In Lyons v. PNC Bank*, a consumer, William Lyons, Jr., filed suit against his home equity line of credit lender alleging violations of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). The lender, PNC Bank, had set-off funds from two of Mr. Lyons’ deposit accounts to pay the outstanding balance on his HELOC.
PNC moved to compel arbitration of the dispute based on an arbitration provision in the parties’ agreements relating to the deposit accounts. The case contains some discussion about jurisdiction, and one judges dissented on that basis. But the important holding in the case relates to pre-dispute arbitration provisions in consumer mortgages and related documents.
The Court found the relevant legislation to be 15 U.S.C. §1639c(e)(1) and §1639c(e)(3) from the Dodd-Frank Act, which had amended TILA. The first provision states:
“No residential mortgage loan and no extension of credit under and open end consumer credit plan secured by the principal dwelling of the consumer may include terms which require arbitration or any other nonjudicial procedure as the method for resolving any controversy or settling any claims arising out of the transaction.”
The second provision states:
“No provision of any residential mortgage loan or any extension of credit under an open end consumer credit plan secured by the principal dwelling of the consumer, and no other agreement between the consumer and the creditor relating to the residential mortgage loan…shall be applied or interpreted so as to bar a consumer from bringing an action in an appropriate district court of the United States…”
The Court held that the plain language of the legislation is clear and unambiguous that a consumer cannot be prevented from bringing a TILA action in federal district court by a provision in any agreement related to a residential mortgage loan. The Court’s holding indicates its opinion that Congress clearly intended consumers to have the right to litigate mortgage disputes.
* United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Opinion No. 21-1058 (February 15, 2022)
Is a unilateral non-client communication entitled to confidentiality?
We have our first Ethics Advisory Opinion of 2022 and it touches on a real estate matter. In EAO 22-01, a lawyer posed a question to the Ethics Advisory Committee about an unsolicited email from an individual with whom the lawyer had no prior relationship.
The subject line of the email read “Land Title Dispute”. The email requested the lawyer’s “legal insight on a real estate situation” and included a description of the underlying facts with an inquiry of the lawyer’s opinion about whether the sender had a “legitimate claim.”
The lawyer immediately recognized that the facts recited in the message related to a matter in which the lawyer and the lawyer’s client had adverse interests to those of the sender. The lawyer replied to the email informing the sender of the adverse interests and stating that the lawyer could not represent the sender. The email further stated, “Please let me know if and when you are represented by other counsel and I will (be) happy to communicate with them regarding this matter.” The lawyer then took the opportunity to inform the sender that the lawyer believed the sender’s “proposal to profit off of this mistake is both theft and fraud.”
The lawyer asks the Committee whether the lawyer has an ethical obligation to maintain confidentiality of the information in the email since it was provided in the course of seeking legal advice.
The Committee first stated that the sender was neither a current nor a former client of the lawyer. The answer to the question depended on whether the sender is a “prospective client” under Rule 1.18. This rule reads: “A person with whom a lawyer discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form the relationship.” Comment 2 reads: “Not all persons who communicate information to a lawyer are entitled to protection under this Rule. A person who communicates information unilaterally to a lawyer without any reasonable expectation that the lawyer is willing to discuss the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship, therefore, is not a “prospective client” …
The Committee concluded that the lawyer had no ethical obligation to maintain confidentiality of the information in the email.
This is excellent news! We’ve all heard stories of an individual about to seek a divorce who holds meetings with all the divorce lawyers in town to limit the spouse’s choice of counsel. Thankfully, that tactic should not extend to an unsolicited email.
This blog has previously discussed (here and here) the excellent lawsuit brought by The Finkel Law Firm against the Charleston County Register of Deeds seeking a writ of mandamus requiring the ROD (1) to immediately file all documents delivered to the ROD within one month of delivery; (2) to mark the documents as having been recorded on the date of delivery; and (3) to record all future documents in the order of the time delivery regardless of whether they were delivered in person or by the U.S. mail or parcel post.
The Court appointed Howard Yates, one of the most experienced real estate lawyers of the Charleston Bar, as Court Monitor. Mr. Yates issued a report dated January 31, 2022, the parties signed a Consent Order on February 10, and the Court issued a separate Order, also dated February 10. Please read all three documents here.
Mr. Yates has made numerous recommendations involving, among other matters, increasing office hours, increasing work hours for staff, and hiring employees from other ROD offices to reduce the backlog by working weekends.
The Court will maintain jurisdiction and will require frequent reports on progress. We can all applaud the efforts of The Finkel Law Firm and Howard Yates in bringing this matter to satisfactory conclusion, at least temporarily.
Advice for lawyers: paper your file when clients refuse!
On this cold, wet Monday morning, I was wondering what I could write to help my real estate lawyer friends through a February week in South Carolina. Then I remembered this news article from the U.S. Sun an excellent dirt lawyer friend from the coast sent to me. His quote was: “I wish I could get all buyers to read it when they turn down a survey.” Perhaps you can use this article to convince a client or two.
