Another Win for MERS.

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South Carolina Supreme Court tosses case against it brought by five Counties

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County administrators in five South Carolina counties were told they have no statutory cause of action against MERS in a case our Supreme Court dismissed on March 30.* Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper Counties brought suits against MERS and numerous banking institutions claiming their fraudulent practice of recordings disrupted the integrity of the public records.

The Supreme Court consolidated the five suits and assigned them to Business Court Judge Lawton McIntosh. MERS and the banking institutions filed a joint motion to dismiss, arguing the suit was barred by SC Code §30-9-30. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, indicating dismissal is improper for a novel question of law. The Supreme Court granted cert and dismissed the actions.

MERS is a member-based organization made up of lenders, investors, mortgage banks and others. When a MERS lender takes a promissory note and mortgage, MERS is shown on the face of the mortgage as the nominee for the lender. The mortgage is recorded in the county where the real estate is located, and the loan is registered in the MERS system.

This system allows lenders to retain priority with MERS as nominee. MERS provides convenient framework through which its members can transfer notes and mortgages without having to record each assignment. As a result, the public records may not accurately reflect the true owners of mortgages.

The lawsuits claimed fraud, misrepresentation, unfair trade practices, conversion, and trespass to chattels. It sought a declaratory judgment stating MERS and the lenders had caused damage to the public index system by recording false documents. It requested injunctive relief barring further recordings showing MERS as nominee and requiring corrections to the public records. The prayer demanded direct and consequential damages to remediate deficiencies in the records, as well as compensatory and punitive damages in the event the errors could not be fixed.

The crux of the matter was surely the loss of income for the assignment fees, although that thought is never mentioned in the published opinion.

Sale of a house. Object over whiteThe statute, §30-9-30, allows a recorder to refuse to accept or to remove any document believed to be materially false or fraudulent or a sham legal process. MERS and the lenders argued the statute does not provide the counties authority to bring the lawsuit, and the counties argued that the statute allows them to bring the suit by implication. They suggest that the statute provides, by implication, the power to commence litigation to remediate the public records and to seek guidance from the Court. The Supreme Court declined to imply language into deliberate legislative silence.

The Supreme Court held that the lower court erred in declining to dismiss the suit on the ground that this is a novel issue of law despite the fact that earlier cases had held to the contrary. The Court stated that where the case involves simple statutory construction, the trial court should not deny a meritorious motion simply because the question is one of first impression.

According to the Court, the statute already provides a remedy to government officials by allowing them to remove or reject any fraudulent records. Will the counties attempt to utilize this remedy?  Only time will tell.

*Kubic v. MERSCORP Holdings, Inc. (Appellate Case 2015-001366, March 30, 2016)

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Who You Gonna Call?

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Even five months into TRID implementation, there is still confusion about
who is allowed to receive the CD and Closing Statement

paperwork confusionWe’re all crystal clear that the borrower must be provided with the new CFPB compliant Closing Disclosure. We’re clear that there are very specific rules about when that document must be delivered to facilitate the scheduled closing. We know that most of the large national lenders are preparing and delivering the Closing Disclosure themselves while many of the local and regional lenders are still relying on closing attorneys to prepare and deliver this document.

What remains uncertain in some areas is how to deliver the necessary closing numbers to real estate agents, sellers and, when it comes to seller numbers, to lenders.

Real Estate Agents: There is no doubt that real estate agents need the numbers. They typically provide valuable guidance to their buyer clients on the accuracy of the numbers in advance of and during closings. They are also required to retain copies of closing statements in their files. But the Closing Disclosure now contains much more information than the HUD-1 Settlement Statement, and it is a common belief that delivery by a lender or closing agent to a real estate agent violates the buyer’s right to protection of personal information.

What is the solution?  There are two lines of thought. Some believe the buyer should sign a waiver allowing the lender and settlement agent to provide the Closing Disclosure to the buyer’s real estate agent. Several lenders, however, have stated that they will not act on waivers of this type.

The other line of thought is that the real estate agents (both the buyer’s agent and the seller’s agent) can be provided with a closing statement without violating anyone’s privacy. All of the closing software programs have closing statements available for this purpose. American Land Title Association has created forms for this reason, and most lawyers also have versions they have previously used for commercial and residential cash transactions.

