Just in Time for Halloween, SC Supreme Court Declines Frightening Request to Compel Random Lawyer Trust Account Audits

Standard

pumpkin

The South Carolina Supreme Court amended the rules that govern lawyer discipline on October 25.* The big news here is not the very minor amendments that were adopted but rather the major requested amendments the Court declined to adopt.

The Commission on Lawyer Conduct and the Commission on Judicial Conduct proposed a rule amendment that would have imposed mandatory random audits of lawyer trust accounts. Without comment, the Court declined to adopt this rule change after “careful consideration”.

The Court also declined without comment an amendment that would have required a new position, a presiding disciplinary judge to act as a hearing officer to preside over disciplinary and incapacity hearings.

I have no idea why the Court made these decisions, but my guess is that the motivation revolved around the additional funds that these proposals would have required.

*Appellate Case No. 2015-0002336

Advertisements

Dirt Lawyers: Prepare to Advise Clients Struck by Disaster

Standard
hurricane-matthew-georgetown

Georgetown, South Carolina (Image by abcnews.go.com)

Just prior to the destruction brought on by Hurricane Matthew to our beloved state on October 8th, I saw two funny quips, which proved that humor is not always lost in the face of disaster. A friend posted on Facebook a football metaphor, hoping Matthew’s aim would be “wide right”.  That didn’t happen. And a preacher friend of a friend put up a sign at his church:  “Mark, Luke and John, please come get your boy.”  That didn’t happen either.

What did happen, according to CoreLogic was $4-6 billion in damage from wind and storm surge damage in all states affected by Matthew. CoreLogic’s media advisory, which compares the destruction of Matthew to Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012, Floyd and 1999 and David in 1979, can be read here.  The damage from Katrina, for example, was in the range of $35-40 billion. Of the $4-6 billion damage from Matthew, 90 percent of insurance claims are expected to be related to wind and 10 percent to storm surge, according to the article.

hurrican-matthew-myrtle-springmaid

Springmaid Pier rubble, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (Image by myrtlebeachonline.com)

Our hearts are breaking for our family members, friends and neighbors who have lost so much in this disaster. Some have not yet been able to return home and don’t know the extent of the damage at this point.

It was just one year ago that South Carolina was forced to begin recovery efforts from the 1,000 year-flood, and those efforts are far from complete. I said in a blog about the flood, and I will repeat here that for those of us old enough to remember, this disaster feels incredibly like the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

As we think back to the beautiful areas of South Carolina that were hardest hit then and reflect on those areas today, it seems that almost all of them are better and stronger and more beautiful than they were before the disaster. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger today than we were last year.

hurrican-matthew-charleston-market

Historic City Market under water in Charleston, South Carolina (Image by abcnews.go.com)

Dirt lawyers are in a unique position to advise clients who are not familiar with the assistance that may be available to them. I challenge each of us to pass along the information that will assist in recovery efforts.

For example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wrote press releases reminding mortgagors of the options available for mortgage assistance in the affected areas. Those press releases can be read here and here.  FEMA resources are outlined here.

As always, I have confidence that South Carolina real estate lawyers will rise to the occasion and provide the best advice available for their clients. I am proud to be associated with this dedicated group of lawyers.

CFPB Structure Held Unconstitutional in PHH Case

Standard

Don’t get excited; this shouldn’t change much for SC dirt lawyers.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously on October 11 that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau allows its director to wield too much power.

This highly publicized case began when PHH Corp. was ordered by CFPB Director Richard Cordray to pay $109 million in restitution resulting from illegal kickbacks to mortgage insurers pursuant to Section 8 of RESPA. An administrative law judge had ordered a $6 million penalty at the trial level, but Director Cordray apparently wanted to set an example and ordered the “ill-gotten gains” to be disgorged. The trial court had limited the violations to loans that closed on or after July 21, 2008. Director Cordray applied the fines retroactively.

scales - blue background

PHH brought suit, arguing that the CFPB is unconstitutional because Director Cordray has the sole authority to issue final decisions, rendering the CFPB structure to be in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The petition stated, “Never before has so much authority been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from the 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’s operating expenses, distancing him from Congress’s power to refuse funding.

The Court agreed. It wrote, “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency.”

The restriction that the Director can only be removed “for cause” was severed, giving the President the power to remove the Director at will. This decision effectively makes the CFPB an agency of the Executive Branch rather than an independent agency.

The Court did not agree with Director Cordray imposing the huge fine retroactively. The Court explained:

“Put aside all the legalese for a moment. Imagine that a police officer tells a pedestrian that the pedestrian can lawfully cross the street at a certain place. The pedestrian carefully and precisely follows the officer’s direction. After the pedestrian arrives at the other side of the street, however, the officer hands the pedestrian a $1,000 jaywalking ticket. No one would seriously contend that the officer had acted fairly or in a manner consistent with basic due process in that situation. Yet that’s precisely this case. Here, the CFPB is arguing that it has the authority to order PHH to pay $109 million even though PHH acted in reliance upon numerous government pronouncements authorizing precisely the conduct in which PHH engaged.”

It is not likely that this landmark decision will make any changes in our current closing practices. The Court stated specifically that the ongoing operations of the agency will not be affected. The Court vacated the CFPB’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings. We might also see an appeal. Regardless, the CFPB is still in charge of the closing process, and all the rules remain in place.

Court of Appeals Revises Opinion, but not Result, in Arbitration Case

Standard

It seems the arbitration cases are all over the place in 2016. We’ve discussed three cases so far this year*, and the opinion in one of these cases has been withdrawn, substituted and refiled**, but the result did not change.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals decided to make a few changes in its opinion in One Belle Hall. The earlier opinion, filed June 1, held that an arbitration clause in a roofing supplier’s warranty provision was not unconscionable. The trial 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 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 contained the 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.

knotted-road-sign

In the later opinion, filed September 28, the Court of Appeals addressed the South Carolina Supreme Court’s July 6, 2016 opinion in Smith v. D.R. Horton (cited in the footnote, below). In D.R. Horton, which this blog discussed on July, 14 the Supreme Court held that a national residential 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 of 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 and replacement.

The difference in the two cases appears to be the location of the offending provisions. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that an arbitration agreement is separable from the contract in which it is embedded, and the issue of its validity is distinct from the substantive validity of the contract as a whole.*** The arbitration provision in D.R. Horton was construed in its entirety because various subparagraphs addressed warranty information and contained cross-references to each other. In addition, the contract did not contain a severability clause.

In the second opinion in One Belle Hall, the Court of Appeals admitted, as the supplier had conceded, that the agreement at issue was a contract of adhesion, but noted that our Supreme Court has stated that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The Court recognized that the roofing supplier’s contract continuously used language to the effect that any attempted disclaimer or limitation did not apply to purchasers in jurisdictions that disallowed them. The Court also found it significant that the agreement contained a severability clause.

In other words, since the objectionable provisions of the contract were outside the arbitration provision, and the arbitration provision is severable from the objectionable provisions, the arbitration clause is enforceable. The Court repeated its earlier point that the arbitration provision facilitates an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker in the event of a dispute.

I believe we will see more of these cases, and I caution lawyers to be extremely careful in their drafting endeavors.

 

*  One Belle Hall Property Association v. Trammel Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1, 2016); Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27642 (July 6, 2016); and Parsons v. John Wieland Homes, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27655 (August 17, 2016).

**  One Belle Hall Property Association v. Trammel Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (September 28, 2016)

***  Prima Paint Corporation v. Flood Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395 (1967)