The SC Bar Warned Us!

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And then it happened to me.

phishing dangerJune 9th’s E-Blast from the SC Bar contained the following warning:

Alert: Phishing emails targeting lawyers
SC Bar members are cautioned to be aware of emails indicating that a complaint has been made against the lawyer or firm, or that they contain a special message from the Bar president. Such emails are not coming from the Bar and would be an attempt to phish members. Delete them immediately. Phishing emails are fraudulent emails that may contain links to phony websites or may request that you share personal or financial information by using a variety of techniques.

There may be clues, including a suspicious “from” email address. The email may include directions to click on a link, which purports to be a copy of the complaint or of the “special message.” Do not click this link, as it could be an attempt to put “ransomware” on the affected computer. Bar members are reminded that any official grievance would come via U.S. mail from the Supreme Court and that any important Bar announcement would appear in E-Blast or would be sent by an individual Bar staff member.

And on June 20, I received the following e-mail:Microsoft Outlook - Memo Style

A “complaint” is enough to strike fear in the heart of any lawyer. The scammers rely on a stress-induced knee-jerk reaction result in clicking on the link. Clicking on the link is the first reflex in our fast-paced world. Fortunately, we have received warning after warning about this kind of phishing activity.

The most obvious clues in this particular scam were:

  1. The e-mail was from “complaint Dept” and the address was complaint.depts@outlook.com. Nothing there reflects the SC Bar.
  2. The name of our bar association is the South Carolina Bar. The South Carolina Bar Association is a common misnomer.
  3. I don’t have a “law practice”. I work for Chicago Title Insurance Company.
  4. The South Carolina Supreme Court handles disciplinary complaints, not the SC Bar. And the Office of Disciplinary Counsel uses snail mail.

A huge thanks to the SC Bar for the warning!  Be careful out there!

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The SC-NC Boundary Legislation Passed!

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SC law “clarifying” the boundary will be effective at the beginning of the year.

The long awaited and much debated legislation defining the boundary line between The Palmetto State and the Tar Heel State was signed by Governor Nikki Haley on June 10.  The effective date of the law is January 1, 2017.

The purpose of the law is “clarifying the original location of the boundary” with North Carolina along Horry, Dillon, Marlboro, Chesterfield, Lancaster, York, Cherokee and Spartanburg Counties and providing additional information about the plats describing the location along Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties.  In other words, our legislature doesn’t believe the law establishes a new boundary line.

welcome to SC 2

As expected, much of the legislation deals with tax issues. The legislative intent is set out specifically, and includes the thought that no business or residence owner should be liable for back taxes to South Carolina nor refunds from South Carolina as a result of a change from one state to the other. And the Department of Revenue is given the authority to compromise taxes in cases that result in taxation in both states.

Several issues are of particular interest to dirt lawyers. For example, no deed recording fees or county filing fees may be charged for deeds recorded as a result of the boundary clarification.

On the effective date of the legislation, Registers of Deeds (and Clerks of Court in those affected counties that do not have ROD offices) will be required to file a Notice of State Boundary Clarification for each affected piece of property. The form is described specifically in the legislation and requires the legal description, tax map number, derivation (if available), the names of the owners of record and the “muniments of title”, a defined term meaning “documents of record setting forth a legal or equitable real property interest or incorporeal hereditament in affected lands of an owner”.

I’m a dirt lawyer of more years than I like to divulge, but I admit I had to investigate the meaning of that word. The learned source, Wikipedia, indicates a muniment of title is the written evidence a landowner can use to defend title, such as a deed, will, judgment or death certificate.

Apparently, lawyers in states with marketable title legislation may be familiar with this term. South Carolinians have neither the benefit of tidy legislation to correct our title problems nor the knowledge and widespread use of this nifty term, until now.  We will all need to use and pronounce the word, muniment, next year. A North Carolina colleague asked me where the RODs and Clerks of Court will obtain the information to supply the  muniments of title. My best guess is that somebody is going to have to do a lot of title work!