Real estate lawyers in South Carolina need to prepare separate closing statements regardless of this dilemma. Our Supreme Court has made it clear that all the numbers in a closing must be properly disclosed to the parties. It took many of us months to wrap our brains around the fact that a Closing Disclosure does not contain all the numbers. It is not a closing statement and it is not a replacement for the HUD-1. It is also not a document from which we can disburse. We need a settlement statement that balances to a disbursement analysis to assure that our numbers are correct.

Sellers: The seller should be provided with the seller’s Closing Disclosure, which is prepared by the settlement agent and not the lender. But, again, this document does not reveal all of the numbers relevant to the closing, so the seller should also be provided with a settlement statement.

Lenders (as to Seller’s numbers): We have heard that lenders are having difficulty obtaining seller information from closing attorneys, but under TRID, settlement agents are obligated to provide the seller’s information to the lender. Lenders need this information to test the accuracy of the buyer’s information, for audit purposes and to be able to provide proper information to investors.hang in there

Five months out, we are all still working our way through TRID, and we will continue to work our way through the various issues as they arise. South Carolina lawyers can rely on friendly real estate lawyers on the Bar’s Real Estate Practices Section ListServ, which can be found here. And title insurance companies continue to obtain and disseminate information as issues arise. We’ll get through it!

Don’t Forget Significant FIRPTA Changes!

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South Carolina real estate practitioners have the pleasure of dealing with two distinct sets of tax withholding laws, one for income of non-residents of South Carolina to be reported to the S.C. Department of Revenue, and the other for the income of “foreign persons” to be reported to the IRS.

FIRPTA frogThe Federal law, Foreign Investors in Real Property Tax Act (FIRPTA), saw some significant changes effective for closings on or after February 16 of this year following President Obama’s signing into law the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (the “PATH Act”) late last year. New exemptions to FIRPTA codified by the PATH Act may encourage the flow of capital into the United States.

Under the PATH Act, when withholding is required, the amount to be withheld has changed, in most cases, from 10% to 15%.

The following summarizes, in simpler language than the Federal law, the withholding amounts required by FIRPTA as of February 16:

  • If the property will not be used as the buyer’s primary residence, the withholding rate is 15% of the amount realized, and reporting is required.
  • If the property will be used as the buyer’s primary residence and the amount realized is $300,000 or less, no withholding and no reporting are required.
  • house taxIf the property will be used as the buyer’s primary residence and the amount realized exceeds $300,000 but does not exceed $1,000,000, the withholding rate is 10% of the amount realized, and reporting is required.
  • Regardless of the buyer’s use of the property, if the amount realized exceeds $1,000,000, then the withholding rate is 15% of the amount realized, and reporting is required.

Real estate practitioners, sellers, buyers and others with questions concerning FIRPTA compliance should consult tax advisors.

E-mail Hacking Scams Hitting Buyers in SC

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Please get the word out to your clients!

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As closing attorneys, title insurance agents and business men and women, we receive daily warnings about a myriad of e-mail hacking scams. Many of these schemes involve wiring instructions and attempts to divert escrow funds to remote accounts. Piecing together the two words “wiring” and “instructions” in the subject line of an e-mail seems to entice the worst kinds of fraudsters.

Our own office was hit a year or so ago. We were escrowing funds for an agent’s large commercial transaction, and the agent received a bogus e-mail purportedly but not actually from us telling him to send the money in a different direction. Thankfully, our very astute agent had attended sufficient seminars and read enough fraud alerts to take the simple step of calling us.  Fraud averted!

American Land Title Association and others have written that fraudsters are now attacking buyers, not just businesses who hold escrow funds. And it is happening here!

Within the last few weeks we have heard of three email securityattempts of this nature in Charleston, at least one of which was successful. A buyer wired $150,000 to the wrong account on a Friday afternoon based on a bogus e-mail, spoofed to appear as if it came from the closing attorney. The e-mail said the firm was busy, and advised the recipient not to call but to respond by e-mail if there were questions. That should have been the first clue. The buyer and the banker both said they thought the e-mail and wiring instructions looked funny. But they sent the money out anyway.

Buyers have not attended the seminars nor read the fraud bulletins that have inundated all of us in the last few years. Closing attorneys and real estate agents may be the best line of defense in this situation.

Please communicate with your clients and let them know that a simple telephone call can prevent the diversion of their savings to criminals!