If affirmative coverage is needed for your closing…

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Be sure to advise your client and paper your file!

This blog recently discussed one of the biggest mistakes I made in private practice.  This edition relates a war story where I (thankfully) did the right thing.

I represented real estate developers and rarely handled residential closings.  When my clients developed residential subdivisions and residential condominium projects, I would gladly handle those cookie-cutter closings. And every now and then, another lawyer in my firm would ask for a favor: “Please close our good client’s purchase of a new home so he won’t choose another lawyer the next time he needs representation for his business….and please close it without charging an attorney’s fee.” I bet 90% of my dirt lawyer friends have fielded similar requests. Maybe you were smart enough to say “no”.

The client in this tale was a doctor. I’ll call him Dr. Roe. There are several doctors in my life that I hold in high esteem, but I have never liked representing doctors in legal matters. My experience is that they are too busy to listen to advice. They prefer for the magic to happen without their involvement.

This particular doctor had recently gone through a nasty divorce, and he had found a new home for himself and his four children who would be with him half of the time. This house was in the Hollywood area of Columbia, and the restrictive covenants contained a reverter clause. The clause stated that a violation of the normal residential restrictions would cause title of the lot to revert to the corporation that had developed the subdivision fifty or so years ago.

The reverter clause posed no problem if there was no violation of the covenants. I ordered a new survey and held my breath. The stars did not align for me, and the survey revealed a very slight violation of the side setback line. By very slight, I mean a couple of inches. The house was several decades old, and the violation may have been caused by settling.

I had a great relationship with my friendly title insurance company underwriter and called him to discuss my problem. He was very reasonable, and because of the minuscule violation, he authorized affirmative coverage for the lender as well as the owner. I was relieved but also concerned about relaying this information to my client. To get his attention, I had to set up an appointment at his office to explain the problem and show him the restrictions and the survey.

The bottom line was that he would obtain insurable title but not marketable title. I had seen marketability issues previously in my practice. In a commercial transaction, I saw a buyer walk away from a closing he had decided was not a good deal for him when his lawyer was able to uncover a questionable title problem that he argued defeated marketable title. I didn’t want that to happen to my client when he decided to sell his house.

He wanted the house! I gave him two pieces of advice: (1) when you decide to sell this house, please come to me, and let me help you with the listing agreement and contract. We will draft both documents to provide for insurable title instead of marketable title; and (2) please do not add onto this house in a way to increase the setback violations.

He said he understood completely. Before the closing, I drafted a letter to explain both problems. His signature at closing evidenced that I had delivered both pieces of advice.  Done deal.

Fast forward about ten years. My office phone rings, and a residential closing lawyer friend calls me and says, “Claire, how did you handle this HUGE setback violation for Dr. Roe when you closed his house?” You know the feeling, dirt lawyers, my heart fell, and I lost several years off my life between that call and the moment I could get my hands on the file to see what had happened ten years previously.

Since I had explained marketability vs. insurability to my client verbally and in writing, I was in the clear. It turns out that Dr. Roe added a pool, a very nice and very big pool house and brick fencing, all of which violated the setbacks.

And I got payback! The lawyer who had asked me to handle the closing free of charge was asked to bring the quiet title action to “fix” the title problem. Luckily, the corporation that had imposed the restrictions was defunct, and no surviving officers or directors could be located. The title was cleared with a simple action served by publication. And Dr. Roe paid attorney’s fees and costs.

Never forget that obtaining affirmative coverage does not “fix” title problems. Affirmative coverage often provides a mechanism for a closing to take place, but your client always must be advised that marketable title is unavailable. And your client must be advised of the consequences of accepting insurable title. In writing!

Court of Appeals answers novel JTROS question

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In the first Advance Sheet of 2022, our Court of Appeals answered a novel question concerning the severance of a joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The case* involved the estate of a father who owned property in Garden City with his son, one of his five children. Father and son had purchased the property together, each owning a fifty percent interest.  

The facts are simple. The property owners entered into a contract to sell the property in November of 2013, prior to the father’s death on December 20, 2013. The transaction closed on December 27, just seven days after the father’s death. The son, who was also the personal representative, treated the sale as if he was the sole owner and claimed the proceeds of the sale individually. His siblings argued that the contract severed the joint tenancy, entitling the estate to half of the proceeds.

The Probate Court and Circuit Court agreed with the siblings, relying on South Carolina Federal Savings Bank v. San-A-Bel Corporation**, which held that a purchaser under a contract has an equitable lien on the property. The Probate Court reasoned that the sales contract entered into prior to the Decedent’s death encumbered the property, entitling the purchaser possession of the property upon payment of the purchase price and entitling the estate to one-half of the proceeds. The Circuit Court found that the Probate Court had correctly interpreted the law.

