Flat recording legislation passes!

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August 1, 2019 is the effective date for this time-saving law

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On May 16, 2019, Governor Henry McMaster signed House Bill 3243 into law. You can read the short but effective statute here. House Bill 3243, better known as the Predictable Recording Fee Act (S.C. Code §8-21-310), will streamline the filing of documents in the register of deeds offices across the state by creating predictable fees for many commonly recorded documents such as deeds and mortgages. The new law will take effect on August 1, 2019. You and your staff will no longer have to count pages for documents to be recorded!

My friend and colleague, Jennifer Rubin, began work on this predictable recording Bill in the fall of 2016 when she was the President of the Palmetto Land Title Association. Our Agent and friend, Cynthia Blair, who is currently the American Land Title Association President, asked for Jennifer’s help in crafting, drafting and helping to turn the idea of predictable filing fees into law. Accepting that challenge and with the help and support of Chicago Title and PLTA, Jennifer began work on the Bill and began coordinating with the various stakeholders who were: The American Land Title Association, The South Carolina Association of Clerks of Court and Register of Deeds, The Association of Counties, The South Carolina Association of Realtors, The South Carolina Bankers Association, The Mortgage Bankers of the Carolinas, The South Carolina Bar Association, and the American Resort Developers Association on various versions of the Bill.

Jennifer said she was particularly thankful for the efforts of PLTA’s Legislative Committee led by attorney John Langford and the major contributions of her friend Julie Stutts, the deputy RMC for Aiken County.  She also appreciated the advocacy, guidance and support of lobbyists James Knox, Sharon Wilkerson, Neil Rashley, and Kali Turner and their respective groups.  Without everyone pushing this bill forward along and along, the creation of this law would not have been possible.

This new law will finally allow South Carolina real estate attorneys to fully comply with TRID regulations, provide clients and other parties with accurate final closing costs, and keep our bank accounts orderly. Please note that while the new law does not go into effect until August 1st, there is no grace period. So if you have closings on or near the first of August, please be sure to review the new statute to ensure that you’ve collected the correct amount for recording fees.

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Nat Hardwick ordered to pay $40M in restitution

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Nat Hardwick

Nathan E. Hardwick IV

This blog discussed Nat Hardwick, a name familiar to many South Carolina real estate lawyers, last fall when he was convicted of embezzling more than $25 million from his former companies, including his former law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider. He was discussed again in February when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His co-conspirator and controller, Asha Maurya, was sentenced to seven years after she cooperated with the government. On May 9, Hardwick and Maurya were ordered to pay $40 million in restitution.

Nathan E. Hardwick IV, 53, described himself as the face of Morris Hardwick Schneider, an Atlanta residential real estate and foreclosure firm that grew into sixteen states, including South Carolina. The firm once had more than 800 employees and boasted of offices in Charleston, Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville.

On October 12, Hardwick was convicted in federal court in Atlanta of 21 counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and one count of making false statements to a federally insured financial institution. In federal court, sentencing is typically delayed, and the convicted person is released and allowed to get his affairs in order. In this case, however, Hardwick had been released pending trial on bond. After his conviction, he was described by the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted him as a flight risk and was handcuffed and taken to jail immediately.

This story hits close to home. My company was one of the victims of the crimes and one of the parties awarded restitution because it funded the firm’s escrow accounts when the losses were discovered.

The prosecutor described an extravagant lifestyle that Hardwick enjoyed at the expense of others. The case was said to be particularly troubling because the illegal activity was orchestrated by a lawyer who swore an oath to uphold the law and represent his clients with integrity. The U.S. Attorney said he hoped the case sent the message that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office will not tolerate this type of white-collar crime.

According to the evidence, from January 2011 through August 2014, Hardwick stole more than $26 million from his law firm’s accounts, including its trust accounts, to pay his personal debts and expenses. The firm’s audited financial statements showed that the firm’s net income from 2011 through 2013 was approximately $10 million. During that time, according to the evidence, Hardwick took more than $20 million from firm accounts.

