Holy Statute of Frauds

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Can text messages create binding real estate contracts?

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South Carolina real estate practitioners, do you remember that old case from law school where a contract was created on a napkin?  That case made me imagine drunken parties in a bar passing a napkin back and forth as drinks came quicker and caution evaporated.

That simple case is seen in a new light, however, as courts across the country struggle to apply the ancient statute of frauds to the evolving world of electronic communications. Telegrams, faxes and emails have all been found to satisfy the statute of frauds in some situations.

We haven’t seen a South Carolina case on the topic of text messages and binding contracts, but The Southern District of New York and a Massachusetts Land Court recently found that text messages may be sufficient to serve as evidence of the existence of binding agreements between negotiating parties.

In the New York case, the plaintiff real estate broker relied on a series of text messages to show the existence of a binding fee agreement. The court held that the text messages satisfied the writing requirement of the statute of frauds but failed to satisfy the signature requirement.

The Massachusetts court, on the other hand, found that a series of text messages did satisfy the signature requirement of the statute of frauds because a signature of a sort was included within multiple text messages between the parties. Some of the texts contained typed names of the parties beneath the substantive messages.

Real estate practitioners should caution their clients in the use of texts and other non-traditional means of communicating. Advise clients to refrain from typing their names under text messages. Better yet, advise clients to include disclaimers to the effect that no agreement involving the subject matter is final until wet signatures are applied to a physical document.

And even better than that, caution clients that texting and negotiating real estate contracts may be almost as dangerous as texting and driving.

While text messaging can’t be surpassed, at least in 2019, when it comes to speed and efficiency, a new and different level of caution may be needed when engaging in negotiations through such seemingly informal means of communicating.

Rock Hill residential real estate lawyer arrested

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Thankfully, it has been ten years or more since we’ve heard word “defalcation” used in connection with a South Carolina real estate lawyer. Sadly, we have to use that word in 2019 because a Rock Hill lawyer was arrested on September 13 after funds allegedly went missing from a residential closing. That lawyer, Thomas Givens, was suspended by the South Carolina Supreme Court on September 25.

The closing took place on July 15, but the $166,000 mortgage payoff was never made. Two months later, Givens was arrested and charged with breach of trust over $10,000. The arrest warrant reads that Givens failed to make the mortgage payoff and does not have the funds.

We usually do not experience defalcations when the economy is good. With the economic downturn that began in 2007, we learned the difficult lesson that attorneys who are prone to dip into their trust accounts often manage to keep the balls in the air as long as closings continue to occur. They typically steal from one closing to fund another. They rob Peter to pay Paul.

Like a game of musical chairs, when the music (and closings) stop, bad actor attorneys no longer have closings to provide funds for prior transgressions, and the thefts come to light.

It is a very sad commentary, and one I hoped not to see again.

ProPublica publishes interesting heirs’ property story

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Check out the July 15, 2019 story by Lizzie Presser

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Image courtesy of ProPublica.org

Several of our staff members stay well informed about current events, and Cris Hudson, our IT professional, is no exception. Cris pointed me to this story published by ProPublica on July 15 entitled “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery”. The subtitle is “The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave it.” Cris told me I should blog about this story, so here goes.

ProPublica calls itself a “nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power”. The story is about brothers, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, who lived in Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina, on land they considered to be owned by dozens of their family members. The property consists of 65 marshy acres. Melvin Reels ran a club on the property and lived in an apartment above the club. He also had established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land. Licurtis had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s house.

Mr. Davis’ and Mr. Reels’ great grandfather, Mitchell Reels, bought the land just one generation removed from slavery. The land was said to contain the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. Mitchell didn’t trust the courts and didn’t leave a will, so, when he died in 1970, the property became heirs’ property.

In 2011, the brothers appeared before a judge to argue that they owned the waterfront portion of their property, which had purportedly been sold, without their knowledge or consent, to a developer. They were not allowed to argue their case that day. Instead, the judge sent them to jail for civil contempt. They were never charged with a crime nor given a jury trial, but they spent the next eight years fighting their case from jail.

As any practitioner who has handled quiet title suits for heirs’ property can attest, the suits can be expensive and complex. Nonprofit organizations, like The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, assist in litigating these matters.

The story quotes Josh Walden of the Center who said that organization has worked to clear more than 200 titles in South Carolina the past decade, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Mr. Walden told the reporter that the center has mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina and is careful to protect the maps from potential developers.

