Cybersecurity Breach affects SC county offices

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Chicago Title’s South Carolina state office sent out a memorandum on December 29 announcing that Cott Systems, Inc. has suffered a cybersecurity breach. I wanted to make sure the readers of this blog have access to this important information.

Cott Systems provides many services to county offices, including electronic recording, record storage, online searching, and court case management. Chicago Title has been told that Cott Systems provides services to at least the following counties: Darlington, Florence, Marlboro, Oconee, and Union. Other counties may be involved.

Apparently, this company took its services offline upon discovery of the breach. As of December 29, the company was unable to estimate when service may be restored but reported that it is working diligently to address the problem. As of mid-day on January 4, we were told that at least two counties were back online. I hope all of them are up and running at this point.  

If title abstracting and recording services are ever unavailable in the counties where you do business, please contact your title insurance company for assistance. Your friendly underwriters should be able to talk with you to resolve your issues, depending on the dates of your prior title work, dates of closings, etc.  Please be careful out there!

Happy New Year!

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Let’s make 2023 a great year!

2022 has been a difficult year for lots of dirt lawyers and their staff members. Everyone has been way too busy! 2023 promises to be a little slower. I remember my first slow-down in private practice many years ago. I was panicking a little, and my senior partner advised me to take a breath, clean up my desk and old files, and by the time I was through, the economy would have improved. He was right! And I have given that same advice to many people, including my now adult children, many times through the years.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  My guess is that he used the qualifier “most” because he recognized that outside forces might lead to unhappiness for some people, but I couldn’t agree more with our 16th president that happiness is usually a matter of choice.

Here in the Bible belt of the South, some may believe that faith leads to happiness, but experience suggests that people of faith don’t always choose happiness. Experience also suggests that affluence does not create happiness. In fact, it seems that the opposite may be true in many instances.

I write this blog* for South Carolina real estate lawyers and their staff members, and my goal is to keep us all up to date on real estate issues that may affect our practices.

Early in my career, I decided to focus on real estate law because I chose happiness. I found real estate law to be a happier choice than litigation, especially the domestic litigation I tried for about five minutes. If the economy is good, then everyone should be satisfied at the end of the closing process. The seller should walk away with funds. The buyer should have a new piece of real estate to inhabit, rent or develop. The lender should have a nice income stream. And the players in the marketplace should be paid fairly for their services in connection with the closing.

Those of us who weathered the recent real estate peak are well aware that practicing real estate law does not lead to similar happiness when things are moving too quickly and fraud is so prevalent that it is hard to catch our collective breath. Kudos to all who have survived this challenging season.

Another realization I made early in my career is that to make money, lawyers must work very hard, often at a speed and pressure that do not benefit their health and happiness. And if lawyers have to work under those circumstances, then their staff members do as well.

So how do we choose happiness in a pressure-filled real estate practice that is dependent on the economy?

I offer Jon Gordon’s “20 Tips for a Positive New Year” as a suggestion. Jon Gordon is a motivational business speaker I enjoy following. Many of his tips for a positive 2023 focus on choosing to be happy. (But I particularly like his tip #8, “Get More Sleep”) You can download this excellent advice in poster format to keep at your desk or post in your workroom.

I am going to try to follow Abraham Lincoln’s and Jon Gordon’s advice in 2023. And I invite you to join me!

* Thanks to the readers of this blog! I began writing weekly very late in 2014. Readership has increased from just under 2,000 in 2014 to just over 40,000 in 2022. I’d like to take the opportunity of a new year to thank Martha McConnell and Jennifer Rubin, excellent lawyers, who help me with ideas, redirect my thinking, keep me out of trouble and proofread my work. And I’d like to thank Cris Hudson, IT guru extraordinaire, who handles technical issues. It is a team effort, and I am blessed with a great team!

What should you do when faced with a letter from the ODC?

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This disciplinary opinion clearly sets out what not to do!

I’ve blogged before about Mike Goodwin, the “Bow Tie Comedian” based here in Columbia, who entertained us during lunch at Chicago Title’s seminar several years ago. I highly recommend Mike if you need a comedian suitable for a family audience. A joke that bubbled up through his very funny presentation was a line his mother used to keep him on the straight and narrow during his childhood, “what you NOT gonna do is…..” 

