a “nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power”. The story is about brothers, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, who lived in Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina, on land they considered to be owned by dozens of their family members. The property consists of 65 marshy acres. Melvin Reels ran a club on the property and lived in an apartment above the club. He also had established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land. Licurtis had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s house.

Mr. Davis’ and Mr. Reels’ great grandfather, Mitchell Reels, bought the land just one generation removed from slavery. The land was said to contain the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. Mitchell didn’t trust the courts and didn’t leave a will, so, when he died in 1970, the property became heirs’ property.

In 2011, the brothers appeared before a judge to argue that they owned the waterfront portion of their property, which had purportedly been sold, without their knowledge or consent, to a developer. They were not allowed to argue their case that day. Instead, the judge sent them to jail for civil contempt. They were never charged with a crime nor given a jury trial, but they spent the next eight years fighting their case from jail.

As any practitioner who has handled quiet title suits for heirs’ property can attest, the suits can be expensive and complex. Nonprofit organizations, like The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, assist in litigating these matters.

The story quotes Josh Walden of the Center who said that organization has worked to clear more than 200 titles in South Carolina the past decade, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Mr. Walden told the reporter that the center has mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina and is careful to protect the maps from potential developers.

Back to the North Carolina story, a great uncle of Mitchell and Licurtis apparently obtained the waterfront property through an adverse possession action and began sending trespass notices to the brothers in 1982. The brothers could not believe the adverse possession action could have been “legal” since they had lived on the land their entire lives. Soon afterward, the great uncle sold the waterfront portion of the land to developers.

The family members knew that if the waterfront was developed, the tax values of their adjacent properties would skyrocket, and they would have difficulty paying the taxes and maintaining their properties. Tax sales have historically been the cause of the loss of many heirs’ properties.

(I got confused in one part of the story when the author talked about “nearby” Hilton Head. We drove from Hilton Head to Outer Banks once, and I promise you, the two locations are not “nearby”. We could have driven to Disney World in the same time frame.)

Like tax sales, partition actions have been a tool used to separate heirs from their properties. A developer can buy the share of one heir and then force a partition of the entire property. While South Carolina has passed partition legislation to protect against this danger, North Carolina has held out against this reform, according to the story.

The brothers continued to rot in jail after the judge indicated there was no time limit on civil conspiracy, and that the brothers had to move their houses from the properties to be released. The brothers refused and were locked in a hopeless clash with the law, according to the story.

Eight years later, the brothers appeared before a judge who agreed to release them but warned them that if they returned to their homes, they would return to jail. They have still not been able to return to the waterfront property.

I invite you to read the entire story for a history of heirs’ property in the South. It is indeed a sad tale of greed and legal wrangling to remove properties from heirs. The Reels’ story is just one example.

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Matthew Cox, notorious fraudster, resurfaces

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Check out the August issue of The Atlantic

matthew cox

Picture courtesy of The Atlantic, August 2019 issue

I’ll never forget the name, Matthew Cox or the telephone call that tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation here in Columbia. Long before the housing bubble popped, an attorney called to let us know what was going on that day in the Richland County ROD office. Representatives of several closing offices were recording mortgages describing the same two residential properties in Blythewood, as if the properties had been refinanced multiple times in the same day by different closing offices.

At first, we thought our company and our attorney agent were in the clear because our mortgage got to record first. South Carolina is a race notice state, and getting to record first matters. Later, we learned that deeds to the so called borrower were forged, so there was no safety for anyone involved in this seedy scenario. Thousands of dollars were lost.

Next, we learned about the two fraudsters who had moved to Columbia from Florida through Atlanta to work their mischief here. The two names were Matthew Cox and Rebecca Hauck. We heard that Cox had been in the mortgage lending business in Florida, where he got into trouble for faking loan documents. He actually had the guts to write a novel about his antics when he lost his brokerage license and needed funds, but the novel was never published. With funds running low, Cox and his girlfriend, Hauck, moved to Atlanta and then Columbia to continue their mortgage fraud efforts.

We didn’t hear more from the pair until several years later, when we heard they had thankfully been arrested and sent to federal prison.

For a much more colorful account of these criminal activities and Cox’s attempt to write “true crime” stories from the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida, I refer you to the comprehensive and entertaining article written by Rachel Monroe in the August issue of The Atlantic magazine. Please enjoy the full text of the article here.

Ms. Monroe said she had been contacted by Matthew Cox by email telling her he was attempting to write a body of work that would allow him to exit prison with a new career. He described himself as “an infamous con man writing his fellow inmates’ true crime stories while immersed in federal prison.”

