Commercial lawyers: you’re not immune from fraud!

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This high-dollar scam was reported to our company

hacker mask

Our company publishes an excellent newsletter entitled “Fraud Insights”. The Editor, Lisa Tyler, National Escrow Administrator, deals mostly with residential transactions. It’s unusual for her to report on a scam involving a commercial transaction, but the edition that hit my in-box today outlines the story of a chilling scam involving a commercial transaction in New York. Fortunately, the scammers were not successful despite their best efforts.

Here are the facts. On April 10, 2019, an attorney at a large, prestigious New York City law firm sent a settlement services office in Lake Success, New York, a payoff letter for a private mortgage. The payoff letter said $1.7 million should be wired to a bank account in New Jersey.

The afternoon before the closing, the settlement office received an email purportedly from the payoff attorney’s office with revised payoff instructions for a bank in the Netherlands.

The closing was postponed for reasons not involving the loan payoff. When the closing was rescheduled, the settlement office emailed the lawyer and his assistant inquiring about the change in the wiring instructions. The responding email confirmed that the change was legitimate.

Reviewing the emails carefully, the closer noticed the domain name for the lawyer’s office contained an extra “s” beginning with emails dated April 16. The attorney’s email signature was also partially cutoff beginning April 16.

Two hours before the closing, the attorney’s assistant purportedly sent the closer an email asking if the wire had been sent. The closer did not want to alarm her that her email had been compromised, so he responded that the closing was happening shortly, and he would be in touch. The closer then searched the law firm by Internet and called the main telephone number, asking for the assistant directly. She answered the phone and said the original payoff letter was the only payoff letter, and she had not sent the recent email. She was, of course, alarmed.

She said her attorney was in court and she would relay the distressing information to him immediately. She was asked to refrain from using email for that notification because the emails were clearly being watched. Regardless, she emailed the attorney. At that point, the scammers were tipped off that their scheme had been uncovered.

While the legal assistant and the closer were discussing the situation by phone, the closer received another email purportedly from the assistant demanding that he call the lender to confirm the payoff information. Immediately following that exchange, a man called the closer office to confirm the altered wiring instructions.

At this point, everyone involved with the closing knew for sure that they were dealing with attempted fraud. The closing took place, but the payoff was accomplished via bank check.

The closer said his office tries to remain on the cutting edge of technology and industry news. His sharp eye in pinpointing the email discrepancies kept the closing from being another cybercrime news story. Commercial lawyers may feel somewhat insulated from the rampant cyber fraud that plagues residential practices, but this cautionary tale is an example of penetration into a sophisticated law firm. Be careful out there!

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Paying tribute to a giant of the SC Real Estate Bar

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Dave Whitener was a friend and mentor to us all

Have you ever tried to organize your old forms, seminar materials and documents only to start waxing nostalgic and ultimately getting absolutely nothing accomplished? That happened to me today.

I am sorely behind schedule writing an update to the Handbook for South Carolina Dirt Lawyers. I’m sure my name is “Mud” with Terry Burnett and Alicia Hutto, my good friends at the South Carolina Bar who are not very patiently waiting for results. I had a plan to get the update done in 2017 and again in 2018, but that never happened. I’ve been so busy with new initiatives at work that I didn’t even attempt to develop a plan to write an update in 2019. Now, I’m shooting for the date of my death or retirement, whichever comes earlier. Wish me luck!

Hugh Dave WhitenerBut today, I began to organize ancient materials in an attempt to breathe new life into this aged project. And I kept coming across the same name, my late, great friend, Dave Whitener. Why? Because Dave wrote and taught much of the subject matter I now need to address.

Dave was 70 years old when he died in 2014 after practicing commercial real estate and teaching law school in Columbia for many years. He was married to my friend, Tricia Wharton Whitener, who continues his good work today. Dave was not only an excellent practitioner and teacher, but he was also, as his obituary quips, “renowned as a raconteur whose stories made others happy”. He loved people and he loved the law. He loved talking to law students and lawyers and telling them memorable stories in an effort to keep them out of trouble.

Since keeping my fellow South Carolina dirt lawyers out of trouble is the mission of this blog, I’m finding that many of the lessons Dave taught are appropriate on my day of waxing nostalgic.

If a law student or lawyer called Dave with a disturbing current event that the caller said “rang a bell” from one of Dave’s ethics lectures, Dave would reply, “You’re hearing the dinner bell at the federal prison.” That would get the caller’s attention!  I thought of that quote when I came across a lecture from Dave entitled “Top Ten ‘You Betters’”.  I thought I’d share that list with this audience today because this particular top ten list will never go out of style for real estate practitioners.