Dirt lawyers understand the San-A-Bel case sets up a trap for the unwary lawyer who fails to deal with the equitable lien that case established, but we have never understood that case to affect JTROS severance. The Court of Appeals agrees with us. Since neither San-A-Bel nor the JTROS statutes address the question at hand, the Court decided to look at rulings from other states to address the novel issue of whether a contract of sale severs a joint tenancy.

The Court cited cases from the states of Washington and Florida (citations omitted) and decided to follow the Florida court which held that severance does not automatically occur upon the execution of a contract executed by all joint tenants unless there is an indication in the contract or from the circumstances that the parties intended to sever and terminate the joint tenancy.

The Court found that the contract at issue was silent on the severance issue and no extraneous circumstances indicated severance was intended by the parties, so the joint tenancy was not severed by the contract, and the son was entitled to the sales proceeds.  

Dirt lawyers tend to hold our collective breath when our Courts address a novel real estate issue. But I believe that, this time, we can agree that they got it right. Let me know if you disagree with me!

*In the Matter of the Estate of Moore, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5887, January 5, 2022.

**307 S.C. 76, 413 S.E.2d 852 (Ct. App. 1992).

Lawyers, as we begin 2022, let’s take care of our mental health!

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I was impressed once again during the holidays with the fact that some people, and especially some lawyers, don’t enjoy “the most wonderful time of the year”, and I wanted to encourage everyone especially every lawyer who needs help to get help now.

You may have heard about a fellow lawyer in Lexington who committed suicide a few weeks ago, leaving three daughters to grieve his loss. We have all heard news stories of a low country lawyer who has fallen from grace in spectacular fashion with mental health playing a major part in his saga.

My church held a “Blue Christmas” service in early December. This service brought home to me the sorrowful point that many people are unusually sad during the holidays.

Many among us are suffering from the uncertainty and isolation caused by the COVID pandemic. Just when we were beginning to think things were getting much better on that front, we are now being warned about the dangers of the Omicron variant that has created a new surge.

I don’t often recommend books in this blog and especially not works of fiction, but I recently read a novel that handled the impact of COVID so well that I highly recommend it to you. Wish You Were Here, a 2021 novel by Jodi Picoult, gives voice to medical professionals through a New York doctor who works in an emergency department. As the author said in her afterword, we will never be able to thank these professionals for what they have done for us, for what they have seen and for what they have been through.

The book also gives voice to a COVID survivor who spent time on a ventilator. Through this character, we see the importance of some lessons COVID has taught us.

These lessons are particularly important to lawyers. Specifically, the things that are significant in life are not monetary, they are not about the next case or closing. They are not about work at all. COVID has taught us to appreciate the present moment, to appreciate the beauty of nature, and to hold our loved ones close. We must understand that at the end of our lives, our work will not be important at all, but our loved ones will.

We, as lawyers, are supposed to be problem solvers. We are supposed to be strong. We are not supposed to have problems. But lawyers do have mental health problems. I read one statistic that indicated lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

In order to pass our “character and fitness” check to become lawyers and in order to keep our licenses for the long haul, we tend to hide our mental health problems. Having problems and hiding the problems can create perfect storms in our lives.

I encourage any lawyer who is particularly unhappy as the year begins to get help! Therapy is a good thing! You might begin by calling South Carolina Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers toll free helpline at (866) 545-9590 or contact any Lawyers Helping Lawyers member directly. But begin somewhere! The resources are available, and they are helpful.  Please, please seek help if you need it. 

And, in the meantime, I wish for all of you a wonderful 2022!

Happy New Year!

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Watch out for those recurring dreams…

And don’t forget the mortgage subordinations!

As the last blog of the year, I thought I’d tell you the story of one of my recurring dreams, or more accurately, one of my recurring nightmares, for your entertainment.

Do you have recurring dreams? I grew up in Georgetown where everyone makes routine pilgrimages to Charleston for shopping, dining, and medical appointments. My first recurring nightmare as a child involved the fright of crossing that rickety, two-lane bridge between Mt. Pleasant and Charleston. Thank goodness that monstrosity was replaced by the beautiful suspension bridge we cross today!

Later came the dreams involving college at Carolina. I dreamed I couldn’t get into the mailbox in my dorm. I have no idea why I had that dream because nothing very important was ever there. I dreamed my meal card wouldn’t work but that was also a useless dream because missing those dorm meals would have been no great loss.

