Tax titles are precarious in SC

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New Court of Appeals case demonstrates this fact again

A South Carolina Court of Appeals case* decided on June 20 demonstrates once again how precarious real estate titles coming through tax sales can be in South Carolina.

The unfortunate facts are not unusual. Bessie and Willis Thompson owned a residence in Bamberg County. They died in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The residence was devised to three grandchildren, one of whom, Corretta McMillan, was involved in this case through the appeal. The estates of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were not probated, leaving the Thompsons as the title holders of record.

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Corretta McMillan paid the 2005 property taxes, but she did not notify Bamberg County of the deaths of her grandparents, nor did she provide a substitute address for tax notices. The 2006 property taxes were not paid, resulting in a letter to the residence from Bamberg County in the spring of 2007. In May of 2007, Bamberg County sent a second notice to the residence via certified mail. The letter was returned undelivered with the receipt marked “Deceased” above the names of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. McMillan never received the notices, and she rented to house to Bernard Hallman in the summer of 2007.

Bamberg County referred the property to the Delinquent Tax Office which held a tax sale in November of 2007. The tax office submitted a minimum bid on behalf of the Forfeited Land Commission (FLC), a commission within each county which exists to bid on real properties not otherwise sold at tax sales. Following this tax sale, however, Ralph Johnson contacted the tax office with an offer to purchase several dozen tax sale properties. The tax office assigned to Johnson the bids it had submitted on behalf of the FLC, allowing Johnson to purchase 39 tax sale properties, including the residence involved in this appeal.

In January of 2009, McMillan paid a portion of the outstanding property taxes. Bamberg County sent her a notice acknowledging receipt of her payment and informing her that there were still delinquent taxes due. No mention was made of the tax sale.

Johnson acquired a deed to the property in February of 2009, at which time he learned the property was still occupied by Hallman. Johnson asked Hallman to move out and later filed an eviction action. Hallman notified his landlord, McMillan, of the eviction action.

The magistrate held Johnson’s eviction proceeding in abeyance when the FLC filed suit against Johnson alleging the tax office had inappropriately assigned its bids to Johnson without FLC’s authority. This suit also alleged the tax sales had not been conducted in compliance with the “rigid statutory structure.” Johnson answered, cross claimed and counterclaimed. One of his theories was the two-year statute of limitations on challenging tax sales set out in South Carolina Code §12-51-160.

During a November 2013 hearing, McMillan appeared and informed the court that she was an heir of the Thompsons. The FLC abandoned its suit and the circuit court dismissed the FLC’s complaint and Johnson’s counterclaims with prejudice. The circuit court then entered a default judgment in favor of Johnson on his cross claims to quiet title.

On April 8, 2014, McMillan filed an answer and counterclaim to Johnson’s quiet tile action. Johnson maintained McMillan could not contest the validity of the tax sale because the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. At trial, there was no evidence that the property was properly posted with a notice of the tax sale once the second notice was returned marked “Deceased”.  The circuit court granted the quiet title demand.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, discussing the two-year statute of limitations and the technicalities required for a successful tax sale. The Court sited earlier cases which held that defects in quiet title actions are jurisdictional and may prevent the statute from running. Other cases have suggested that even in the absence of strict compliance, the statute of limitations will begin to run when the purchaser at the tax sale takes possession of the property.

In this case, the purchaser never took possession because he was unable to evict the tenant. That fact, and the fact that the property was not properly posted with a notice of the sale, led to the Court’s conclusion that the two-year statute did not run.

The moral to this story is simple: always discuss tax sale titles with your friendly and smart title insurance company underwriter. They generally keep up with these cases, no matter how tedious. **

*The Forfeited Land Commission of Bamberg County v. Beard, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5570 (June 20, 2018).

**Please see footnote 5 in this case. It’s rare that a footnote in an appellate case can make a lawyer cry (unless the lawyer lost the case), but this footnote summarized the exemplary career of the late Tanya Gee, who died in 2016. This case would have been her first case as a temporary justice on the Court of Appeals. After her death, the appellate process had to begin again. Rest in peace, Justice Gee!

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SCOTUS refuses to review SC Episcopal property dispute

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It has been close to a year that I wrote in this blog that I was thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempted to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2, 2017*. I continue to be thankful that my mission is limited to the real estate issues in this difficult case because the United States Supreme Court refused to review that ruling on June 11. We are left with the difficult opinion issued in Columbia, and church officials and members from both sides of the dispute are left to sort out their on-going concerns in light of that ruling.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains, but I am attempting here to boil those issues down to a manageable few words for all of us.

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News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant.  I assume a petition for rehearing will ensue as well as an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when 39 local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, prior to the ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

South Carolina’s ruling upheld the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. It also orders the breakaway group to return 29 properties to the national church. Seven parishes may maintain their independence.

The position of the properties turns on whether the local parishes agreed to be bound by the “Dennis Canon” which was enacted in 1979 and provided, in effect, that real property of a parish is held in trust for the national church and the local Diocese, subject to the power of the local parish over the property, so long as the parish remains a part of the national church and Diocese. No evidence was found in the records of the seven parishes that those parishes ever agreed to be bound by the Dennis Canon. The other 29 properties were the subject of documentation to the effect that the local churches intended to hold the property in trust for the denomination. The opinion did not uphold the Dennis Canon in and of itself. Explicit recognition of the Canon was required.

That, in short, was the result of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need watch for a potential settlement. In the meantime, we will sit tight and not involve ourselves in sales and mortgages of these properties.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I am always thankful to be a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

Feds extend timeframe of FinCEN order

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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.

In early 2016, 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.

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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.

By order effective August 28, 2016, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, were required to be involved in the reporting process, and the footprint of the project was extended.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds as of August 28, 2016 were:

  • 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.

By order effective September 22, 2017, wire transfers were included, and the footprint of the project will include transactions over $3 million in the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Geographic Targeting Orders were updated again beginning March 21, 2018, and extended to September 16, 2018

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!

New Cybersecurity law in SC affects insurance companies and agents

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The effective date is January 1, 2019

South Carolina’s legislature passed a cybersecurity bill on April 18, and Governor Henry McMaster signed it into law on May 3. The new law, which requires that insurers and producers (agents) must establish “strong and aggressive” programs to protect companies and consumers from data breaches, goes into effect at the beginning of next year. The law is called South Carolina Data Security Act, and it will be found at §38-99-10 et seq. of the South Carolina Code.

Insurers and agents must develop, implement and maintain a comprehensive written information security program based on internal risk assessments which contain administrative, technical and physical safeguards for the protection of nonpublic information.

New rules were created that include overseeing third party providers, investigating data breaches and notifying regulators, including the South Carolina Department of Insurance, of cybersecurity events.

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Notification is required to the DOI within 72 hours after determining a cybersecurity event has occurred. Each incident must also be investigated to determine the scope of the breach, the nonpublic information compromised, and the measures to restore the security of the information.

Safe guarding individual insurance policy holders’ personal information is a high priority in the wake of several major insurance companies’ data breaches. Insurers and agents are required to mitigate the potential damage caused by date breaches.

South Carolina was the first state to pass this measure based on the model law developed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners Cybersecurity Working Group. South Carolina Insurance Director Raymond Farmer chaired the group.

How will this new law be applied to real estate lawyers who are also title insurance agents?  My guess is that the title insurance companies, which probably already have complying programs in place, will provide guidance to their agents between now and the end of the year. Stay tuned!