A Certain Path to Disbarment:

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Fake a title insurance agency and ignore a real estate practice!

In the Matter of Samaha* is a South Carolina Supreme Court attorney disciplinary case that resulted in disbarment.

This lawyer was creative; you have to give him that!

For starters, he witnessed and notarized the signature of his client’s late wife, who had died seven years earlier. He typed, witnessed and notarized a revocation of a durable power of attorney for an 83 year old retired paralegal with cognitive and physical limitations.

Perhaps the most interesting violations, however, had to do with the title insurance. (What? It’s tough to make title insurance interesting. Trust me. I try and fail on a daily basis. This stuff is only interesting to title nerds like me!)

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A relationship with a title insurance company is essential to a real estate practice in South Carolina. The closing attorney must either be in a position to issue his own title insurance commitments and policies as an agent, or to certify to a title insurance company as an approved attorney to obtain those documents.

Consider the activities of  Mr. Breckenridge, the lawyer who was publicly reprimanded this spring for allowing non-attorney entities to control his real estate practice.** During oral arguments, he stated that he preferred to handle closings in the customary manner in South Carolina, where the attorney acts as agent for a title insurance company as well as closing attorney. But he had been suspended by the Supreme Court for a short time and, as a result, had been canceled as an agent by his title insurance company. He said he was then forced to work for an entity that hires lawyers to attend closings only.  When a problem arose with the disbursement of one of those closings, he found himself in front of the Supreme Court again.

Mr. Samaha had also been canceled by his title insurance companies. That did not stop him and his staff from proceeding full steam ahead with closings in the customary manner.  Although he originally denied any knowledge that documents had been forged in his office, he ultimately admitted that closing protection letters had been forged and issued to lenders.

A mortgage lender later uncovered not only forged closing protection letters, but also forged title insurance commitments and policies. It was not possible for Mr. Samaha to obtain any of these documents legitimately during this timeframe, because his status had been canceled as an approved attorney as well as an agent. The Court commented that, absent the forgeries of these documents, the lawyer’s real estate practice could not have functioned.

(This is not the first disbarred lawyer in South Carolina to have included the forgery of title insurance documents in his repertoire of misdeeds.***)

The Court stated that Mr. Samaha allowed his staff to, in effect, run his office. He failed to supervise them and failed to supervise and review closing documents.  He, in effect, completely ignored his real estate practice.


He also committed professional violations of a more mundane but equally scary nature. For example, he made false and misleading statements on the application for his professional liability insurance.

red card - suitHe failed to pay off four mortgages. By his own calculations, the loss was more than $200,000, but the Office of Disciplinary Counsel stated that his financial records and computers had been destroyed, making it impossible to prove the true extent of the financial mismanagement and misappropriation.  Apparently, the money from new closings was used to fund prior closings, up until the date of Mr. Samaha’s suspension from the practice of law.

 

*In the Matter of Samaha, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27660 (August 24, 2016)

** In the Matter of Breckenridge, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27625 (April 20, 2016)

*** In the Matter of Davis, 411 S.C. 209, 768 S.E.2d 206 (2015)

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Another South Carolina Arbitration Case

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Following these cases is like watching a tennis match!

This is the third blog on this topic this summer! The June 7 blog surrounded 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.

SCORE:  15- Love in favor of arbitration

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Let’s Talk Dirt on July 14 addressed a South Carolina Supreme Court case that appeared to take the opposite approach. ** A national residential construction company’s contract contained a number of “oppressive and one-sided provisions”, including an attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability and a prohibition on awarding 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.

SCORE:  15-all.

Note that Justices 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.

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

In a case dated August 17***, the majority decision is written by Chief Justice Pleicones with Justice Kittredge concurring. (Do you see a pattern here?) This case involved a residential subdivision that had been built on property previously used as an industrial site. The developer had demolished and removed all visible evidence of the industrial site and removed underground pipes, valves and tanks.

The plaintiffs bought a “spec” home in the subdivision and later discovered on their property PVC pipes and a metal lined concrete box containing “black sludge”, which tested positive as a hazardous substance. The present lawsuit was brought, alleging the developer failed to disclose the property defects. The developer moved to compel arbitration.

Paragraph 21 of the purchase agreement stated that the purchaser had received and read a copy of the warranty and consented to its terms. The purchasers had been provided with a “Homeowner Handbook” containing the warranty.

The circuit court, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, found the arbitration clause was enforceable for two reasons:

  1. it was located within the warranty booklet, making its scope limited to claims under the warranty. The Supreme Court held that the plain and unambiguous language of the arbitration clause provides that all claims, including ones based in warranty, are subject to arbitration.
  2. The alleged outrageous tortious conduct of the developer in failing to disclose concealed contamination made the outrageous torts exception to arbitration enforcement applicable. The Supreme Court overruled all South Carolina cases that applied to outrageous torts exception, making that exception no longer viable in South Carolina.

The Supreme Court discussed the heavy presumption in favor of arbitration by the FAA and in the federal courts and the push to place arbitration agreements on equal footing with other contracts and enforce them in accordance with their terms.

SCORE30-15 in favor of arbitration

You won’t be surprised to learn that there was a dissent, this time by Acting Justice Toal, and a concurrence, by Justices Hearn and Beatty.

And remember that the CFPB recently announced a proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits.

SCORE:  30-all

All of these authorities affect matters involving dirt law. So the tennis match involving arbitration clauses in our area is still being played, and we will continue to watch!