For example, she would say, what you NOT gonna do is to stand there and hold that refrigerator door open while you try to decide what you want to eat. During one lull in the laughter, Mike said to us, “what you NOT gonna do is sit there and not laugh at my jokes.” (So we laughed.)

Mike’s tag line came to mind when I read a recent disciplinary case* involving a real estate lawyer. This lawyer did exactly what he should not have done when the ODC contacted him.

This lawyer had been previously disciplined for financial misconduct in 2011. In that case**, he was given a public reprimand. He did not learn from his mistake.

In 2016, a client gave the check in the amount of $8,969. Just prior to the deposit of this client’s check, the balance in the lawyer’s trust account was $0.15. The lawyer negotiated nine checks to himself totaling $365. Then he issued a check to the client’s seller in the amount of $8,969. This check was returned as unpaid for insufficient funds, and the bank notified the ODC. The client also filed a complaint with the ODC.

Later, he misappropriated trust funds by writing checks to himself in amounts totaling just over $8,000.

What did the lawyer do in response to the ODC? Nothing!

  • He failed to respond to notices of investigation, despite being served with reminder letters.
  • He failed to respond to the court-appointed receiver after he was placed on interim suspension.
  • He failed to cooperate with the receiver and failed to produce client files and trust account files after being ordered to do so.
  • He failed to file an answer to formal charges.
  • (The Court didn’t say this, but his worst mistake may have been failing to hire a lawyer experienced in disciplinary matters.)
  • He failed to appear at his hearing.
  • He failed to file a brief taking exception to the report issued subsequent to the hearing, thus accepting the findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendations.

The Court, siting the central purpose of the disciplinary process is to protect the public from unscrupulous and indifferent lawyers, disbarred the lawyer. Learn well from this lawyer’s lack of action!

*In the Matter of Griffin, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28124 (December 14, 2022).

**In the Matter of Griffin, 393 S.C. 142, 711 S.E.2d 890 (2011).

Some (relatively) new scam tips

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If I told you how many articles I’ve written about fraud and scams, you’d think I’m much older than I am, so we won’t go there. But I am old enough to be retired. My husband and I both worked for large corporations who kept us current on scams of all kinds. In retirement, we must read numerous sources to make sure we keep ourselves safe online and otherwise.

The Washington Post, one of my favorite newspapers, published an article on September 6 entitled “Yes, it’s a scam; Simple tips to help you spot online fraud.” You can read it here.  

The first tip makes so much sense: “Have “the talk” with family members.” This is so important! Tell your aging parents, your teenagers who spend a considerable portion of their lives online, and everyone in between the tricks you learn from your practice and your title insurance company about safety online. As painful as it may be to assist your elderly family members with their computer issues, keeping them safe from scams will save you from having to unwind the problems. Tell your family members to come to you to “gut-check”, as the article advises, suspicious messages and phone calls.

The second tip involves social media. The article advises that privacy settings can make it significantly harder for cybercriminals to successfully target you and your family members. Read the article for the details.

The third tip is my mantra: stay current! Using current events for unjust enrichment is a prime strategy of scammers. The article reports that within 24 hours of President Biden’s announcement of the student loan forgiveness program, The Federal Trade Commission released a warning about student loan scams. Updates for all of us are available at Fraud.org, a project of the National Consumers League. Make one of your employees responsible for reviewing and reporting on the great information from that site. And make sure your family members know about it.

I love this one: “Assume that people or companies aren’t who they say they are.” As lawyers, we’re naturally and by education skeptical. Make sure those around you approach the internet and telephone as skeptically as you do.

This one is great: “Verify everything using a different channel.” Title insurance companies have been telling their agents for years (decades!) to verify wiring instructions by making a telephone call using a known and trusted telephone number. This advice can be used in other areas of online life. Use official customer service numbers and websites. Call your bank! Call or text a friend who asks for money via social media. The article advises the use of AARP’s free telephone service to ask about possible scams: 877-908-3360.

The article advises all of us to memorize the signs that something is a scam:

  • You didn’t initiate the conversation.
  • You won something.
  • You are panicked:  scammers want to create a sense of urgency.
  • It involves fast payment methods: peer to peer payment apps, for example.
  • There are payment complications. For example, the scammer will offer to pay over an app like Zelle, say there’s a problem, then ask for your email address so they can send a fake email to get your information.
  • They want information.
  • Something doesn’t feel right.

Stay current, keep your office current, and keep your family members current!