(Note to Professor Spitz:  I apologize if you taught me that term in law school. It’s been a long, long time!)

Also of interest to dirt lawyers are provisions relating to foreclosures. A foreclosing attorney will have to file and serve the summons and complaint along with the aforesaid Notice of Boundary Clarification and an attorneys’ certification “that title to the subject real property has been searched in the affected counties and the affected jurisdictions” on all parties having interest in the real property pursuant to the muniments of title.  Whew! The foreclosure can then proceed after thirty days. I’m not sure how all that will be sorted out. I assume South Carolina foreclosure lawyers will be hiring counterparts across the state line to assist in these title examinations.

How will dirt lawyers and title insurance companies deal with sales and mortgages for properties that change states?  I think we are going to take these issues on a case-by-case basis and work together to sort out the various issues that are surely to arise. Be sure to involve your title insurance underwriter in these decisions rather than going out on a limb alone!

Old McDonald Had a Farm

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South Carolina Court of Appeals says partition actions in probate court require an open estate; sends action back to circuit court.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals held last week that probate courts in South Carolina have subject matter jurisdiction over partition actions only where open estates are involved.*

The dispute involved a farm in Darlington County originally owned by S.W. Byrd. Mr. Byrd died in 1923, and his estate was probated in Darlington County and finally closed in 1948. The estates of several of Mr. Byrd’s heirs were not subsequently probated, and in April of 2012, E. Butler McDonald filed an action for partition and the determination of heirs in the Darlington County Probate Court.

At that time, more than ten years had passed since the deaths of Mr. Byrd’s original heirs. Since §62-3-108 of the South Carolina Code establishes a time limitation of ten years after death for the administration of an estate, these estates could not be probated at the time Mr. McDonald filed his action.

farmlandThe Probate Court determined the heirs of S.K Byrd and their percentages of ownership. The Probate Court also found that no interested party had expressed a desire to purchase the property and that physical partition of the farm was impractical. The farm was ordered to be sold at a public auction, and Mr. McDonald’s reasonable attorneys’ fees were ordered to be paid.

On appeal by the other heirs, the Circuit Court affirmed. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the appellants made several arguments, but the Court of Appeals focused on subject matter jurisdiction. Section 62-3-911 of the South Carolina Code establishes the jurisdiction for probate courts and specifically states that an heir may petition the probate court for partition prior to the closing of an estate. Since it was clearly established at trial that S.K. Byrd’s estate was closed in 1948, an action to partition his farm should have been brought in the circuit court, according to the Court of Appeals. The probate court’s determination of heirs and their percentages of ownership was affirmed, but the order was vacated as to the remaining issues.

*Byrd v. McDonald, S.C. Court of Appeals Case 5409 (June, 8, 2016)

Upscale Mt. Pleasant Condo Project Subject of Arbitration Clause Dispute

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Court of Appeals sides with roofing supplier

The South Carolina Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 1 that will delight the drafters of corporate contracts who imbed arbitration clauses within their warranty provisions.  Whether the South Carolina Supreme Court will approve remains to be seen.

The dispute arises over the construction of One Belle Hall, an upscale condominium community in Mt. Pleasant. Tamko Building Products, Inc. was the supplier of the asphalt shingles for the community’s four buildings, and placed a mandatory binding arbitration clause within its warranty provision. The warranty purported to exclude all express and implied warranties and to disclaim liability for all incidental and consequential damages.

roof shingles

At some point after construction was completed, the owners’ association determined that the buildings were affected by moisture damage, water intrusion and termite damage, all resulting from various alleged construction defects. The developer contacted Tamko to report a warranty claim on the roof shingles, contending they were blistering and defective.  Tamko sent the developer a “warranty kit”, requiring the claimant to provide proof of purchase, samples of the allegedly defective shingles and photographs. The developer failed to respond.

Two years later, the owners’ association filed a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of all owners, alleging defective construction against the community’s various developers and contractors. Tamko filed for a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration.

