Court decides timeshare owners can sue developers

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Real Estate Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction

The South Carolina Supreme Court, answering questions certified to it by the Federal District Court, held last week that the South Carolina Real Estate Commission (REC) does not have exclusive jurisdiction to determine violations of the South Carolina Vacation Time Sharing Plans Act.*

The Court also stated that the REC’s determination of a violation of the Time Act** is not a condition precedent to a private cause of action to enforce the Act and that the determinations of the REC are not binding on the courts.

These questions arose from two sets of litigation in the federal court involving individuals who entered into contracts with developers to purchase timeshare interests.

One set of plaintiffs, the Fullbrights, brought a purported class action against a timeshare developer, Spinnaker Resorts, Inc., seeking the return of money paid under a contract to purchase, plus interest, as well as a declaration that the contract was invalid.

The other set of plaintiffs, the Chenards, brought suit against another timeshare developer, Hilton Head Island Development Co., LLC, alleging fraud, negligent representation and violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act as well as violations of the Timeshare Act.

In answering the questions, the Supreme Court stated that it was not taking any positions on the merits of the cases, which remain under the jurisdiction of the federal court.

The Court found that §27-32-130 unambiguously allows for lawsuits by stating that the provisions of the Act do not limit the right of a purchaser to bring a private cause of action. The developers had argued that this statute is ambiguous and that public policy evidenced by the Timeshare Act as a whole requires the REC’s jurisdiction to be exclusive.

These determinations will no doubt clear the way for class action lawsuits against timeshare developers.

 

* Fullbright v. Hilton Head Island Development Co., LLC, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 27220 (May 17, 2017).

** S.C Code §27-32-10 et seq.

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WannaCry? We don’t want you to have to!

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(Guest blog by IT Guru Cris Hudson)

A global cyberattack happened over the weekend, affecting some 100+ countries, and crippling hospital networks, large manufacturers and even some small governments.

Dubbed “WannaCry”, but technically named “WannaCrypt,” the attack preyed on vulnerabilities in machines where Windows and virus scan programs were not up to date. It delivered its payload via a typical “phishing” email, and once launched, encrypted and locked down files, demanding ransom from those institutions before the files would be released.

How does this affect you? Please be sure that you are working on a current version of Windows, and that you run a regular Windows Update. We still see the occasional office using Windows XP, which Microsoft ended support for in April 2014. Without a more current version of Windows such as Windows 7 or Windows 10, those machines are not able to download updates to guard against attacks such as these.

Also, make sure that you take a moment right now and update your virus scan software. DAT files for most major security providers have been updated to recognize this threat, but only if they’ve been updated since the attack on May 12th, 2017. And as always … backup, backup, backup! If you were to fall prey to something like this, you’ve at least got a fighting chance with a current backup of your server and files.  Without it .. you might definitely be crying.

Two positive articles for dirt lawyers from national sources

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REALTOR®Mag is reporting that although financing remains the top roadblock to successful closings, fewer real estate agents are reporting financing as an issue today as opposed to previous months. This trend is a good one! Check out the article here.

The article indicates that, according to the REALTORS® Confidence Index, which is based on the responses from 2,500 real estate agents nationwide, the decline in complaints about financing may reflect an improvement in the economy, better credit histories from buyers and an improvement in loan evaluation processes.

But the article does report that appraisals are becoming a growing concern. Real estate agents indicated that a shortage of appraisers, valuations that are not in line with market conditions and “out-of-town” appraisers who are not familiar with local markets create the difficulties.

And for the first time in eleven years, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac conforming loan limit has increased to $424,100, allowing more home buyers to avoid jumbo loans, obtain lower interest rates and deliver lower down payments. The non-conforming loan limit had previously been stuck at $417,000. Read the article from INFOGRAPHIC here.

The economic news surrounding real estate closings is generally positive nationally. And the news is good in South Carolina, too. I’ve traveled around the state a good bit since the beginning of the year, and everywhere I go, I ask lawyers about business.

Early in the year, it seemed residential practices were sluggish in some markets while commercial practices were extremely busy statewide. In the last few weeks, I’m hearing much more encouraging news about residential practices, and commercial lawyers continue to report that business is excellent.

Our office is in the middle of a seminar series we have entitled “The future’s so bright, we have to wear shades.” We’re drinking the Kool-Aid and enjoying these economic good times. Those of us who weathered 2008 – 2012 deserve it!

Multi-state mortgage modification practice may be hazardous to your law license!