Any of us who are old enough to have practiced in the 1990s will remember a time when lenders and title insurance companies required current surveys for every closing. A current survey is a great tool for a real estate lawyer to review along with the title work. Comparing the boundary lines with the title work and checking for easements, encroachments and such horrible mishaps as sewer lines running under improvements gave the lawyer and client a great deal of comfort.
Our backdoor neighbors were once Steve and Wendy Spitz. Many real estate lawyers in South Carolina attribute our knowledge and enthusiasm for the practice to Steve’s property classes in law school. We both built in a new subdivision, and a corner of the Spitz home, as revealed by a survey, sat squarely on a City of Columbia water easement. That builder’s mistake was corrected prior to closing by negotiating with the City to move the easement. Thankfully, the water line itself was not a problem.
To hold down closing costs, at some point in the 1990s lenders began to eliminate the requirement for a survey in most residential closings if the lender could obtain title insurance survey coverage. One of the title insurance companies agreed to provide survey coverage to lenders without a new survey. There were some requirements back then, like having a survey of record showing the improvements or having an affidavit from the owner that nothing had changed since the prior survey.
Then, for competitive reasons, all the title insurance companies caved. Current surveys were no longer required. Over the years, the requirements were even softened.
My thought was that the title companies had unceremoniously hung the lawyers out to dry. Previously, the closing attorney simply told the client that a survey was required to close. With the change, the closing attorney had to convince the client of the need for a survey despite the added cost. I believe one of the biggest traps for the unwary closing attorney is failing to advise purchaser clients to obtain surveys and failing to paper files when surveys are rejected.
And don’t even mention the surveyors! They were collectively and understandably furious that they had lost a large portion of their business. I remember being the sacrificial lamb who was sent to speak to a statewide group of surveyors on behalf of the title insurance industry. It wasn’t pretty.
Here’s another story from my neighborhood. A kindly preacher friend bought a house several doors down from us. The free-standing garage had been added prior to my friend’s purchase and well after the original construction. My friend did not obtain a current survey. When he sold the house, a new survey revealed that the garage violated the side setback line by more than ten feet, and the purchaser refused to close. Keep in mind that contracts typically require sellers to give marketable title. A setback violation of this magnitude may be insured over by a title insurance company, but the title may not be marketable. This purchaser was within his rights to reject this title.
By that time, the developer, a Greenville based insurance company, had sold all the lots, and took the position that it could no longer waive violations of the restrictions even though the restrictions clearly allowed for developer waivers. The solution was that my friend went door to door to obtain the signatures of the required majority of the owners. Thankfully, my friend was a very nice guy, and the neighbors were willing to accommodate his request by signing the waiver.
Today, title insurance policies have evolved to the point that survey coverage is often given to owners without current surveys. But the example above demonstrates that title insurance coverage may not cure the underlying problem. Title insurance can never create marketable title. And title insurance claims may take time and cause aggravation that clients will not appreciate.
So let your clients read the linked article and advise them to obtain surveys. And, if they refuse, obtain informed consent confirmed in writing for your file!
South Carolina has many aging condominium projects, particularly along our coast. And we have earthquake issues to consider. Do our local homeowners’ association boards face expensive repair and inadequate reserve dangers like those in Florida? These concerns may impact HOAs, lenders and purchasers. Dirt lawyers should be prepared to assist their clients in navigating these concerns.
Fannie Mae has addressed this issue by issuing Lender Letter (LL-2021-14), which took effect on January 1 of this year. The letter directs lenders that make loans on condominium projects containing five or more attached units to gather information from owners’ associations about potential unsafe conditions.
Dale Whitman, the esteemed retired professor from the University of Missouri School of Law who moderates the national Dirt Real Estate Lawyers Listserv has commented on this letter. He said on a January 24 DIRT entry that HOAs are probably not obligated legally to respond to a lender’s inquiry prompted by Fannie Mae’s letter, but a potential buyer of a unit may not be able to obtain a loan absent a response.
That’s the crux of the problem. If repair and reserve issues arise in connection with a condominium project, it may become impossible to obtain loans.
DIRT also discussed a December 2021 addendum to the condominium questionnaire of Fannie Mae (Form 1076) that asks if there have been any findings relating to safety, soundness, structural integrity or habitability of the buildings in an inspection report, reserve study or government inspection or if the HOA board knows of such issues. This information is requested whether the issues have been resolved or would be resolved. The form requests information of how funds to make repairs will be obtained.
The lender letter points to a growing concern across the nation about aging infrastructure and significant deferred maintenance issues in condominium projects because a majority of these projects were built more than twenty years ago. Fannie Mae states its condominium standards are designed to support the ongoing viability of these projects.
Consider representing wealthy consumers who may seek to purchase expensive coastal condominium units paying cash. How should a closing attorney advise these clients considering these repair and reserve concerns? This is an issue that should be addressed in residential closing practices.