EAO Opinion 22-04 gives real estate lawyers guidance on non-negotiated checks

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How we did it back in the day

Ethics Advisory Opinion 22-04 addresses a trust accounting question from a real estate practitioner.

The underlying facts are: “Due to the nature of a residential real estate practice, Lawyer frequently issues relatively small dollar amount checks from Lawyer’s trust account to both clients and third parties. A number of these checks are not timely negotiated, resulting in ongoing trust accounting maintenance costs, including labor costs, stop-payment fees and mailing fees for uncashed trust account checks that require stop payments and/or reissuance and re-mailing to the payee.”

This is an age-old concern. When I was in private practice (150 years ago or so), our law firm’s excellent bookkeeper chastised me monthly about the $5.00 check issued for mortgage satisfactions that never seemed to get cashed.

The lawyer poses the following question to the Ethics Advisory Committee: “May Lawyer charge an amount to cover administrative costs associated with stop-payment fees and trust account check reissuance and re-mailing fees for checks that remain outstanding for more than thirty (30) days after issuance?”

Thankfully, the Committee responded affirmatively.

The opinion states that a lawyer may charge a check recipient an amount to cover administrative measures undertaken to resolve the outstanding check, which includes expenses incurred such as stop payment fees and postage fees, provided the amount charged is not unreasonable.

Comment 1 to Rule 1.5 provides, “A lawyer may seek reimbursement for the cost of services performed in-house…by charging an amount that reasonably reflects the cost incurred by the lawyer.” The Committee opined that the lawyer may charge an amount against the recipient’s check to obtain reimbursement for the same, provided the amount charged is not unreasonable. To collect on the amount charged, Lawyer may deduct the amount to be charged from funds that remain in trust after adequate steps have been taken to cancel, void, or otherwise nullify the previously issued check…”

The Committee imposed one limitation by stating that the amount to be charged is limited to the total amount of funds that were paid by the outstanding check.

This opinion may provide a small amount of assistance, but the administrative nightmare remains. Small checks that fail to be negotiated will remain a monthly quagmire. But this opinion may allow law firms to at least recoup a portion of the cost.

Ethics Advisory Opinion advises lawyers: stay away from Expertise.com

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Ethics Advisory Opinion 22-02 fielded two marketing questions from a lawyer concerning a website, Expertise.com. This website finds and reviews service professionals and states that it researches businesses by using customer referrals, public records, accreditations and licenses and mystery shoppers.

Some law firms are listed on the site without the knowledge of the lawyers through the site’s unilateral research and screening. The site states that it lists businesses alphabetically, but it allows law firms to submit to be reviewed and included at no cost. The site indicates this process takes approximately one year to complete.  A law firm can also purchase a “featured placement” to take advantage of being seen first on the website page and to include links to the law firm’s social media.

The lawyer’s questions were:

  1. If an attorney or law firm pays for a featured placement on Expertise.com, does that attorney violate Rule 7.4(b) by holding the law firm and its attorneys out as experts by virtue of the website’s name?

2. Does paying for a featured placement on Expertise.com violate Rule 7.2(c)?

The Ethics Advisory Committee responded definitely: “Lawyer may not participate in any way in marketing via Expertise.com.” Actively participating in an online business listing at a website whose stock language violates the advertising rules is itself a violation of the advertising rules, according to the Committee.

The Committee referred to an earlier EAO: 09-10 which opined that a lawyer who adopts, endorses, or claims an online directory listing takes responsibility under the Rules for all content of the listing and general content of the directory itself, regardless of who created the material. While the prior opinion focused on comparative language contained in client testimonials and endorsements submitted to the website, the reasoning applies to content created by the host that violates some other rule, like 7.4(b), according to the current EAO.

Regardless of the creator of the offending content and regardless of which rule it violates, the Committee’s view is that a lawyer may not adopt, endorse, claim, or contribute to any online listing that contains language or other material that would violate the Rules if created and disseminated directly by the lawyer.

Paying for a featured placement within a business directory website is not itself a violation of Rule 7.2(c) if the payment obligation or amount is not tied to the referral of business as a quid pro quo, according to the EAO. In the Committee’s view, if a featured placement is the only benefit received in exchange, the payment would be a “reasonable cost of advertisement” under the 7.2(c)(1) exception.