Circuit Court Judge J. C. Nicholson, Jr. denied the motion and ruled that Tamko’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the condominium owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms. The trial court held the arbitration clause to be unconscionable and unenforceable because of the cumulative effect of several oppressive and one-sided terms in the warranty.

The Court of Appeals begged to differ. It held that the circuit court erred in finding the arbitration clause in the warranty was unconscionable. It stated that our supreme court has made it clear that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The underlying sale of Tamko’s shingles was stated to be a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate warranty terms.

The court found it significant that the packaging contained a notation: “Important: Read Carefully Before Opening” providing that if the purchaser is not satisfied with the terms of the warranty, then all unopened boxes should be returned. The court pointed to the standard warranty in the marketplace that gives buyers the choice of keeping the goods or rejecting them by returning them for a refund.

The appellate court also found it significant that the arbitration clause did facilitate an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker and that the arbitration clause was separable from the warranty.

Consider the exact opposite approach of the CFPB’s recently-announced proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits. That proposed rule can be read here and is the subject of a May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It’s interesting to see such different approaches by two authorities on an issue affecting consumers in the housing arena. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more to come from either ruling.

* One Belle Hall Property Owners Association, Inc. vs. Trammell Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1,2016)

SC Court Effectively Extends Statute of Limitations for Legal Malpractice

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Epstein case is overruled

SC Supreme Court LogoA car dealership case against a law firm provided the South Carolina Supreme Court the opportunity to reverse its prior ruling on the point in time the three-year statute of limitations begins to run in a legal malpractice case. Interestingly, retired Chief Justice Toal’s dissent in the earlier case was adopted. The new bright-line rule in South Carolina is that the statute of limitations does not begin to run in a legal malpractice case that is appealed until the appellate court disposes of the action by sending a remittitur to the trial court.

The current case, Stokes-Craven Holding Corp. v. Robinson*, involved a negligence suit against a law firm that was dismissed at summary judgment based on the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations.  The automobile dealership had been sued by a consumer who discovered the vehicle he purchased had sustained extensive undisclosed damage prior to his purchase.  After an adverse jury verdict which was affirmed on appeal, the dealership sued its lawyer, arguing that the lawyer, among other matters, failed to adequately investigate the facts in the case, failed to conduct adequate discovery, and failed to settle the case despite the admission by the dealership that it had “done something wrong”.

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The lower court, following precedent, found that the dealership knew or should have known it had a legal malpractice claim against its trial counsel on the date of the adverse jury verdict.  A 2005 South Carolina Supreme Court case, Epstein v. Brown **, had held just that, despite the fact that the claimant in the earlier case, like the current case, had filed an appeal.

Epstein represented a minority position in the country, according to the current case. A majority of states have adopted the “continuous-representation rule”, which permits the statute of limitations to be tolled during the period an attorney continues to represent the client on the matter out of which the alleged legal malpractice arose.  In Stokes-Craven, our Court continued to reject the continuous-representation rule, finding that rule to be problematic because its application may be unclear under some factual scenarios.  Our Court looked to existing appellate court rules to the effect that an appeal acts as an automatic stay as to the judgment in the lower court. In other words, if the claimant appeals the matter in which the alleged malpractice occurred, any basis for the legal malpractice cause of action is stayed while the appeal is pending.

The Court stated that its new bright-line rule is consistent with the discovery rule which states that an action must be commenced within three years of the time a person knew or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that he or she had a cause of action.  A client either knows or should know that a cause of action arises out of the attorney’s alleged malpractice if an appeal is unsuccessful.

Chief Justice Pleicones dissented, stating he would adhere to the discovery rule adopted in Epstein and reverse the trial court’s order granting summary judgment because there are unresolved genuine issues of material fact making that relief inappropriate.

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27572 (May 24, 2016)

** 363 S.C. 381, 610 S.E.2d 816 (2005)