When Do I Have to Turn My Fellow Lawyer In?

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We have a hot-off-the-presses South Carolina Ethics Advisory Opinion (16-04, July 18, 2016) in which a lawyer asks when opposing counsel must be reported to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC). The opinion only relates to dirt in that it revolves around a foreclosure matter, but all of us as attorneys may need guidance in these extremely difficult situations from time to time.

The facts are as clear as mud, but my colleague and former foreclosure lawyer, Jennifer Rubin, has attempted to decipher them for us. It appears that Lawyer A (the lawyer who is raising the question) represents a lender in the context of an ongoing mortgage foreclosure sales action. We’re guessing here, but it sounds as if the lender needs to unwind the foreclosure sale, probably because of some agreement or dispute with the borrower. Lawyer B represents the purchaser at the sale. Lawyer B’s client does not want the sale to be unwound, and Lawyer B argues that his or her client enjoys a bona fide purchaser status. Lawyer A argues that Lawyer B purportedly knew of a potential defect prior to paying the balance of the purchase price and acquiring title but failed to reveal that information to the court. In other words, Lawyer B knew his client was not a bona fide purchaser.

whistle blowerLawyer A believes Lawyer B’s conduct has damaged the lender financially and also rises to the level of misconduct that must be reported to the ODC. The question becomes whether Lawyer A must report Lawyer B’s conduct to the ODC immediately or whether the report can be made at the conclusion of the litigation or appeal.

The Ethics Advisory Committee first reviews Rule of Professional Conduct 8.3 which requires a Lawyer to report a fellow lawyer of a violation of the Rules which raises a substantial question of the lawyer’s honestly, trustworthiness or fitness to practice law. Rule 8.3 requires actual knowledge, which implies more than a suspicion of misconduct. But judgment is required of the reporting lawyer. Comment 3 gives guidance by limiting the reporting obligation to “those offenses that a self-regulating profession must vigorously endeavor to prevent.”

Why do we have to report each other? The Committee points to the preamble of Rule 8.3 which states that the legal profession is largely self-governing and that “the legal profession’s relative autonomy carries with it a responsibility to assure that its regulations are conceived in the public interest and not in furtherance of  parochial or self-interested concerns of the bar.”

So, assuming this lawyer’s conduct rises to the level that must be reported, when must the report be made? A partial answer is that the rule is silent as to timing, but the Committee points to prevailing opinions around the country that reporting should be made “promptly”. The Louisiana Supreme Court has said *, “The need for prompt reporting flows from the need to safeguard the public and the profession against future wrongdoing by the offending lawyer.”

The Committee said it believes it is appropriate for the lawyer to consider any potential adverse impact to the client in determining the timing of the report against another lawyer. And because the Rule is silent as to timing, the Committee opined that Lawyer A may wait until the conclusion of the matter if Lawyer A determines that immediate reporting may hurt the client, but the misconduct should be reported promptly at the conclusion of the litigation or appeal.

*In re Rielmann, 802 So.2d. 1239 (Louisiana, 2005)

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Probate Problems: When Doing Things The Old-Fashioned Way Can Get Your Documents Rejected

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This is not news, but we hear recording offices are beginning to reject documents.

Effective June 2, 2014, South Carolina Code §26-1-120 (E) 4, dealing with notarial certificates, was amended to require that a subscribing witness in a probate form must attest that he or she is not a party to or beneficiary of the transaction.

This is a correct version of the new probate form:

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Probates are notoriously difficult to complete correctly, especially for documents sent out-of-state. It is probably always a better idea to use a simple acknowledgement form, particularly in light of the statutory change:Screenshot 2Note that South Carolina Code §26-1-90(B) now requires that the notary legibly type or print his or her name near the signature.

This is a technicality, but a technicality that can cause your documents to be rejected by recording offices. Don’t let that happen!

It’s Tough to Nail Down the Treatment of Arbitration Clauses in Housing Cases

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Authorities disagree!

On June 7, this blog discussed a South Carolina Court of Appeals case* that held an arbitration clause in a roofing supplier’s warranty provision was not unconscionable. The lower court had ruled that the supplier’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the injured property owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms, which were actually contained in the packaging for the shingles.