However, the Committee believes a lawyer may not pay Expertise.com for a featured placement because that step would be prohibited by Rule 7.4(b).

Be careful out there, lawyers!

Wire fraud continues to be a significant problem

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My preacher has suffered several email hacking schemes that prey on church members with kind hearts.

He has sent out a written notification and has announced from the pulpit more than once that church members have reported to him that they sent money because of his very touching email requests about persons in need…email requests that he never made. He assured his congregation that if he needs specific funds for specific needs, he will make phone calls. He shared that preacher friends of his have reported similar schemes. The fake emails always report that he is unavailable to take phone calls but that the need is urgent and immediate.

Phone calls may be the key to fraud prevention!

A lawyer friend of mine called me this week to ask an opinion on a potential client’s case. Help me answer the question: Does a closing attorney have a duty to make a telephone call to clients who may need to wire funds in connection with a closing to warn about the dangers of wire fraud and how to prevent the loss of closing funds?

I don’t know the answer to that question. My gut reaction is that the standard in our communities in South Carolina is that lawyers should provide very specific instructions on wiring instructions and engagement letters to prevent this type of fraud. I’ve seen several excellent examples of red-letter, bolded warnings.

Chicago Title in South Carolina continues to see a rise in the amount of fraud and attempted fraud in connection with real estate closings. The most recent memorandum was sent out to agents on February 2. Most of these incidents involve hacked emails where a party to the transaction fails to maintain strong computer or email security.

Unfortunately, law firms with significant security measures in place have also been victims of these schemes. The hackers typically submit altered payoff letters or wiring instructions to divert the funds. Like the emails that have plagued my preacher, the forged emails, wiring instructions and payoff letters look very similar to legitimate documents.

Here is the current advice on preventing these disasters in your law firms:

  1. Obtain payoff information and wiring instructions early in the transaction so that there is ample time to review them and confirm their authenticity.
  2. Review every payoff and wiring instruction to determine whether it appears authentic on its face. Many fraudsters are excellent at spoofing letterheads and logos, but sometimes, you may see tell-tale signs.
  3. Compare each payoff letter and wiring instruction to prior instructions to determine whether account numbers have been changed.
  4. If the wire is going to an entity to which you have previously sent wires, compare the new information with the prior transaction. If you save wiring instructions in your systems, make sure that repository is secure and cannot be easily shared.
  5. Verify every wiring instruction verbally using a known and trusted telephone number. Do not use telephone numbers provided in the instructions themselves unless you can verify its validity.
  6. If you cannot verify the instructions verbally or have doubts about the transaction, consider mailing, overnighting or even hand delivering a check to a confirmed address instead of using a wire.

Chicago Title has developed an excellent APP for your cell phone that contains the information you will need in the event your law firm or your clients become victims of fraud. As always, I highly recommend Chicago Title!

Advice for purchaser clients: obtain a survey!

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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!

Lawyers, as we begin 2022, let’s take care of our mental health!

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I was impressed once again during the holidays with the fact that some people, and especially some lawyers, don’t enjoy “the most wonderful time of the year”, and I wanted to encourage everyone especially every lawyer who needs help to get help now.

You may have heard about a fellow lawyer in Lexington who committed suicide a few weeks ago, leaving three daughters to grieve his loss. We have all heard news stories of a low country lawyer who has fallen from grace in spectacular fashion with mental health playing a major part in his saga.

My church held a “Blue Christmas” service in early December. This service brought home to me the sorrowful point that many people are unusually sad during the holidays.

Many among us are suffering from the uncertainty and isolation caused by the COVID pandemic. Just when we were beginning to think things were getting much better on that front, we are now being warned about the dangers of the Omicron variant that has created a new surge.

I don’t often recommend books in this blog and especially not works of fiction, but I recently read a novel that handled the impact of COVID so well that I highly recommend it to you. Wish You Were Here, a 2021 novel by Jodi Picoult, gives voice to medical professionals through a New York doctor who works in an emergency department. As the author said in her afterword, we will never be able to thank these professionals for what they have done for us, for what they have seen and for what they have been through.

The book also gives voice to a COVID survivor who spent time on a ventilator. Through this character, we see the importance of some lessons COVID has taught us.

These lessons are particularly important to lawyers. Specifically, the things that are significant in life are not monetary, they are not about the next case or closing. They are not about work at all. COVID has taught us to appreciate the present moment, to appreciate the beauty of nature, and to hold our loved ones close. We must understand that at the end of our lives, our work will not be important at all, but our loved ones will.