Back to the North Carolina story, a great uncle of Mitchell and Licurtis apparently obtained the waterfront property through an adverse possession action and began sending trespass notices to the brothers in 1982. The brothers could not believe the adverse possession action could have been “legal” since they had lived on the land their entire lives. Soon afterward, the great uncle sold the waterfront portion of the land to developers.

The family members knew that if the waterfront was developed, the tax values of their adjacent properties would skyrocket, and they would have difficulty paying the taxes and maintaining their properties. Tax sales have historically been the cause of the loss of many heirs’ properties.

(I got confused in one part of the story when the author talked about “nearby” Hilton Head. We drove from Hilton Head to Outer Banks once, and I promise you, the two locations are not “nearby”. We could have driven to Disney World in the same time frame.)

Like tax sales, partition actions have been a tool used to separate heirs from their properties. A developer can buy the share of one heir and then force a partition of the entire property. While South Carolina has passed partition legislation to protect against this danger, North Carolina has held out against this reform, according to the story.

The brothers continued to rot in jail after the judge indicated there was no time limit on civil conspiracy, and that the brothers had to move their houses from the properties to be released. The brothers refused and were locked in a hopeless clash with the law, according to the story.

Eight years later, the brothers appeared before a judge who agreed to release them but warned them that if they returned to their homes, they would return to jail. They have still not been able to return to the waterfront property.

I invite you to read the entire story for a history of heirs’ property in the South. It is indeed a sad tale of greed and legal wrangling to remove properties from heirs. The Reels’ story is just one example.

Matthew Cox, notorious fraudster, resurfaces

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Check out the August issue of The Atlantic

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Picture courtesy of The Atlantic, August 2019 issue

I’ll never forget the name, Matthew Cox or the telephone call that tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation here in Columbia. Long before the housing bubble popped, an attorney called to let us know what was going on that day in the Richland County ROD office. Representatives of several closing offices were recording mortgages describing the same two residential properties in Blythewood, as if the properties had been refinanced multiple times in the same day by different closing offices.

At first, we thought our company and our attorney agent were in the clear because our mortgage got to record first. South Carolina is a race notice state, and getting to record first matters. Later, we learned that deeds to the so called borrower were forged, so there was no safety for anyone involved in this seedy scenario. Thousands of dollars were lost.

Next, we learned about the two fraudsters who had moved to Columbia from Florida through Atlanta to work their mischief here. The two names were Matthew Cox and Rebecca Hauck. We heard that Cox had been in the mortgage lending business in Florida, where he got into trouble for faking loan documents. He actually had the guts to write a novel about his antics when he lost his brokerage license and needed funds, but the novel was never published. With funds running low, Cox and his girlfriend, Hauck, moved to Atlanta and then Columbia to continue their mortgage fraud efforts.

We didn’t hear more from the pair until several years later, when we heard they had thankfully been arrested and sent to federal prison.

For a much more colorful account of these criminal activities and Cox’s attempt to write “true crime” stories from the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida, I refer you to the comprehensive and entertaining article written by Rachel Monroe in the August issue of The Atlantic magazine. Please enjoy the full text of the article here.

Ms. Monroe said she had been contacted by Matthew Cox by email telling her he was attempting to write a body of work that would allow him to exit prison with a new career. He described himself as “an infamous con man writing his fellow inmates’ true crime stories while immersed in federal prison.”

The crimes perpetuated by Cox and Hauck were made easier by the housing bubble itself. Everything was inflated and values were hard to nail down. And closings were occurring at a lightening pace. This excellent article made my heart skip a beat as I was reminded of those times. I hope all of us in the real estate industry have learned valuable lessons that will similar prevent mortgage fraud in the future. Those of us who made it through the economic downturn are certainly older and hopefully wiser!

Dave Whitener’s “Palmetto Logs”

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Two weeks ago, this blog paid tribute to the late, great Dave Whitener, a giant among real estate legal professionals in South Carolina. As suggested in that blog about Dave’s “Top Ten You Betters”, I also wanted to share with you Dave’s “Palmetto Logs”.

Several years before his death, Dave was asked to address the American Bar Association. The issue was whether a successful defense might be mounted if a federal agency attacked the rights now existing in South Carolina for lawyers, and only lawyers, to close real estate transactions. In that talk, Dave cited ten areas of defense that he called the Palmetto Logs. For non-South Carolinians, the palmetto log has traditionally been a symbol of protection for South Carolinians in time of war. South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”.

