South Carolina Supreme Court issues final decision on Episcopal church real estate

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“This case is over” according to the court

Church schisms are tough in many ways, and the real estate issues are no exception. This week, the South Carolina Supreme Court filed an opinion* that it says finally resolves the real estate issues. In other words, the Court has decided who owns the real estate of the churches in dispute.

The dispute began in 2010 when the Lower Diocese of South Carolina, after doctrinal disputes, dissociated from the National Episcopal Church. The parties have been involved in extensive litigation in state and federal courts for the twelve years that have followed the dissociation. I am glad that I don’t have to figure out the doctrinal issues. The real estate issues are thorny enough.

My best advice to practicing real estate lawyers: when you are asked to close any transaction involving Episcopal church property, call your intelligent and friendly title insurance underwriter. In fact, call your underwriter when you deal with any church real estate transaction. They will stay current on the real estate issues involving churches.

The Court based its decision on which of the parishes adopted the national church’s “Dennis Cannon”. This church law provides that all real and personal property owned by a parish is held in trust for the national church.  The actions taken by each church with regard to the Dennis Cannon were examined.

Without belaboring the analysis, the following parishes will maintain their properties:

  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Pinopolis
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, Charleston
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Michael, Charleston
  • Church of the Cross, Inc., Bluffton
  • The Church of the Epiphany, Eutawville
  • The Vestry and Church Warden of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
  • Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Conway
  • The Church of the Resurrection, Surfside
  • The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Radcliffeboro
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bennettsville, Inc.
  • All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Inc., Florence
  • The Church of Our Savior of the Diocese of South Carolina, John’s Island
  • The Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg

The properties of the following parishes are held in trust for the National Church:

  • The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
  • The Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
  • St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Hartsville
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St John’s, John’s Island
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Jude’s Church of Walterboro
  • Saint Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
  • St. David’s Church, Cheraw
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Matthew (St. Matthews, Fort Motte)
  • The Vestries and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Andrew (Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston)
  • The Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg
  • Trinity Church of Myrtle Beach
  • Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Charleston
  • Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
  • St. James’ Church, James Island

I feel for all the parties involved. I am a United Methodist, and our international church authorities have been examining similar issues in recent years. We may see more church schism opinions in South Carolina and elsewhere. Stay in touch with your friendly title insurance company underwriter!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28095 (April 20, 2022).

Should closing attorneys issue opinion letters instead of title insurance?

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Fannie Mae just announced it will accept attorney’s opinion letters in lieu of title insurance policies to reduce closing costs. Is this good news for closing attorneys and their clients? Let’s discuss that issue.

When I was an associate in a law firm in the 1980’s, I was taught by the very smart lawyers who owned the firm that title insurance should be less expensive than attorneys’ opinion letters.  In other words, title insurance would protect everyone, the lender, the buyer, the seller, and even the closing attorney at a relatively nominal cost. The price of an attorney’s opinion (my opinion) would have to be commiserate with the liability directly assumed by the law firm through that letter. The very clear lesson was that I should issue title insurance, not opinion letters. And when a title opinion was demanded, I should charge a hefty fee for it.

I’ve taught law students and others that title insurance is the best choice for several reasons. First, attorneys are only responsible for their negligence, not hidden defects and mistakes in the public records. For example, I heard about a deed recorded in Greenville County where one person forged the signatures of eight individuals, including the witnesses and notary. Forgery is rarely evident on the face of the forged document. An attorney’s opinion of title would not cover that defect. Title insurance would. An attorney’s opinion would not cover a deed, mortgage, or set of restrictive covenants missed in a title examination because of mistaken indexing by a county employee. Title insurance would.

Second, attorneys die, move, are underinsured, allow their malpractice to expire and otherwise become unavailable when a title problem arises. Finally, statutes of limitations may come into play. Title insurance does not expire as long as the lender or owner has an interest in the property, including an interest arising from deed warranties. Title insurance shifts the risk of title defects from the property owner and lender, and, in a manner of speaking, from the closing attorney to a financially sound insurer.

Fannie Mae’s announcement said that acceptable opinion letters must come from properly licensed attorneys with malpractice insurance in an amount “commonly prevailing in the jurisdiction.” The letters must provide gap coverage. Every South Carolina title opinion I’ve seen takes a clear exception to matters arising after the date of the opinion. Fannie Mae will also require the letters to “state the title condition of the property is acceptable.” I’m not sure what that statement means, but I don’t believe I would give that unqualified opinion.