The crimes perpetuated by Cox and Hauck were made easier by the housing bubble itself. Everything was inflated and values were hard to nail down. And closings were occurring at a lightening pace. This excellent article made my heart skip a beat as I was reminded of those times. I hope all of us in the real estate industry have learned valuable lessons that will similar prevent mortgage fraud in the future. Those of us who made it through the economic downturn are certainly older and hopefully wiser!

South Carolina Supreme Court abolishes common law marriage

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Maybe we’ll get a “Big Chill” sequel

marriage blocks resize

The Big Chill” is one of my husband’s favorite movies, in fact, it’s up there with “Braveheart” and “Casablanca”. Several years ago, we celebrated a milestone birthday by inviting two couples who were friends from law school to the mountains for a “Big Chill Weekend” of eating great food, playing great music* and reminiscing about the old days. We did agree to eliminate drugs and spouse swapping from the Big Chill agenda.

Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court abolished common law marriage in South Carolina.** This rule will be prospective only. Parties may no longer enter into a valid marriage in South Carolina without a license.

Hang on. I will explain how the movie and common law marriage in South Carolina connect for those too young to remember the news. (And the connection has nothing to do with our Big Chill weekend.)

When the movie was being filmed in the winter of 1982-83 in Beaufort, actor William Hurt was living with Sandra Jennings, a former dancer in the New York City Ballet. Ms. Jennings became pregnant with Mr. Hurt’s son, Alexander Devon Hurt, who was born in 1983. The couple lived together in New York and on the road from 1981 – 1984.

When the couple split, Ms. Jennings brought suit in New York claiming a share of Mr. Hurt’s substantial assets, based on the theory that they had established a common law marriage during the few months they lived in South Carolina. She sought a divorce. Child support was not an issue because Mr. Hurt was paying $65,000 per year to support the couple’s son. Common law marriages hadn’t been recognized in New York since 1933, so the claim was based on South Carolina law and the short time the couple lived together in Beaufort.

Ms. Jennings was not successful in the law suit, but litigation is very expensive and the story got lots of mileage in South Carolina. The standing line was that actors had to be careful in this state! Maybe the cast can finally return for a sequel.

The Supreme Court stated that the time has come to join the overwhelming national trend, despite our legislature’s failure, to abolish common law marriage. The court said, “The paternalistic motivations underlying common-law marriage no longer outweigh the offenses to public policy the doctrine engenders.”  I know some other outdated ideas I’d like to see abolished in South Carolina.

* Favorite lines from the movie which demonstrate, in part, why it’s a favorite: Michael:  “Harold, don’t you have any other music, you know, from this century?” Harold: “There is no other music, not in my house.”  There is no other music in the Manning house either.

Favorite movie trivia: The dead guy, the corpse being dressed for his funeral in the opening scenes, was played by none other than Kevin Costner. There were plans to have flash-back scenes to the characters’ college antics, but those scenes were later eliminated.

** Stone v. Thompson, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27908 (July 24, 2019).

Connecticut codifies attorney closing requirement

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connecticut map

South Carolina licensed attorneys must close real estate transactions because our Constitution gives our Supreme Court the power to define the practice of law, and that Court, beginning with the 1987 seminal case, State v. Buyers Service, has defined the practice of law to include closing real estate transactions.

No explicit authority has required a similar result in Connecticut, but by custom, lawyers in Connecticut have routinely been involved in real estate closings. Beginning October 1, 2019, however, this long-standing practice will be required by statute as a result of the passage of Connecticut Senate Bill 320 (Public Act 99-88).

The new law defines “real estate closing” as follows:

  • a mortgage loan transaction, other than a home equity line of credit transaction or any other loan transaction that does not involve the issuance of a lender’s or mortgagee’s policy of title insurance in connection with such transaction, to be secured by real property, or
  • any transaction wherein consideration is paid by a party to such transaction to effectuate a change in the ownership of real property in Connecticut.

A violation of the new law will constitute a felony punishable by a $5,000 penalty or five years in jail.

It is interesting to me that a loan not involving title insurance does not require the involvement of an attorney. Why would a lender’s requirement of title insurance be determinative?  I can envision the argument that foregoing title insurance and thereby foregoing the requirement of the involvement of a licensed attorney would greatly decrease closing costs. Both are protective of the interest of the lender. It seems to me that either title insurance OR a closing attorney would be more desirable than neither.