Asha Maurya, who managed the firm’s accounting operations, reached an agreement last May with the U.S. Attorney’s office and pled guilty. She was expected to testify at the trial, but was unexpectedly not called as a witness. Her lawyer argued at the restitution hearing that she should be liable for only $900,000, the amount she admitted taking from the firm for her own benefit. She had agreed to pay restitution in that amount as a part of her plea bargain.

During the trial, Hardwick did take the stand in his defense and attempted to blame Maurya with the theft. He said that he trusted her to his detriment, that he was entitled to the funds, and that he was unaware that the funds were wired from trust accounts. Hardwick testified for more than a day and explained that he believed Maurya followed proper law firm procedures.

On the stand, Hardwick, described as the consummate salesman, said that he gave his cellphone number to almost everyone. He said he returned calls and messages within a few hours and instructed his employees to do the same. He apparently believed himself to be a master in marketing and customer service and prided himself in focusing on the firm’s expansion strategy. He hoped to expand to all fifty states and make money through a public stock offering.

With his ill-gotten gains, Hardwick bought expensive property, made a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island, spent $635,000 to take his golfing friends to attend the British Open in 2014, paid off bookies, alimony obligations, and sent more than $5.9 million to various casinos, all according to trial evidence. Hardwick’s activities lead to the loss of his law license and the bankruptcy of his firm.

Hardwick’s former partners, Mark Wittstadt and his brother, Gerald Wittstadt, were each awarded $6 million in restitution, and Art Morris, a retired member of the firm, was awarded $5 million.  All claim damage to their reputations in addition to substantial monetary losses.

Let’s collectively start a trend in South Carolina: Shifting home closings away from the end of the month

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I’m going on the record with a strong second to my friend, Gary Pickren’s blog!

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Gary Pickren, an excellent residential real estate attorney with an outstanding law firm, Blair|Cato|Pickren|Casterline, here in Columbia posted a blog on May 12 entitled “Save Yourself a Huge Headache!!!!” You can read Gary’s blog in its entirety here.

Gary was apparently reacting to a crazy month-end for his office in April. He reported 25 closings on Tuesday, April 30 as opposed to 3 or 4 on Wednesday, May 1. And the closings that occurred on May 1 were a result of late loan packages from lenders. He was asking his real estate agents to save themselves headaches by scheduling closings throughout the month.

Closings at the end of the month are not a new phenomenon. As far back as I can remember (and that’s a long way back), real estate agents have scheduled closings at the end of the month. Why? Because interim interest has to be paid for only one day, reducing the funds the buyer has to bring to the closing.

Does closing at the end of the month save the buyer money? No! Interest will be paid from the date of the closing regardless. The only difference is the amount of the interim interest, the funds brought to the closing table. If interest is not brought to the closing, it is paid with the first payment.

I sent Gary’s blog around to my office members and got some unexpected strong reactions!

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Troyce Anderson, who was formerly a closing paralegal in Greenville, said scheduling closings throughout the month would probably reduce claims because law firms would be able to close with less stress and avoid common mistakes.

 

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Melissa Christensen, who was formerly a closing paralegal in the Myrtle Beach area, said her daughter, Savannah, was born on May 30, and the family always has to schedule birthday parties in early June.

 

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Speaking of birth issues, Sara Sigwart, who was formerly a closing paralegal in Hilton Head and Charleston, said that one of her fellow closing paralegals successfully searched for a doctor who would schedule a delivery of her child on the 20th of the month so she could celebrate birthdays with her child on the actual birth date.  Sara’s other reply to Gary’s blog was “PREACH!”

 

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Denise Seay, who was formerly a real estate paralegal in Hilton Head said, “Oh good grief-we used to say Realtors only knew one day in the month!”

 

If our office staff reacted this strongly, imagine how strongly your paralegals, who are currently in the closing trenches, would react. Think about how much easier it would be to manage your office and everyone’s schedules! Your holidays and vacations would even be more manageable.

Gary’s blog calls the end of the month in a residential closing office “organized chaos”.  It might also be termed a huge “traffic jam” for lenders, real estate agents, closing attorneys, paralegals, abstractors, and even buyers and sellers. Let’s follow Gary’s advice and spread closings throughout the month!