*One Belle Hall Property Owners Association 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 27643 (July 6, 2016)
*** Parsons v. John Wieland Homes, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27655 (August 17, 2016

Don’t Share Fees with Non-Lawyers!

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New Ethics Advisory Opinion warns against web-based referral service

South Carolina Ethics Advisory Opinion 16-06 fields questions about an attorney directory website fixed-fee legal referral service. The service works like this:

  • Attorney signs up for the service by agreeing to offer certain flat fee services.
  • The fee for the service is set by the internet advertising directory website (service).
  • The service makes the referral to the attorney, who then contacts the client to arrange a meeting and begin the representation.
  • The service handles payment processing from the client and holds the funds until the legal work is completed.
  • Upon completion of the work, the service transfers the full amount of the fee to attorney’s account.
  • Upon completion of the work, the service charges the attorney a “per service marketing fee” which seems to be based upon the legal work provided and is only incurred when the lawyer provides the legal work. For example, the legal fee for an uncontested divorce may be $995, and the marketing fee is $200, while the legal fee to start a single member LLC is $595, and the marketing fee is $125.

Rule 5.4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer from sharing legal fees with a non-lawyer. There are some exceptions set out in the rule, but those exceptions generally fall into two categories, payments to a deceased lawyer’s estate and payments to non-lawyer employees in a profit sharing compensation or retirement plan. The exceptions, of course, don’t apply to this attorney directory situation.

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The Ethics Advisory Committee stated that the situation described above where the service collects the legal fee and transmits it to the attorney and in a separate transaction, the service receives a fee for its efforts, is an indirect method to share attorney’s fees. Attempting to disguise the fee-sharing arrangement in two transactions doesn’t cure the problem.  Calling the fee received by the service a “per service marketing fee” also doesn’t cure the problem.

Rule 7.2 (c) prohibits a lawyer from giving anything of value for recommending the lawyer’s services, with three exceptions. One of the exceptions allows a lawyer to pay for the “reasonable costs of advertisements”. The Ethics Advisory Committee pointed to Comment 7 to the rule which lists reasonable advertising costs such as newspaper, radio and television advertisements and on-line directory listings.  The Committee stated that the permitted advertising is typically for a fixed cost per add or per run of air time, and that reasonableness of the costs can be assessed by the market rate.

The Opinion says that the internet service purports to charge the lawyer fees based on the type of legal service rather than the cost of advertising. Since it doesn’t cost the service any more to advertise online for a family law matter than for preparing corporate documents, the fees are not rational and do not fall under the exception for “reasonable costs of advertisements”.

Dirt lawyers, be careful when assessing any type of referral arrangement, and, when in doubt, ask questions of the Ethics Advisory Committee.

Good News for Condo Financing (and King Tut)

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Obtaining loans for SC’s coastal condominiums will become easier

The Housing Opportunity through Modernization Act (H.R. 3700) was signed into law by President Obama on July 29. This law will act to ease restrictions on mortgage financing for condominiums. The law reforms the process used by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to determine if condominium unit owners will be in a position to qualify for FHA insurance.

In 2009, FHA changed the rules for qualifying for insurance, leaving most condominium home buyers without the opportunity for FHA insured mortgages. The new law will result in some improvements for home buyers who view condominiums as an affordable housing option.

Under the new law, the FHA must issue guidance regarding the percentage of units that must be occupied by owners in order for the condominium project to be eligible for FHA mortgage insurance. The current requirement is 50 percent owner occupancy. In the event the FHA fails to issue guidance within ninety days of the effective date of the legislation, the required percentage for owner occupancy automatically becomes 35 percent.

Steve Martin King Tut
“Got a condo made of stone-a”

 

The new law amends the National Housing Act to modify certification requirements for condominium mortgage insurance to make recertifications of condominium projects substantially less burdensome than original certifications. The FHA is required to consider lengthening the time between certifications for approved properties and allowing information to be updated rather than resubmitted.

It will be interesting to see how the FHA implements the new law. Changes to FHA regulations and existing agency guidelines should be expected soon.

The National Association of Realtors has been a proponent of the new law and praised its passage in a press release as a victory for real estate agents and home buyers.

This law affects housing in other ways. It modifies HUD’s rental assistance programs, including Section 8 low-income (voucher) and public housing programs. In addition, it modifies the Department of Agriculture’s single family housing guaranteed loan program.

The expectation is that the new law will make home ownership for first-time buyers (and old King Tut in his “condo made of stone-a”) a little easier in the current economic environment.

Feds Extend Footprint of Shell Game

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

Secretly purchasing expensive real estate continues to be a popular method for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

Early this year, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasurer issued an order that required the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

shell game

At that time, the reach of the project extended to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies were required to disclose to the government the names of buyers who paid cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. The natural persons behind the legal entities had to be reported for any ownership of at least 25 percent in an affected property.

Now, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, will be involved, and the footprint of the project is being extended effective August 28.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds will be:

  • Borough of Manhattan, New York; $3 million;
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Borough of Staten Island, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Florida; $1 million;
  • Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Diego Counties, California; $2 million; and
  • Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas; $500,000.

Although the initial project was termed temporary and exploratory, FinCEN has indicated that the project is helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and is also informing future regulatory approaches.

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program may be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in money laundering schemes. We will keep a close watch on this program for possible expansion!