This news from Fannie May could be what politicians are calling a “nothing burger”. Freddie Mac issued a similar announcement two years ago, but that announcement has not had a major impact on the way lawyers and title insurers do business.

Let’s wait and see what happens. But, in the meantime, I don’t advise my friends who close real estate transactions to start issuing title opinions instead of title insurance.

SC courts will overturn tax sales on the flimsiest of technicalities

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But apparently not when the claimant has no interest in the property

South Carolina courts don’t respect tax sales!

For that reason, tax sales have always been problematic for title examiners and real estate closing attorneys. Any concern about service of process or naming proper parties can result in the return the property to the owner of record. Historically, we would simply not close in the face of a tax sale in the chain of title.

In recent years, title insurance companies and real estate lawyers have attempted to take a more liberal approach. A rule of thumb might be that a tax sale that is at least ten years old where one person or entity has held title for a ten-year period since the tax sale may not result in an aborted closing. The title may not be marketable, but it may be insurable.

A recent Court of Appeals case* made me laugh. (Remember I am an easily amused title nerd.) The plaintiff, Scott, was “renting to own” the property in question under a 1998 oral agreement with her uncle, McAlister. Scott took possession of the property after making an initial down payment of $4,000 and agreeing to pay the remaining $31,000 purchase price in monthly installments of $300. That’s her story, at least. McAlister testified that Scott agreed to obtain a loan to make a second payment of $31,000.

After Scott failed to make the $31,000 payment, McAlister told Scott that her monthly payments would be considered rent only, and the parties agreed to reduce the monthly payment to $200. In 2007, McAlister began eviction proceedings, but the circuit court vacated the order of ejectment when Scott asserted that she occupied the property under a land purchase agreement. McAlister moved and changed the mailing address for tax purposes. The taxes for 2011 were never paid, and the property was sold in a tax sale in 2012.

Scott claimed she was unaware of the mailing address change, the delinquent taxes, the tax sale or the opportunity to redeem the property until the purchaser’s surveyor showed up! In 2015, Scott filed a complaint alleging that tax sale technicalities were not followed because notices were never posted on the property. The tax collector claimed her office posted the property notice on the property in August of 2012.

The circuit court granted summary judgment after it determined Scott lacked standing and that the tax authorities owed her no duties because she was not the record taxpayer, property owner or grantee. The Court of Appeals cited cases for the proposition that a tax execution is issued against the defaulting taxpayer, not against the property. The summary judgment decision was upheld on the theory that while due process is owed to a property owner, it is not owed to a person who whose only interest is based on an oral agreement.

I love it when our appeals courts answer real estate questions correctly. Overturning this tax sale would have resulted in serious consequences for title examiners and closing attorneys!

*Scott v. McAlister, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5897 (March 9, 2022)

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!

Can mortgage lenders force arbitration on consumers?

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Fourth Circuit says no in a published opinion

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)

First Ethics Advisory Opinion of 2022 discusses “Land Title Dispute” email

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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.

Charleston ROD litigation reaches temporary resolution

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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 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!

Here’s a great idea!

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The official who records our deeds should not be selected via popularity contest!

I’m all about the democratic process. But when it comes to the Register of Deeds, I believe that person should be appointed locally based on a very specific skill set. Popularity and politics should have nothing to do with choosing the appropriate person to handle the very meticulous administrative process that deals with recording public documents.

Apparently, the Executive Committee of the Charleston County Bar Association wants to take action to make sure the ROD for Charleston County is qualified. Take a look at this letter that body wrote to County Council on January 19.

If you follow this blog, you know that the Finkel Firm has brought suit against the Charleston County ROD asking for a writ of mandamus based on the horrific lag involved with recording documents in that county. This letter provides additional evidence that something is terribly wrong in the Charleston County ROD office, and action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.

As this letter points out, South Carolina is a race notice state. If our deeds, mortgages and other documents are not recorded in a timely manner and in the proper order, then the proper priorities among parties is thrown to the wind. The rights of parties relating to real property are based on when the documents establishing those rights are properly recorded.

The letter lists eighteen counties where the RODs are currently appointed. The letter also states that no constitutional provision or statutory edict requires an election in this case.

What do you think? Should the Register of Deeds be appointed by County Council?