Then came law school. In those dreams, it was always time for the exam for a class I had forgotten I signed up for. A more accurate dream would have involved a class I knew I signed up for but failed to attend class because I didn’t understand a word the professor said (think international law). Thank goodness my boyfriend had a great “skinny” on that topic and I somehow made it through that class. And I later married that boy.

But my most vivid recurring dreams involve my professional life, and the stories are always based in fact. I’ll tell you the factual, not the fantasy version of this dream. And I’ll avoid the names for attorney-client and other confidentiality reasons. This is the biggest professional mistake I made or, more accurately, the biggest professional mistake I made that I know about. As dirt lawyers, we plant time bombs every day, right?

I represented real estate developers. They developed malls, shopping centers, residential subdivisions, residential condominiums, outlots for McDonalds and other fast-food restaurants and other properties. The story involves a very large tract that was developed into an upscale residential subdivision, a Walmart, a movie theater, a church, and a shopping center.

The development was complicated. It involved environmental issues that could have derailed the entire project. Multiple individuals formed various entities for buying, holding and selling the real estate. The underlying property was purchased from the Federal government, which created its own set of complications. The acquisition, for example, involved a bid process that was foreign to me at the time.

It all finally fell into place, and the residences and businesses are still in place in 2021.

The problem that I thought might derail my career came to light when one of the individual developers declared bankruptcy. When that happened, every legal step I had taken for that person in the prior three years was scrutinized. The main lawyer scrutinizing my work, along with a team of associates, was a law school classmate, and, thankfully, a very kind and smart lawyer. But I spent lots of time worrying that I had missed something important.

I can remember the phone call from my friend all these years later down to the clothes I was wearing and the coffee cup in my hand.

The commercial properties required easements because of the private roads the properties shared. They also had easements for maintenance, pedestrian access, shared utilities, etc. Here’s the pitfall. When properties with these legal connections are owned and mortgaged separately, the lenders almost always must subordinate their mortgages to the easements to ensure the easements remain in place in the event of foreclosure, or in this case, bankruptcy.

I knew that!

I routinely obtained mortgage subordinations at every step of the development, except for one commercial tract. To this day, I have no idea how I missed one set of subordinations. And I think I lost several years off my life between the phone call from my kind classmate until I was able to obtain the subordinations very much after the fact. I was very lucky because the lender I had to approach (hat in hand) was a local lender. I even knew the person I had to persuade to cure my problem. And the good Lord must have smiled on me that day because it all worked out. I kept my license and my clients.

So, as I wish you a very happy, healthy, and prosperous 2022, I remind you to avoid the mistake I made. Always obtain the necessary mortgage subordinations!

Finkel Firm seeks affidavits in support of its lawsuit against Charleston ROD

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This blog has previously informed South Carolina real estate practitioners about the Petition for Writ of Mandamus filed by the Finkel Law Firm against the Charleston County Register of Deeds because of the significant backlog in recording.

Attached here is a copy of the memorandum from the firm requesting affidavits from law firms, title abstractors, realtors, title companies and agencies, and other organizations associated with the real estate industry setting forth how they have impacted with these delays.

Please read this memorandum and help this law firm if you, your office, and your clients have been impacted.

Should law firms use mascots in advertising?

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Should limitations be imposed on the use of mascots?

One South Carolina law firm claims to have been unfairly targeted

Left Shark Law?

Several news sources (The Post and Courier, The State, AP News) have recently published stories involving a South Carolina law firm with a mascot problem.

According to the news reports, South Carolina attorney John Hawkins said he has been unfairly targeted by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel because of his law firm’s mascot, a hawk. You have probably seen the television ads showing the hawk and actors flapping their arms like hawks to promote the firm’s personal injury practice.

Hawkins has purportedly sued the ODC in Federal Court complaining that the ODC has reached a settlement with another legal entity that uses a tiger as a mascot for a national network of motorcycle accident attorneys styled “Law Tigers.”

Mr. Hawkins has complained in court filings that his mascot is a three-pound bird that eats mice, squirrels, and other small animals, while Law Tiger’s mascot is a 400-plus pound animal that mauls, attacks and eats people. Which mascot, he questions, unfairly represents the ability to “obtain results” in the personal injury arena?

The news reports indicate that two rival law firms and a former employee all filed complaints with the ODC about the hawk mascot in 2017. This year, the ODC filed formal disciplinary charges.

Hawkins’ lawsuit purportedly makes constitutional arguments against the ODC’s enforcement action. I’m not a litigator, but it seems to me that the place to make this argument is in the disciplinary action itself. It never occurred to me that the ODC could be sued in Federal Court.

