SC Supreme Court warns Clerks of Court to avoid rejecting filings

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ROD offices should pay attention!

This post may be the first and last time this blog deals with a criminal case*, but the warning from South Carolina’s Supreme Court to Clerks of Court presents a worthy discussion for dirt lawyers.

The case involved a post conviction relief (PCR) application following a murder and attempted armed robbery conviction. The application was fraught with problems including a prison lockdown and incorrect forms. The Court said that the Clerk of Court’s ministerial duties required to Clerk to simply accept the application for filing, give it the appropriate docket number, and distribute it as required by law. Instead, the Clerk returned the application based on the statute of limitations. After chastising the Clerk, the Court granted the petition and instructed the petitioner to file his successive application within thirty days of the decision.

Omitting the citations and a significant footnote to be discussed later, here is the warning:

“We take this opportunity to remind the clerks of courts of their ministerial duty to docket filings irrespective of potential procedural flaws that may exist. It is not within the Clerk of Court’s authority to refuse to perform her duty based on her opinion that a filing lacks legal merit or is untimely. This duty is not discretionary. Unless specifically authorized by statute or a court rule, a clerk of court may not exercise any judicial power reserved for a judge. The clerk cannot, without express constitutional or statutory authority, exercise any judicial functions. This includes the prohibition of performing any action contingent on deciding a question of law. It follows that a clerk of court cannot ordinarily determine questions of law. Accordingly, a clerk of court does not have the authority to reject a filing based on ostensible or perceived failures, including whether the document is contained on the proper form. Because the clerk’s role is ministerial in this respect, the clerk shall not be concerned with the merit of the papers or with their effect and interpretation. Stated differently, a clerk of court may not reject a pleading for lack of conformity with requirements of form; only a judge may do that. In the absence of an order from a judge, clerks may not refuse to accept a notice of appeal, even if they believe that no appeal is untimely or otherwise defective. Instead, the clerk shall accept the filing, thereby permitting the court to decide any issues the parties may have with it.”

If you ever have an ROD office reject your deed, mortgage or other real estate documents, you may need to cite this case!

I had a situation early in my practice where properties had been accumulated across county lines for the development of a mall. To comply with seller and lender requirements, I had to record all the documents in a single day. Prior to cutting the recording checks, I had to apportion the documentary stamps between the two counties, which I did carefully and with much tax advice. The first county readily accepted all the documents. I was halfway home. The other county, however, rejected all the documents by jumping to a legal and tax decision about the sufficiency of the doc stamps for that county. I was in a proverbial pickle! I couldn’t un-record documents in the first county to take the time to sort out the situation. I had to convince the second county to accept the documents. Luckily, I had a good friend who was on the legal staff of the Department of Revenue. After several hours of running that friend down and explaining the situation to him in great detail, he agreed on my behalf to convince the second ROD to record the documents to allow the DOR to sort out the tax issue later. Whew! (And, by the way, my calculations turned out to be correct because I got great advice in advance.)

My position about this topic has always been that the ROD did not have the authority to decide a legal question about my documents! After this case, I believe the Supreme Court would agree.

Dirt lawyers love to tell stories about the treatment of documents in different counties. The stories go something like this…. County A will record a leaf that floats in from an open window, but County B will refuse to record a document on the flimsiest of legal technicalities.

I hope this case will help even the playing field.

One significant footnote in the case relates to real estate transactions. Referring to the rule that indicates a clerk cannot exercise judicial power unless authorized by statute, footnote 2 reads: “For example, in the context of real or personal property, section 30-9-30 authorizes a clerk of court to remove a sham document from the public records upon proper notice if the clerk reasonably believes the document to be fraudulent.”

This statute and this power could be important in cases of forged signatures and other fraud, but I still believe the ministerial official would at least need sound legal advice.

Pull this case out the next time one of your documents is rejected!

*Barnes v. The State of South Carolina, South Carolina Appellate Case No. 2020-001360 (June 3, 2021).

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