The Court of Appeals indicated that the underlying sale was a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate terms. The Court found it significant that the packaging for the shingles 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, and blessed the arbitration provision.

In a residential construction case, the South Caroline Supreme Court appeared to take the opposite approach last week.**  A national residential construction company’s contract contained a number of “oppressive and one-side provisions”, including an attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability and a prohibition on awarding of money damages of any kind.  The Supreme Court held that the home purchasers lacked a meaningful ability to negotiate their contract, the only remedy through which appeared to be repair or replacement.

nailing roofJustices Kittredge and Pleicones dissented, stating that the contract involves interstate commerce and, as a result, is subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), “a fact conspicuously absent in the majority opinion”.  The dissent stated that federal law requires that unless the claim of unconscionability goes to the arbitration clause itself, the issue of enforceability must be resolved by the arbitrator, not by the courts. The majority construed the Warranties and Dispute Resolution provisions of the contract as comprising the arbitration agreement and thus circumvented controlling federal law, according to the dissent.

The property owners raised no challenges to the arbitration clause itself, so the dissent would have required that the other challenges be resolved through arbitration.

Consider 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 May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It seems the authorities are all over the place on the issue of arbitration provisions affecting consumers in the housing arena. We will surely see more discussion on this topic!

 

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

**Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27645 (July 6, 2016).

Court of Appeals Refuses to ‘Horse Around’ with Zoning Appeals Decision.

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Will some Charleston carriage horses be evicted?

Condominium projects take on all shapes and sizes in beautiful, historic, downtown Charleston, where the population of tourists and residents increases daily.

An old historic house may maintain its white-columned exterior while housing four or six residential condominium units. The stately carriage house out back may be a separate unit. An office building may look like any other brick-façade four-story building from the exterior, but the interior may contain a courtyard complete with fountains, and each office may be an owned separately as a condominium unit. A residential lot may be subject to a restriction covenant that prohibits subdividing, but a creative developer may use a Horizontal Property Regime to create multiple units anyway.

But in a case decided on June 29, the Court of Appeals drew the line at a horse stable condo project that would have been created to resolve a zoning issue.*

horse carriageThe Charleston Board of Zoning Appeals had denied the application of Arkay for a special use exception to operate a carriage horse stable at 45 Pinckney Street in the historic City Market District. The property was located within 93.5 feet of a residential district, and the special exception required a separation of 100 feet.

To separate the “stabling activity” from the residential district, Arkay proposed an HPR to divide the building into two units. The rear portion of the building would house Unit A which would consist of six stalls in which the horses would be fed, groomed and stored. The front portion of the building would house Unit B which would consist of two offices and would be subject to an appurtenant easement for the benefit of Unit A for ingress and egress to Pinckney Street. Unit B would also be subject to a restrictive covenant prohibiting the use of that space as a stable.

Units A and B would be separated in the middle of the building by a common area consisting of two tack rooms, two restrooms, an area for customer waiting, and an area for customer loading and unloading. Because its horse stalls would be located 119 feet from the nearest residential zone, Arkay contended the stabling activity complied with the zoning ordinances separation requirement.

Arkay’s argument was based on the premise that the zoning ordinance’s use of the word “stable” described a use and not a physical structure. In rejecting this argument, the Board noted that only one building occupies 45 Pinckney Street, and the proposed HPR did not alter that circumstance. On appeal, the Circuit Court held that the separation requirement applied to the use, not the physical structure.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Board, stating that the ordinance did not describe “uses” for the property but rather established prerequisites on how a stable must be configured and how it must operate to receive a special use exception. Because the building that would keep the horses encompasses the entire lot, the Court found that it is a stable for the purposes of the ordinance. Even though the horses would be kept in the rear of the building—and would be separated from the street by areas for customers, tack rooms, restrooms and offices—this does not change the building’s status as a stable, according to the Court.

Maybe the Supreme Court will see it another way, because who doesn’t love a horse-drawn carriage ride in historic Charleston?

 

*Arkay, LLC. v. City of Charleston, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5419, June 29, 2016.