What do you think, dirt lawyers? Will that suit be dismissed? Can advertising using mascots unfairly tout a law firm’s strength and ability? Are potential clients confused or unduly influenced by the use of mascots? It will be interesting to see how this story plays out.

The hazards of drafting survivorship deeds for consumers

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Pay attention to tricky South Carolina law!

More than a decade has elapsed since our Supreme Court surprised dirt lawyers with Smith v. Cutler,* the case that told us there were already in place two survivorship forms of ownership in South Carolina. We apparently missed that day in law school! The two forms of ownership are joint tenancy (which we knew and loved) and tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship (which slipped by us somehow). This is a mini-history lesson about how we got to this state of the law and a reminder for dirt lawyers to carefully draft deeds.

Under the common law in South Carolina, tenancy in common is the favored form of ownership. A deed to George Clooney and Amal Clooney (whether George and Amal are married or not) will result in a tenancy in common. At the death of George or Amal, the deceased’s fifty percent interest in the property will pass by will or intestacy laws. Joint tenancy was not favored in South Carolina, and there was no tenancy by the entirety that would have saved the property from probate (and creditors) for a married couple.

A rather convoluted 1953 case** interpreted a deed that intended to create a tenancy by the entirety as creating a shared interest in property between husband and wife referred to as a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of ownership. This is the case that the Smith v. Cutler Court referred to as creating the form of ownership we missed.

It’s not technically true that all of us missed this form of ownership. Some practitioners did use the language from the 1953 case to create a survivorship form of ownership. The magic language is “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple.”  Other practitioners routinely used the common law language: “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.”

Conveying title from a person to himself and another person establishing survivorship was not possible in South Carolina prior to 1996 because the old common law requirement of unities of title could not be met. To create a survivorship form of ownership, the property owner conveyed to a straw party, who would then convey to the husband and wife, complying with the unities of title requirement and establishing survivorship.

A 1996 statutory amendment to §62-2-804 rectified this problem by providing that a deed can create a right of survivorship where one party conveys to himself and another person. The straw party is no longer needed. This statute was given retroactive effect.

In 2000, our legislature added §27-7-40, which provides that a joint tenancy may be created, “in addition to any other method which may exist by law” by the familiar words “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common”.  The statute addresses methods for severing joint tenancies which typically results in a tenancy in common. For example, unless the family court decides otherwise, a divorce severs a joint tenancy held by husband and wife, vesting title in them as tenants in common.  A deed from a joint tenant to another severs the joint tenancy. A conveyance of the interest of a joint tenant by a court severs the joint tenancy.

Following the enactment of §27-7-40, most practitioners used the language set out in the statute to create a joint tenancy, “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.” Five years later, Smith v. Cutler required us to examine our drafting practices with fresh eyes. The court held that a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship is capable of being defeated by the unilateral act of one tenant, but a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not capable of being severed by a unilateral act and is also not subject to partition.

Real estate lawyers in the resort areas in our state are often asked to draft survivorship deeds because couples from other states as accustomed to tenancy by the entirety. Until Smith v. Cutler, most practitioners did not believe different estates were created by the different language commonly in use. We believed joint tenancy was created in both cases.

Now, clients should be advised about the different estates and should choose the form of ownership they prefer. I’ve discussed this issue with many lawyers who advise married couples to create the indestructible form of ownership. Others who seek survivorship are often advised to create joint tenancy under the statute.  I see many deeds from the midlands and upstate that use the traditional tenancy in common form of ownership. I’ve heard estate planners prefer tenancy in common so the distribution at death can be directed by will. Lawyers who draft deeds for consumers need to be aware of and need to address the various forms of ownership with their clients.

One final thought on the survivorship issue in South Carolina. Do we now have a form of ownership that protects property from creditors of one of the owners? If a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not subject to partition, then it may not be reachable by the creditors of one of the owners. Let me know if you see a case that makes such a determination. It would be an interesting development.

*366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)

**Davis v. Davis, 223 S.C. 182, 75 S.E.2d 45 (1953)

Finkel Firm files suit against Charleston ROD for neglect of duties

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Real estate practitioners don’t often get excited about litigation, but this lawsuit should bring cheers from dirt lawyers in every part of the Palmetto State! The Finkel Law Firm, LLC, as plaintiff, filed suit on November 24 against Michael Miller, individually and in his official capacity as the Charleston County Register of Deeds. You can read the complaint in its entirety here.