We, as lawyers, are supposed to be problem solvers. We are supposed to be strong. We are not supposed to have problems. But lawyers do have mental health problems. I read one statistic that indicated lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

In order to pass our “character and fitness” check to become lawyers and in order to keep our licenses for the long haul, we tend to hide our mental health problems. Having problems and hiding the problems can create perfect storms in our lives.

I encourage any lawyer who is particularly unhappy as the year begins to get help! Therapy is a good thing! You might begin by calling South Carolina Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers toll free helpline at (866) 545-9590 or contact any Lawyers Helping Lawyers member directly. But begin somewhere! The resources are available, and they are helpful.  Please, please seek help if you need it. 

And, in the meantime, I wish for all of you a wonderful 2022!

Happy New Year!

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Watch out for those recurring dreams…

And don’t forget the mortgage subordinations!

As the last blog of the year, I thought I’d tell you the story of one of my recurring dreams, or more accurately, one of my recurring nightmares, for your entertainment.

Do you have recurring dreams? I grew up in Georgetown where everyone makes routine pilgrimages to Charleston for shopping, dining, and medical appointments. My first recurring nightmare as a child involved the fright of crossing that rickety, two-lane bridge between Mt. Pleasant and Charleston. Thank goodness that monstrosity was replaced by the beautiful suspension bridge we cross today!

Later came the dreams involving college at Carolina. I dreamed I couldn’t get into the mailbox in my dorm. I have no idea why I had that dream because nothing very important was ever there. I dreamed my meal card wouldn’t work but that was also a useless dream because missing those dorm meals would have been no great loss.

Then came law school. In those dreams, it was always time for the exam for a class I had forgotten I signed up for. A more accurate dream would have involved a class I knew I signed up for but failed to attend class because I didn’t understand a word the professor said (think international law). Thank goodness my boyfriend had a great “skinny” on that topic and I somehow made it through that class. And I later married that boy.

But my most vivid recurring dreams involve my professional life, and the stories are always based in fact. I’ll tell you the factual, not the fantasy version of this dream. And I’ll avoid the names for attorney-client and other confidentiality reasons. This is the biggest professional mistake I made or, more accurately, the biggest professional mistake I made that I know about. As dirt lawyers, we plant time bombs every day, right?

I represented real estate developers. They developed malls, shopping centers, residential subdivisions, residential condominiums, outlots for McDonalds and other fast-food restaurants and other properties. The story involves a very large tract that was developed into an upscale residential subdivision, a Walmart, a movie theater, a church, and a shopping center.

The development was complicated. It involved environmental issues that could have derailed the entire project. Multiple individuals formed various entities for buying, holding and selling the real estate. The underlying property was purchased from the Federal government, which created its own set of complications. The acquisition, for example, involved a bid process that was foreign to me at the time.

It all finally fell into place, and the residences and businesses are still in place in 2021.

The problem that I thought might derail my career came to light when one of the individual developers declared bankruptcy. When that happened, every legal step I had taken for that person in the prior three years was scrutinized. The main lawyer scrutinizing my work, along with a team of associates, was a law school classmate, and, thankfully, a very kind and smart lawyer. But I spent lots of time worrying that I had missed something important.

I can remember the phone call from my friend all these years later down to the clothes I was wearing and the coffee cup in my hand.

The commercial properties required easements because of the private roads the properties shared. They also had easements for maintenance, pedestrian access, shared utilities, etc. Here’s the pitfall. When properties with these legal connections are owned and mortgaged separately, the lenders almost always must subordinate their mortgages to the easements to ensure the easements remain in place in the event of foreclosure, or in this case, bankruptcy.

I knew that!

I routinely obtained mortgage subordinations at every step of the development, except for one commercial tract. To this day, I have no idea how I missed one set of subordinations. And I think I lost several years off my life between the phone call from my kind classmate until I was able to obtain the subordinations very much after the fact. I was very lucky because the lender I had to approach (hat in hand) was a local lender. I even knew the person I had to persuade to cure my problem. And the good Lord must have smiled on me that day because it all worked out. I kept my license and my clients.

So, as I wish you a very happy, healthy, and prosperous 2022, I remind you to avoid the mistake I made. Always obtain the necessary mortgage subordinations!