SC Supreme Court Warns Closing Attorneys

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Don’t be used as a “rubber stamp” or “rent” your name and status as an attorney!

businessman nametag for rentIn a disciplinary case filed on April 20,* the South Carolina Supreme Court publicly reprimanded an attorney for failing to properly supervise the disbursement aspect of a residential refinance closing. In a three-two decision, the Court pointedly seized the opportunity to warn residential closing lawyers.

The disciplined attorney worked as an independent contractor for Carolina Attorney Network, a management service located in Lexington, that provides its services to, among other entities, Vantage Point Title, Inc.  Vantage Point Title was described as a non-lawyer owned title company based in Florida. The attorney testified that 99.9% of his business comes from Carolina Attorney Network and that he had no direct contact with Vantage Point Title.

The attorney had previously been suspended for thirty days by the Court for failing to properly maintain his trust account. He stated in oral arguments in the current case that the suspension caused him to lose his ability to perform closings in the normal manner because he lost his status as an agent for a title insurance company. As a result, he said he was forced to handle closings through the management service.

The attorney testified that he didn’t recall the closing at issue, but he described the process. He said he receives closing documents via e-mail and reviews the title opinions. He verifies that a South Carolina licensed attorney completed the title opinions. He also reviews the closing instructions and the closing statements. He does not review the title commitments nor verify the loan payoff amounts. He conducts the closings and returns the closing packages with authorizations to disburse. Vantage Point disburses the funds, records the documents and issues the title insurance policies. Vantage Point then sends the lawyer disbursement logs showing how closing funds are disbursed. The lawyer reviews the disbursement logs to ensure they have a zero balance. He or an employee of Carolina Attorney Network reviews the online records of the ROD to verify that the mortgages are properly recorded.

The loan at issue had been “net funded” and the disbursement log did not “zero out”. The log showed a credit of approximately $100,000, and a disbursement of approximately $800. The Court stated that the disbursement log was inaccurate, and that the lawyer did not even know at the time of closing that the loan had been net funded.

The HUD-1 Settlement Statement in the closing at issue showed Vantage Point received approximately $800 for “title services and lender’s title insurance”, but attorney’s fees were not reflected. In fact, Vantage Point paid Carolina Attorney Network $250, and Carolina Attorney Network paid the attorney $150.

Vantage Point maintains a national trust account for all fifty states, but at some point, it opened “for unknown reasons”, according to the Court, a SC IOLTA account. Two checks were written on the IOLTA account for the closing at issue. When those two checks were returned for insufficient funds, the investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel was triggered. Ultimately, all checks cleared, and no one sustained harm.

Doe v. Richardson is the controlling case. In this 2006 seminal case, the S.C. Supreme Court held that disbursement of funds in a residential refinance is an integral step in the closing and constitutes the practice of law. Richardson further held that although the attorney must supervise disbursements in residential closings, the funds do not have to pass through the supervising attorney’s trust account.

The Court stated the current case presents a situation where the lawyer conducted his duty to supervise disbursement in name only. He “rented” his name and status as an attorney to attempt to satisfy the attorney supervision requirement. There is no question, according to the Court, that the lawyer’s cursory review of the disbursement log did not satisfy the duty to supervise disbursement. The Court stated in furtherance of its concern that attorneys are being used as “rubber stamps” to satisfy the attorney supervision requirement in low cost real estate closings, and it took the opportunity in this case to expand upon Richardson.

The Court clarified that an attorney’s duty to oversee the disbursement of loan proceeds in residential closings is nondelegable. To fulfil this duty, the attorney must ensure: (a) that he or she has control over the disbursement of loan proceeds; or (b) at a minimum, that he or she receives detailed verification that the disbursement was correct.

The Court stated that, in practice, an attorney may find that utilizing his or her trust account and personally disbursing funds provides the most effective means to fulfil this duty. The Court stood by the Richardson holding, however, that residential closing funds are not required to pass through the supervising attorney’s trust account. It held that the attorney’s verification of proper disbursement, via sufficient documentation or information received from the appropriate banking institution, in addition to the disbursement log, is acceptable to fulfil this duty.

In essence, according to the Court, the lawyer was used as a “rubber stamp” for a non-lawyer, out-of-state organization with no office in South Carolina, whose involvement was not disclosed to the clients. The Court stated that it has insisted on lawyer-directed real estate closings in order to protect the public. The lawyer’s method of handling his client’s business was stated to provide no real protection and was held to be a “gross abandonment” of his supervisory authority.

Former Chief Justice Toal wrote the opinion for the Court. Justices Kittredge and Moore concurred. Current Chief Justice Pleicones dissented in a separate opinion in which Justice Hearn concurred.

The dissent characterized the case as a situation that through an error by a title company, the ODC became aware of a single closing where the attorney failed to explain the nature of a “net funding” transaction to clients who suffered no harm. Nothing in this single instance justifies a public reprimand, according to the dissent, nor justifies a modification of Richardson, adopting a non-delegable duty to oversee loan disbursements through “detailed verification” or through the receipt of “sufficient documentation or information” in addition to the disbursement log.

The dissent said that the majority neither explains what this means nor how more oversight could have prevented the title company from issuing checks drawn on the wrong account. In a footnote, the dissent accused the majority of imposing a “new, vague requirement on residential real estate closings”.