The complaint points to Miller’s chronic and willful failure to timely record real estate documents within one month of delivery. The allegations state that Miller has allowed substantial delays since late 2019, and that these delays have increased significantly in 2021, sometimes amounting to as long as four months.

Further, the complaint states the Charleston ROD routinely files documents that are hand delivered immediately while allowing hundreds or even thousands of documents delivered to his office by mail or parcel delivery to be stored for later filing.

We all know that South Carolina is a race notice state. Delay in filing real estate documents will, of course, create liability for parties and their lawyers. The complaint makes this point clearly.

The law firm alleges that these failures have substantially interfered with its ability to meet its professional obligations to protect the interests of its clients and has exposed the firm to potential liability for correcting title problems resulting from the ROD’s dereliction of duty.

The complaint seeks a writ of mandamus ordering the ROD:

  • To immediately file all real estate documents that have been delivered and have not been filed within one month of delivery;
  • To mark the recorded real estate documents as being recorded on the same date that they were delivered; and
  • To record all real estate documents in the order of the times at which they were brought to the ROD, regardless of whether they are personally delivered or are delivered by U.S. mail or parcel post.

The complaint asks the court to maintain jurisdiction for a reasonable time to monitor the continued operations of the ROD.

Every real estate practitioner in South Carolina should thank their friends at the Finkel Firm for taking this action. And every ROD in the State should take notice!

Did Columbia destroy an archeological structure?

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Court of Appeals holds the City is not responsible

On November 10, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a summary judgment order in favor of the City of Columbia concerning the alleged destruction of an archeological and historical bridge abutment during a sewer rehabilitation project*.

The Brinkmans, Colemans, Fosters and Collins (property owners) own real estate on Castle Road on the banks of the Broad River in Richland County. The City of Columbia owns and operates sewer lines that run beneath portions of the property and has a permanent, 15-foot easement across the property for the purpose of maintaining the sewer lines. In 2014, the City began a sewer rehabilitation project which required access to the sewer lines.

According to the property owners, two bridge abutments stood on their property located outside the easement. The owners claim these abutments, which were made of carved rock, were built in the 1700s and were the “oldest existing structures in the Midlands.”

One of the owners testified that he shouted to the City’s contractors and said there was a valued monument on the property. Unfortunately, while the City and the contractors were clearing the land, they destroyed the stones that allegedly comprised the bridge abutments. The City acquiesced to the owner’s request that all work cease, and the property owners brought the subject lawsuit alleging various causes of action, including the destruction of archaeological resources in violation of §16-11-780 of the South Carolina Code.

This statute states that it is unlawful for a person to willfully, knowingly, or maliciously enter upon the lands of another and disturb or excavate a prehistoric or historic site for the purpose of discovering, uncovering, moving, removing or attempting to remove an archaeological resource.

The property owner’s expert testified that he believed the structures were historic abutments from the 1700s or early 1800s and likely to be the “Compty bridge abutment.” He explained that additional excavation and review of other properties across the river would have been the appropriate “next step”.

The property owners submitted an application in 2008 to the National Register of Historic Places, but the Department responded that a great deal more research and archeological investigation was needed before a determination of eligibility could be made.

The record contains a screenshot from the website “ArchSite. The property owner’s expert testified that ArchSite is a multi-agency website that allows access to the archaeological resources database. He explained that when ArchSite receives information about historic sites, it verifies the information and posts it to the website. The image in the record shows a rendering of part of the Broad River and Castle Road, and it includes the notation “Historic Areas: Broad River Ferry and Bridge Site.”

The trial court found no governing preservation or conservation authority had recognized the structures as either archaeological resources or historical structures. In granting the City’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that the City was not liable under the statute.

The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that no evidence exists that the City cleared the land “for the purpose of” discovering, uncovering, moving, removing or attempting to remove an archaeological resource. Clearly, the City was attempting to clear the easement area to access the sewer lines. In addition, the owners provided no evidence that the City had any knowledge of the historic nature of the site.

The owner who shouted at the contractors could not testify that the contractors heard him and did not know whether this incident took place before or after the destruction of the stones. In addition, the Court held that the owners failed to show the City was obligated to consult ArchSite. The Court also questioned whether the entry on ArchSite contained sufficient information to conclude the property is historic because the entry indicates the site is “not eligible or requires evaluation.”

Finally, the Court held that regardless of whether any preservation or conservation authorities designed the structures as archaeological resources, the property owners failed to demonstrate the City had either actual or constructive knowledge of the existence of such resources.

*Brinkman v. Weston & Sampson Engineers, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5870, November 10, 2021