Dave Whitener’s Top Ten “You Betters”

    1. You better not facilitate the unauthorized practice of law.
    2. You better do what you should be doing.
    3. You better know what you should be doing.
    4. You better be on time.
    5. Everything better be shown on the closing statement.
    6. Everything on the closing statement better be correct.
    7. You better communicate with your clients.
    8. You better understand the rules on conflicts of interest.
    9. You better remember that your trust account is sacred.
    10. You better train your staff properly.

 

 

I could editorialize about each item on the list, but I believe the simplicity of this list speaks volumes for today’s purposes. But if I were to write a chapter on each item on the list, my handbook would be complete.

stay tuned

Thank you, Dave, for your example. My next blog may be about Dave’s ten-point plan for defending the rights of South Carolina licensed practitioners to handle real estate closings. Watch this space! 

SC Court of Appeals provides lis pendens primer

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Termination on the merits is required for malicious prosecution claim

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A lis pendens is a handy tool for real estate lawyers. When litigation is brought affecting title to real estate, a lis pendens gives notice to third parties that sales, loans and construction draws should, most likely, come to a screeching halt until the issues affecting title are resolved.

Back in the days when I was in private practice, malicious prosecution claims arose relatively routinely when lis pendens were filed in cases where the title to real estate was not in question. That situation is the subject of a Court of Appeals case from early this year.*

The case involved Somerset Point at Lady’s Island, a subdivision in beautiful Beaufort County. The developer, Coosaw, and River City, one of the construction companies building homes in the subdivision, became involved in a dispute about design and construction standards. River City accused Coosaw of failing to enforce the standards with other builders, and Coosaw, in turn, accused River City of failing to comply with the standards.

River City brought suit in 2011 alleging causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and unfair trade practices. Coosaw counterclaimed and crossclaimed against River City for violating the design standards and sought a temporary injunction against continued construction. Coosaw also filed a lis pendens describing one property, Lot 16, in Somerset Point.

River City moved to strike the lis pendens on the ground that title to Lot 16 was not at issue. The master-in-equity agreed and struck the notice of lis pendens. On reconsideration, the master stated, in part, that striking the lis pendens would allow River City’s construction lender to resume providing construction draws and would allow River’s City’s project to be completed. Coosaw appealed but ultimately withdrew the appeal after River City’s sale of Lot 16 rendered the issue moot.

In late 2014, River City filed the lawsuit at issue, alleging causes of action for malicious prosecution and abuse of process based on Coosaw’s filing the lis pendens in the 2011 action. River City argued the cause of action for malicious prosecution was proper because the lis pendens had been terminated in its favor.

The Court of Appeals listed the elements of malicious prosecution to include termination of the proceedings in the plaintiff’s favor. River City argued that a lis pendens is an ancillary proceeding, and termination of an ancillary proceeding will support a malicious prosecution claim. The Court of Appeals held, however, that a lis pendens is not an ancillary proceeding but is simply a notice of the proceeding.

Citing earlier cases, the Court reviewed the law of lis pendens:

  • A lis pendens is a statutory doctrine designed to inform prospective purchasers or encumbrancers that a particular piece of property is subject to litigation.
  • A properly filed lis pendens binds subsequent purchasers or encumbrancers to all proceedings evolving from the litigation.
  • Generally, the filing of a lis pendens places a cloud on title which prevents the owner from freely disposing of the property before the litigation is resolved.
  • The lis pendens mechanism is not designed to aid either side in a dispute between private parties. Rather, the lis pendens is designed to protect third parties by alerting them of pending litigation that may affect title.
  • When no real property is implicated, no lis pendens should be filed.
  • A lis pendens is merely a form of pleading that does not provide any substantive right. It is simply a notice.

The Court held that the termination of a lis pendens to support a malicious prosecution cause of action must be a victory on the merits of the litigation, not a termination based solely on technical or procedural considerations. In the case at hand, the underlying merits remained pending after the termination of the lis pendens. The Court held that the subject action is, therefore, premature.

In short, the Court held that a maliciously filed lis pendens can act as the primary basis for a malicious prosecution claim, provided the plaintiff can establish a favorable termination of the lis pendens reflective of the merits of the underlying action.

*Gecy v. Somerset Point at Lady’s Island Homeowners Association, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5622 (January 30, 2019).

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!

business woman shocked computer

“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!

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.

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

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awendaw

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).