It is also interesting that there is no differentiation between residential and commercial transactions in the new Connecticut statute. All the South Carolina cases in this area have involved residential facts, and at least one well-respected commercial lawyer in Columbia believes the Court may not have intended to include commercial transactions, where sophisticated parties are almost always involved. Most commercial transactional lawyers believe commercial transactions must follow the residential line of cases.  In Connecticut, it seems clear by the statutory definitions that lawyers are required for commercial closings.

Equity lines not being included under the purview of the new law seems counterintuitive. A consumer can get into as much or more trouble with an equity line as with any first or second mortgage.

And my final thought is that the statute doesn’t seem to define who the attorney must represent in the closing. The law states “no person shall conduct a real estate closing unless such person has been admitted as an attorney in this state.” South Carolina cases are clear that the protections are established for the consumer borrower.

In any event, I believe most South Carolina dirt lawyers would agree with me that we like the fact that Connecticut agrees with South Carolina and wish other states would follow suit!

Dave Whitener’s “Palmetto Logs”

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SC palmetto state

Two weeks ago, this blog paid tribute to the late, great Dave Whitener, a giant among real estate legal professionals in South Carolina. As suggested in that blog about Dave’s “Top Ten You Betters”, I also wanted to share with you Dave’s “Palmetto Logs”.

Several years before his death, Dave was asked to address the American Bar Association. The issue was whether a successful defense might be mounted if a federal agency attacked the rights now existing in South Carolina for lawyers, and only lawyers, to close real estate transactions. In that talk, Dave cited ten areas of defense that he called the Palmetto Logs. For non-South Carolinians, the palmetto log has traditionally been a symbol of protection for South Carolinians in time of war. South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”.

Here are Dave’s suggested protections against an attack from outside our state for closings performed by licensed South Carolina attorneys:

Caselaw

  1. State v. Buyers Service, 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court defined the practice of law in a residential real estate closing to include: certification of the title; preparation of the deed and loan closing documents, closing the transaction and overseeing recording.
  2. Doe v. Condon, 351 S.C. 158, 568 S.E.2d 356 (2002). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court reiterated and confirmed that the four protected areas set out in Buyer’s Service would also apply to residential refinances.
  3. Doe v. McMaster, 355 S.C. 306, 585 S.E.2d 773 (2003). In 2003, the South Carolina Supreme Court again reiterated its holding in Buyer’s Service.

Statutes and South Carolina Constitution

  1. C. Code §40-5-310 makes it a felony for an individual to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  2. C. Code §40-5-320 makes it a misdemeanor for a corporation or other entity to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  3. C. Code §37-10-102 gives a borrower the absolute right to choose the closing attorney in a residential loan closing. The statute provides for a $7,500 penalty if the disclosure is not given.
  4. South Carolina’s Constitution gives the S.C. Supreme Court the exclusive right to define the practice of law within South Carolina

Practical Considerations

  1. The low cost attributable to attorneys’ fees for residential closings in South Carolina. Dave believed the low cost would present a major difficulty if a federal agency argues that South Carolina’s practice is anti-competitive or increased prices.
  2. Major job losses would possibly result from the outsourcing of jobs to closing centers outside of South Carolina
  3. Major risks would be raised in turning over the duties now performed by experienced lawyers to unregulated and inexperienced lay persons.

I’m not sure whether Dave would say differently if he were here to analyze this topic for us today. I fear that the retirement of Chief Justice Jean Toal may have resulted in the loss of the South Carolina lawyer’s strongest advocate in the South Carolina Supreme Court. So far, the Palmetto Logs are holding strong, but some more recent cases from our Supreme Court give me some concern on this topic.

In any event, I am continually thankful for Dave Whitener and his influence, mentorship and friendship to South Carolina dirt lawyers!

Commercial lawyers: you’re not immune from fraud!

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This high-dollar scam was reported to our company

hacker mask

Our company publishes an excellent newsletter entitled “Fraud Insights”. The Editor, Lisa Tyler, National Escrow Administrator, deals mostly with residential transactions. It’s unusual for her to report on a scam involving a commercial transaction, but the edition that hit my in-box today outlines the story of a chilling scam involving a commercial transaction in New York. Fortunately, the scammers were not successful despite their best efforts.

Here are the facts. On April 10, 2019, an attorney at a large, prestigious New York City law firm sent a settlement services office in Lake Success, New York, a payoff letter for a private mortgage. The payoff letter said $1.7 million should be wired to a bank account in New Jersey.

The afternoon before the closing, the settlement office received an email purportedly from the payoff attorney’s office with revised payoff instructions for a bank in the Netherlands.

