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