Here are Dave’s suggested protections against an attack from outside our state for closings performed by licensed South Carolina attorneys:

Caselaw

  1. State v. Buyers Service, 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court defined the practice of law in a residential real estate closing to include: certification of the title; preparation of the deed and loan closing documents, closing the transaction and overseeing recording.
  2. Doe v. Condon, 351 S.C. 158, 568 S.E.2d 356 (2002). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court reiterated and confirmed that the four protected areas set out in Buyer’s Service would also apply to residential refinances.
  3. Doe v. McMaster, 355 S.C. 306, 585 S.E.2d 773 (2003). In 2003, the South Carolina Supreme Court again reiterated its holding in Buyer’s Service.

Statutes and South Carolina Constitution

  1. C. Code §40-5-310 makes it a felony for an individual to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  2. C. Code §40-5-320 makes it a misdemeanor for a corporation or other entity to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  3. C. Code §37-10-102 gives a borrower the absolute right to choose the closing attorney in a residential loan closing. The statute provides for a $7,500 penalty if the disclosure is not given.
  4. South Carolina’s Constitution gives the S.C. Supreme Court the exclusive right to define the practice of law within South Carolina

Practical Considerations

  1. The low cost attributable to attorneys’ fees for residential closings in South Carolina. Dave believed the low cost would present a major difficulty if a federal agency argues that South Carolina’s practice is anti-competitive or increased prices.
  2. Major job losses would possibly result from the outsourcing of jobs to closing centers outside of South Carolina
  3. Major risks would be raised in turning over the duties now performed by experienced lawyers to unregulated and inexperienced lay persons.

I’m not sure whether Dave would say differently if he were here to analyze this topic for us today. I fear that the retirement of Chief Justice Jean Toal may have resulted in the loss of the South Carolina lawyer’s strongest advocate in the South Carolina Supreme Court. So far, the Palmetto Logs are holding strong, but some more recent cases from our Supreme Court give me some concern on this topic.

In any event, I am continually thankful for Dave Whitener and his influence, mentorship and friendship to South Carolina dirt lawyers!

Abbeville fraud litigation leads to noteworthy arbitration case

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Supreme Court finds arbitration clause unenforceable against nonsignatories

Abbeville, SC

I found it hard to believe the South Carolina Supreme Court took 21 pages to hold an arbitration provision unenforceable against nonsignatories to the contract, but it did! In an April case involving insurance fraud in Abbeville County, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had relied on an equitable estoppel theory to bind individual insureds to a contract between an insurance agency and the insurance companies*.

The case arose out of numerous lawsuits brought by individual insureds against an insurance agent, Laura Willis, her broker, their agency and six insurance companies for which their offices sold policies. The suits alleged Willis engaged in fraudulent conduct including forging insurance documents and converting cash payments to her own use, resulting in the insureds having no coverage or reduced coverage. Two of the lawsuits were brought by other insurance agents, alleging Willis engaged in illegal business practices that effectively blocked them from the local market, resulting in a substantial loss of clients and revenue.

The other defendants were alleged to have failed to properly investigate, train and supervise Willis, especially after she was fined, publicly reprimanded and place on probation for dishonesty by the South Carolina Insurance Commission in 2011. Alternatively, Willis was alleged to have acted with express or implied permission of the other defendants.

A full year into the litigation, three of the insurance companies filed motions to compel arbitration and dismiss the lawsuits. The arbitration clause in question was contained in a 2010 agency contract signed by the insurance companies and the insurance agency. The theory was that the insureds were third-party beneficiaries to the contract or were equitably estopped from asserting their nonparty status. The Circuit Court denied the motion to compel arbitration, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding equitable estoppel should be applied to enforce arbitration against the nonsignatories because the individuals sought to benefit from other provisions in the agency agreement.

The Supreme Court stated that while arbitration is viewed favorably by the courts, it is predicated on an agreement to arbitrate because parties are waiving their fundamental right to access to the courts. The Court held that whether the provision is enforceable is a state law question, and that South Carolina has recognized several theories that could bind nonsignatories to arbitration agreements under general principles of contract and agency law, including (1) incorporation by reference, (2) assumption, (3) agency, (4) veil piercing/alter ego, and (5) estoppel.