You don’t have to be the “bad guy” by using your own words to pass this thought on to real estate agents. Send them this blog!

Court of Appeals affirms Circuit Court in “nefarious conduct” Awendaw annexation case

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In December of last year, this blog discussed a South Carolina Supreme Court case in which the Court called the Town of Awendaw’s annexation attempt “nefarious conduct”.* The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision that the annexation attempt was void ab initio.**

The Town of Awendaw’s annexation of a ten-foot wide, 1.25 mile-long parcel of land within beautiful Francis Marion National Forest was challenged by two individuals and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

The sole question before the Supreme Court last year was whether the challengers had standing to contest the annexation in a case where the “100 percent method” of annexation is used, meaning all property owners petition the municipality to have their property annexed.

The case involved three parcels of land serving as links in a chain necessary to satisfy the contiguity requirement of annexation. The first link is the ten-foot strip managed by the United States Forest Service. The second link is owned by the Mt. Nebo AME Church, and the third link is approximately 360 acres of unimproved real estate surrounded by the National Forest on three sides and owned by Defendant EBC, LLC.

In the fall of 2003, the Town sought to annex the ten-foot strip which required a petition signed by the Forest Service. Town representatives sent the Forest Service four letters seeking approval. Through verbal discussions, the Town learned the Forest Service was opposed to annexations because of their impact on the Service’s ability to conduct controlled fire burns. Additionally, the Forest Service indicated any petition would have to come from Washington, D.C., officials, a process that might take several years.

The Town annexed the property anyway in 2004, relying on a 1994 letter from a Forest Service representative, stating it had “no objection” to annexing several strips of property in the same vicinity. However, the Town had previously stated that it realized this letter was unclear.

In 2009, EBC, LLC requested that Awendaw annex its property, and the Town passed an ordinance annexing that property and simultaneously rezoning it as a “planned development” to permit residential and commercial development. In annexing the EBC property, the Town relied on the ten-foot National Forest strip as well as the church property. Without either component, there would be no contiguity and annexation would be impossible.

In November of 2009, the petitioners filed a complaint against the Town and EBC alleging, among other things, that the Town lacked authority to annex the ten-foot strip of National Forest property because the Forest Service never submitted an annexation petition. The Town and EBC moved for partial summary judgment contending the petitioners lacked standing and that the statute of limitations had run.

At trial, a surveyor testified that the 1994 Forest Service letter referred to a different strip of land. The Town’s administrator responded that the Town had used the 1994 letter at least seven times, and that he believed the letter incorporated the property in question. The petitioners testified they were concerned about potential harm caused by developing the property, including damage to unique species of animals. They testified that they were also concerned that the proposed development would threaten the Forest Service’s ability to conduct the controlled burns necessary to maintain the health of the forest.

The trial court found that the petitioners had standing and concluded that the annexations were void because the Town never received the required petition from the Forest Service. The Court of Appeals concluded that the petitioners lacked standing.

In analyzing the standing issue, the South Carolina Supreme Court discussed its prior cases that held “non-statutory parties” (meaning, non-property owners of the annexed properties) lacked standing to challenge a purportedly unauthorized annexation. Those cases, however, were premised on good faith attempts by annexing bodies, according to the Court.

The Supreme Court did not believe the General Assembly intended in establishing the statutory framework for annexation to preclude standing where there is a credible allegation that the annexing body engaged in “deceitful conduct”. The Court held that a party that can demonstrate the annexing body engaged in “nefarious conduct” has standing to challenge the annexation.

The Court also discussed the public importance exception to the standing rule. This exception states that standing may be found when an issue is of such public importance as to require its resolution for future guidance. The Court stated that the petitioners had satisfied the “future guidance” prong of the public importance exception because the Town had used the 1994 letter numerous times and fully intended to use it again.

The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals to address the Towns’ remaining arguments. The Court of Appeals, apparently noting the Supreme Court’s strong language and robust opinions, reversed course and affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the annexation was void.

 

*Vicary v. Town of Awendaw, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 27855 (December 19, 2018).

**South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5645 (May 1, 2019).