The closing was postponed for reasons not involving the loan payoff. When the closing was rescheduled, the settlement office emailed the lawyer and his assistant inquiring about the change in the wiring instructions. The responding email confirmed that the change was legitimate.

Reviewing the emails carefully, the closer noticed the domain name for the lawyer’s office contained an extra “s” beginning with emails dated April 16. The attorney’s email signature was also partially cutoff beginning April 16.

Two hours before the closing, the attorney’s assistant purportedly sent the closer an email asking if the wire had been sent. The closer did not want to alarm her that her email had been compromised, so he responded that the closing was happening shortly, and he would be in touch. The closer then searched the law firm by Internet and called the main telephone number, asking for the assistant directly. She answered the phone and said the original payoff letter was the only payoff letter, and she had not sent the recent email. She was, of course, alarmed.

She said her attorney was in court and she would relay the distressing information to him immediately. She was asked to refrain from using email for that notification because the emails were clearly being watched. Regardless, she emailed the attorney. At that point, the scammers were tipped off that their scheme had been uncovered.

While the legal assistant and the closer were discussing the situation by phone, the closer received another email purportedly from the assistant demanding that he call the lender to confirm the payoff information. Immediately following that exchange, a man called the closer office to confirm the altered wiring instructions.

At this point, everyone involved with the closing knew for sure that they were dealing with attempted fraud. The closing took place, but the payoff was accomplished via bank check.

The closer said his office tries to remain on the cutting edge of technology and industry news. His sharp eye in pinpointing the email discrepancies kept the closing from being another cybercrime news story. Commercial lawyers may feel somewhat insulated from the rampant cyber fraud that plagues residential practices, but this cautionary tale is an example of penetration into a sophisticated law firm. Be careful out there!

Paying tribute to a giant of the SC Real Estate Bar

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Dave Whitener was a friend and mentor to us all

Have you ever tried to organize your old forms, seminar materials and documents only to start waxing nostalgic and ultimately getting absolutely nothing accomplished? That happened to me today.

I am sorely behind schedule writing an update to the Handbook for South Carolina Dirt Lawyers. I’m sure my name is “Mud” with Terry Burnett and Alicia Hutto, my good friends at the South Carolina Bar who are not very patiently waiting for results. I had a plan to get the update done in 2017 and again in 2018, but that never happened. I’ve been so busy with new initiatives at work that I didn’t even attempt to develop a plan to write an update in 2019. Now, I’m shooting for the date of my death or retirement, whichever comes earlier. Wish me luck!

Hugh Dave WhitenerBut today, I began to organize ancient materials in an attempt to breathe new life into this aged project. And I kept coming across the same name, my late, great friend, Dave Whitener. Why? Because Dave wrote and taught much of the subject matter I now need to address.

Dave was 70 years old when he died in 2014 after practicing commercial real estate and teaching law school in Columbia for many years. He was married to my friend, Tricia Wharton Whitener, who continues his good work today. Dave was not only an excellent practitioner and teacher, but he was also, as his obituary quips, “renowned as a raconteur whose stories made others happy”. He loved people and he loved the law. He loved talking to law students and lawyers and telling them memorable stories in an effort to keep them out of trouble.

Since keeping my fellow South Carolina dirt lawyers out of trouble is the mission of this blog, I’m finding that many of the lessons Dave taught are appropriate on my day of waxing nostalgic.

If a law student or lawyer called Dave with a disturbing current event that the caller said “rang a bell” from one of Dave’s ethics lectures, Dave would reply, “You’re hearing the dinner bell at the federal prison.” That would get the caller’s attention!  I thought of that quote when I came across a lecture from Dave entitled “Top Ten ‘You Betters’”.  I thought I’d share that list with this audience today because this particular top ten list will never go out of style for real estate practitioners.

Dave Whitener’s Top Ten “You Betters”

    1. You better not facilitate the unauthorized practice of law.
    2. You better do what you should be doing.
    3. You better know what you should be doing.
    4. You better be on time.
    5. Everything better be shown on the closing statement.
    6. Everything on the closing statement better be correct.
    7. You better communicate with your clients.
    8. You better understand the rules on conflicts of interest.
    9. You better remember that your trust account is sacred.
    10. You better train your staff properly.

 

 

I could editorialize about each item on the list, but I believe the simplicity of this list speaks volumes for today’s purposes. But if I were to write a chapter on each item on the list, my handbook would be complete.

stay tuned

Thank you, Dave, for your example. My next blog may be about Dave’s ten-point plan for defending the rights of South Carolina licensed practitioners to handle real estate closings. Watch this space!