The estoppel argument is based on a direct benefits theory in South Carolina. Under that theory, a nonsignatory may be compelled to arbitrate where the nonsignatory knowingly exploits the benefits of an agreement containing an arbitration clause and receives benefits flowing directly from the agreement.

In this case, according to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs did not allege a claim of breach of the contract, and they were not even aware of the existence of the contract until arbitration was sought a year into the litigation. In the Court’s view, the plaintiffs did not knowingly exploit and receive a direct benefit from the agency agreement. The Agreement was purely for the benefit of its parties, outlining their business relationship.

The Court also stated that equitable estoppel is ultimately a theory designed to prevent injustice, and it should be used sparingly. This litigation will continue!

And I’ve reduced the 21-page case to less than 600 words for your reading pleasure. You’re welcome!

Wilson v. Willis, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27879 (April 10, 2019)

South Carolina lawyers: “Reply All” is not always your friend!

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Don’t communicate with represented parties accidentally!

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“Ruh-roh”

There are numerous ways a lawyer can get into trouble with the Supreme Court, but inadvertently communicating with another lawyer’s client can be avoided simply by thinking before hitting “Reply All” in your email system.

Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-04 addressed this concern. The situation posed to the Ethics Advisory Committee was:

Factual Background: Lawyer A sends an email to Lawyer B and copies several people, including Lawyer A’s client. Lawyer A has not previously consented to Lawyer B contacting Lawyer A’s client and does not expressly do so in the email.

Question:  If Lawyer B receives an email from Lawyer A on which Lawyer A’s client is copied, may the lawyer “reply to all” – copying Lawyer A’s client with the response – without the express consent of Lawyer A?”

The Committee discussed Rule 4.2, SCRPC, which provides that in representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter unless the lawyer has consent of the other lawyer or is authorized to do so by law or a court order.

The purpose of the rule is to ensure proper functioning of the legal system by protecting a party who is represented by counsel from overreaching by other lawyers. The rule is also aimed at preventing interference in the lawyer-client relationship.

Two previous opinions discussed whether letters can be ethically mailed to opposing parties represented by counsel. Ethics Advisory Opinion 91-02 advised prosecutors to avoid copying criminal defendants on court appearance notifications without the consent of the defense attorney. Similarly, Ethics Advisory Opinion 93-16 advised plaintiffs’ lawyers to avoid copying defendants on settlement offers to defense counsel without the consent of defense counsel.

The Committee opined that copying an opposing party on email is prohibited in the same way sending a letter is prohibited, absent consent of opposing counsel. The question then became whether consent must be express or may be implied. The Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers indicates the consent may be implied: “An opposing lawyer may acquiesce, for example, by being present at a meeting and observing the communication. Similarly, consent may be implied rather than express, such as where such direct contact occurs routinely as a matter of custom, unless the opposing lawyer affirmatively protests.”

The North Carolina, Alaska and New York City Bar Committees had previously opined that, while this consent may be implied, the mere fact that an attorney copies a client on an email sent to opposing counsel does not, by itself, constitute implied consent to a response sent to both opposing lawyer and the opposing client. South Carolina’s Committee agreed.

The Committee stated, however, that consent to a “reply all” may sometimes be implied. The Committee indicated that whether the matter is adversarial is an important factor. Additionally consent may be implied if the email is about scheduling under circumstances whether the client’s availability is at issue along with counsels, if email conversations among counsel and sophisticated clients together are the normal course of dealing, or if the lawyer initially cc’d the client expressly invites a “reply all” response.

The Committee cautioned that the practice of copying a client by either “cc” or “bcc” when emailing opposing counsel poses the risk of revealing confidential information. The Committee said that the recipient of an email might not recognize all the names in a group email and might communicate with opposing client’s client inadvertently by using “reply all”.  For these reasons, the Committee said that it is generally unwise to “cc” a client on an email communication to opposing counsel.

The Committee summarized its opinion: “Absent consent of Lawyer A, Lawyer B may not communicate with Lawyer A’s client about the subject of the representation either directly or by copying Lawyer A’s client in an emails sent in response to Lawyer A’s email on which the client was copied. The mere fact that a lawyer copies his own client on an email does not, without more, constitute implied consent to a “reply to all” responsive email.

My advice? Use caution when hitting “reply all” in all circumstances! “Less is more” is a generally good rule to follow in email communications. I have actually heard that one lawyer may set up another lawyer by coping a client in email communications. Don’t be a victim!