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Last week, this blog discussed two April 19 South Carolina Supreme Court cases* in the context of the social media issues they raised. This week, I want to point out the mortgage modification issues, which were, no doubt, the impetus for the discipline in both cases.

Let’s look at the facts in the first case, In the Matter of Bacon. In November of 2012, attorney Brunty hired INMN, Inc., a marketing company, to solicit out-of-state clients interested in modifying their home mortgages. Brunty hired Integrity Partners, LLC to process the loan modifications. Brunty was suspended and later disbarred.

Brunty introduced Bacon to a principal in Integrity, who assured Bacon that Integrity and INMN were complying with federal laws and regulations and had a network of attorneys licensed to practice in every state where clients were accepted. Bacon accepted those assurances and hired INMN and Integrity. (Two people who’ve read this blog asked me about the relationship between Bacon and Brunty. I don’t know. The Court did not specify.)

Handling the former Brunty cases did not go smoothly, to say the least. Integrity continued to work on those cases without attorney involvement. Integrity employees incorrectly advised many of Brunty’s clients that their files had been assigned to Bacon. Some of Brunty’s clients became Bacon’s clients, but some did not. Some of Brunty’s clients’ credit cards were charged fees that were paid to Bacon.

Bacon admitted that he violated federal rules against unfair or deceptive acts or practices in respect to the mortgage modification matters.

The FTC’s “Regulation O” places a number of restrictions on mortgage modification services. For example, a provider may accept a fee only after the client has executed a written agreement with the lender or servicer. Attorneys are exempt from this rule if they are licensed to practice in the state where the home is located as long as they hold advance fees in trust accounts and comply with trust accounting rules.

Bacon was not licensed to practice in all jurisdictions, so he was not authorized to accept any up-front fees. He also failed to deposit the fees into a trust account, failed to maintain separate ledgers for these clients, and failed to properly supervise the individuals who had access to the accounts.

The Court stated Bacon was involved in the unauthorized practice of law in several states. He was suspended from the practice for six months and ordered to pay restitution to clients.

In the second case, In the Matter of Emery, the attorney received a public reprimand. In 2013 Emery signed a contract with Friedman Law, a New York law firm, to accept referrals for mortgage modification cases. Emery received client referrals from an internet marketing company and paid for the service based on the potential number of clients referred to her. Regardless of the residence of potential clients, cases would be assigned to Emery as a part of the Friedman Law network.

Non-lawyers employed by Friedman Law or two paralegal services worked the cases. The non-lawyers included Emery Law in their signature blocks and used Emery Law letterhead. Other than the fact that some of the non-lawyers employed by one of the paralegal services worked in Emery’s office, she did not directly supervise the work.

For the most part, the non-lawyers worked diligently, but six clients filed disciplinary cases because of some issue or complication resulting in client dissatisfaction.

The Court stated that the written fee agreements in these cases were confusing and self-congratulatory and often contradicted the verbal communications of the non-lawyers.

The non-lawyers sometimes wrongly held themselves out as employees of Emery Law. Clients never knew whether they were dealing with employees of Emery Law, Friedman Law, a firm in the Friedman Law network or one of the paralegal services.

Interestingly, in 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that lenders do not engage in the practice of law when they handle mortgage modification transactions.** In the present case, however, the Court stated that assisting clients in mortgage modification matters is the practice of law in South Carolina when performed by a lawyer.

Friedman Law represented to Emery that assisting clients in mortgage modifications is not the practice of law and that its network of lawyers in other states satisfied the requirements of multijurisdictional practice.

The Court stated that regardless of whether a particular state had adopted a rule permitting multijurisdictional practice and regardless of whether the particular state had determined that loan modification assistance was the practice of law, the fee agreements repeatedly referred to the services as “legal services”. In other words, the clients believed they were being represented by an attorney.

The Court said that Emery was involved in the systematic and continuous presence in other states, which constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

Accepting mortgage modification cases across state lines may be possible in certain circumstances, but these cases are obviously fraught with hazards. DO NOT accept these cases without carefully examining the federal and state laws involved in each situation and without carefully supervising each person who touches the cases. The best advice may be to never accept these cases when they involve properties located outside of South Carolina.

 

*In the Matter of Bacon, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27710, April 19, 2017; In the Matter of Emery, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27712, April 19, 2017.

**Crawford v. Central Mortgage Co. and Warrington v. Bank of America, 404 S.C. 39, 744 S.E.2d 538 (2013)