The real question becomes….what in the world will the next case on this topic hold?

*In the Matter of Breckenridge, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion No. 27625, April 20, 2016.

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Lender Challenges CFPB’s Constitutionality

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cfpb-logoOn July 30, this blog discussed State Bank of Big Spring v. Lew, a case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on July 30 that a small Texas bank had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The same court was asked on August 5 by mortgage lender PHH Corporation to stay a final decision of the CFPB on constitutionality grounds.

The latter case follows the CFPB’s final decision in an enforcement action against PHH requiring the lender to pay $109 million in disgorgement. The lender was accused of illegally increasing consumers’ closing costs by requiring them to pay reinsurance premiums to PHH’s in-house reinsurance company. The CFPB classified the reinsurance payments as kickbacks.

The court granted the stay, holding PHH “satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal.”

PHH argues the CFPB is unconstitutional because Director Richard Cordray has the sole authority to issue final decisions, rendering the CFPB’s structure to be in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The petition states, “Never before has so much authority been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from President’s control and Congress’s power of the purse.” The petition argues that the Director is only removable for cause, distancing him from the power of the President, and is able to fund the agency from the Federal Reserve System’s operating expenses, distancing him from Congress’s power to refuse funding.

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The court issued a one paragraph stay order, and it is not clear whether the motion was successful based on the constitutionality argument because PHH had also argued that Director Condray misinterpreted settled law on mortgage reinsurance and on how disgorgements are calculated.

The stay is in place pending the appeal. It will now be interesting to see whether the Court of Appeals will reach the constitutionality issue or decide the case on the legal interpretation issues. And, of course, it will be interesting to see whether future constitutionality challenges continue with regard to this powerful agency that is changing the rules for residential closings.

Good News From ALTA

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CFPB said lenders can’t “unilaterally” shift TRID liability

lane shiftIn news that will be well received by South Carolina residential closing attorneys, ALTA reported on April 8 that CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated that lenders may not unilaterally shift liability for errors on TRID mortgage disclosures to third parties.

The report indicates that U.S. Senator Robert Corker of Tennessee had written a letter to Director Cordray asking whether creditors, acting alone, may shift liability to settlement agents for Closing Disclosure errors. Director Cordray responded in writing, “While creditors may enter into indemnification agreements and other risk-sharing arrangements with third parties, creditors cannot unilaterally shift their liability to third parties and, under the Truth in Lending Act, alone remain liable for errors on the Know Before You Owe mortgage disclosures.”

ALTA’s report further states that Director Cordray wrote that lenders and settlement agents are free to decide how to divide the responsibility and risk when implementing the new requirements through contracts.

stay tunedWe have heard from closing attorneys across South Carolina that lenders are taking varying approaches in their attempts to shift or share TRID liability with closing attorneys. We caution closing attorneys to read letters and closing instructions carefully and to negotiate or strike objectionable provisions. Pay particular attention to provisions that would violate attorney ethical obligations. Don’t agree, for example, that client confidences will be revealed to creditors.

What’s That Terrible Smell?

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A Midlands landowner is forced to abandon his stinky property, and the SC Court of Appeals says Insurance Reserve Fund doesn’t need to pay.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals held on March 23 that the South Carolina Insurance Reserve Fund (the Fund) has no duty to defend or indemnify East Richland County Public Service District (the District) in connection with a claim by a property owner of inverse condemnation, trespass and negligence resulting from offensive odors*.stinky smell

In 2010, Coley Brown filed a complaint alleging the District had installed a sewage force main and air relief valve which released offensive odors on his property multiple times a day.

A District employee testified that a force main had been installed as a part of a larger project that included two nearby pump stations. The pump stations were designed to pump sewage through the force main when the sewage reached a certain level. Depending on the area’s water usage and weather, the pump stations might turn on as often as ten times per hour. The odor was a result of naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide-which smells like rotten eggs-and methane.

In response to the complaints, the District made several attempts to remedy the odors, including using a chlorine-based chemical, installing charcoal filters, and eventually using a granulated chemical media. When the District failed to cure the problem, Brown moved to a different location but was unable to sell the stinky property.

The District tendered Brown’s complaint to the Fund pursuant to its insurance policy, but the Fund denied coverage. Under the policy, the Fund is obligated to pay damages resulting from property damage caused by an occurrence, defined as an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to conditions, which result in personal injury or property damage neither expected nor intended. The policy has a “pollution exclusion” that refers to gasses and fumes.

The Circuit Court found that the Fund had no duty to defend or indemnity the District in the underlying case, finding the policy’s policy exclusion to be valid despite the District’s argument that the exclusion conflicts the South Carolina Tort Claims Act. The Court of Appeals reviewed the Tort Claims Act and found no conflict. The Court also reviewed cases from other jurisdictions holding that foul odors are encompassed by such pollution exclusions.

The District then argued that an exception to the pollution exclusion applies if the discharge, dispersal, release or escape of pollutants is sudden and accidental. The Court was not persuaded by this argument, indicating the releases were not accidental and unexpected, but were a necessary function of the District’s normal operations.

* S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund v. East Richland Public Service District, Appellate Case No. 2014-000728, March 23, 2016)