A recorded power of attorney may not be necessary to establish agency where real estate is involved

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In a recent South Carolina Court of Appeals case*, a mother was held to be bound by the actions of her wheeler-dealer son who appeared to act in her behalf buying and selling properties in Laurens County.

Frank Lollis lived with and took care of his mother, Kathleen Lollis, and managed real estate transactions for the family. The attorney who handled these transactions testified that he saw Frank sign his mother’s name and that he thought he recalled Frank showing him a power of attorney.

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Lisa and Dennis Dutton, plaintiffs in this case, suing to enforce contracts Frank signed, testified that Frank had said he had a power of attorney. At trial, following Frank’s death, Mrs. Lollis denied the existence of the power of attorney.

Lisa Dutton testified that she had known Frank for nineteen years and had done a lot of real estate business with him and his family. She said that all of the locations where she had lived for the ten years prior to the trial were related to the Lollis family and every time she purchased property that was titled in Mrs. Lollis’ name, she dealt with Frank and his attorney. She said she “never had an issue” until she tried to obtain a deed to enforce a contract at issue in this case.

Frank’s attorney testified that Frank did a lot of his business in cash and always carried a lot of cash. Frank typically bought property in other individuals’ names and signed their names to documents, including not only his mother, but a former employee. The attorney signed an affidavit to the effect that Frank explained his “checkered past” required him to operate in the names of other individuals. The affidavit further stated that Mrs. Lollis knew Frank titled properties in her name.

Frank was diagnosed with cancer, and when he became increasingly ill, he asked his attorney to prepare a power of attorney for his mother naming his sister as the attorney-in-fact. After Frank’s death, the Duttons unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the deed to consummate the contract Frank had signed in his mother’s behalf. This lawsuit followed.

The case contains a detailed discussion of the law of agency in South Carolina. Real estate lawyers should know that their clients can become bound by their actions even in the absence of a recorded power of attorney because agency is a question of fact that does not necessarily depend upon an express appointment and acceptance.

An agency relationship is frequently implied or inferred from the words and conduct of the parties and the circumstances of the particular case. The Court of Appeals stated that agency may be proved circumstantially by the conduct of the purported agent exhibiting a pretense of authority with the knowledge of the principal.

The doctrine of apparent authority provides that the principal is bound by the acts of his agent when he has placed the agent in such a position that persons of ordinary prudence, reasonably knowledgeable with business usages and customs, are led to believe the agent has authority and they can deal with the agent based on that assumption.

This rule is based on public policy and convenience to provide safety for third parties.  In this case, the attorney testified that the mother was “fully aware that Frank was buying and selling property in her name” and was “transacting business in her name.” Lisa and her husband testified that Mrs. Lollis was present when they made some payments to Frank. Mrs. Lollis never objected and even retrieved the receipt book for Frank on a few occasions.

Lisa testified (1) Frank told her he had a power of attorney; (2) Lisa relied on Frank’s representation; and (3) she would not have entered into the contract and made payments had she known Mrs. Lollis would not acknowledge the existence of the contract. Dennis testified that (1) he believed Frank was acting on his mother’s behalf; (2) he relied on the course of dealing established in a number of transactions; and (3) if he had known Mrs. Lollis was not going to honor the contract, he would not have entered into it nor made payments.

The Court said that Mrs. Lollis’ knowledge that her son was buying and selling real estate in her name and her tacit acceptance of this practice placed Frank in such a position that the plaintiffs were led to believe he had the authority to act. The plaintiffs dealt with Frank based on that assumption. The preponderance of the evidence, according to the Court, shows an agency relationship between Mrs. Lollis and Frank as well as his apparent authority to sell. Frank’s actions were binding on his mother.

*Lollis v. Dutton, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5522 (November 1, 2017)

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Is your client in the market for timber?

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Here’s what you’ll need to know to get started

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It’s always good to start with the law. In South Carolina, the case is, believe it or not, a 1938 grand larceny case.* It turns out that stealing standing timber is not grand larceny because standing timber is considered to be a fixture. The proper charge would be trespass.

Once the timber is severed from the real estate, however, it can be the subject of a grand larceny charge. What happens, you ask, if the criminal himself severs the timber and carries it away in a continuous act? That, my friends, is grand larceny. Even the South Carolina Supreme Court suggested this distinction may be subtle and illogical.

Now that we have exhausted my knowledge of subtle and illogical criminal law, let’s look at a few things dirt lawyers can understand. We draw from this case the proposition that standing timber is real estate in South Carolina.

Timber, like all real estate, should be conveyed by a deed. A seller might also reserve timber in a deed of the real estate to a third party. This would be similar to reserving an easement or reserving mineral rights.

The definition of “land” in a title insurance policy would include the timber growing on the land because the fee simple title holder owns all the physical elements (the “bundle of rights”, as we learned in law school) of the land. To insure land where the timber has been reserved, an exception would be taken for the timber.

From time to time, a title insurance company may be asked to insure timber. Only standing timber is insurable. Downed, fallen or cut trees would become personal property and no longer insurable in a title insurance policy. It might be problematic to insure future growth, trees seeded after a conveyance and timber sold expressly as “perpetual”. Consult your title insurance company before you get down into those weeds, so to speak.

Be careful about access issues. Timber roads are notoriously tricky, so pay careful attention to the description and ownership of real estate where the road is located. Often, GPS descriptions may be used to describe timber roads. Your client must be able to access the timber legally. The deed should grant the rights to cut and transport timber as well as the right of access.

Be careful about survey issues. You will typically not insure the acreage, and you may, again, face the problem of only having a GPS description. You might be the bad guy who has to require a survey.

You will typically take exception to the rights of others to use the land, as well as the terms and conditions of the timber deed.

Finally, determine whether a separate tax bill exists for the timber in order to prorate the correct tax amount.

You will likely want to involve your friendly title insurance company underwriter early and often if you become involved in a timber transaction.

 

 * State v. Collins, 288 S.C. 338, 199 S.E. 303 (1938).

SC Supreme Court tells Kentucky lawyer what she’s NOT gonna do….

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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 last year. 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 kept coming to me as I read In the Matter of McKeever, a September 20, 2017 South Carolina disciplinary case where a Kentucky lawyer was permanently debarred from seeking any form of admission to practice law (including pro hac vice admission) in South Carolina.

The Court clearly told McKeever what she’s NOT gonna do in the Palmetto State!

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McKeever engaged in several interesting and dangerous courses of action in South Carolina. One of the most damaging to her position seemed to be failing to respond to the disciplinary charges or to participate in the disciplinary proceedings in any way. The Court held this failure to be indicative of a disinterest in the law. No lawyer should ever be found to be disinterested in the law if she wants to continue to practice in this or any state!

Other activities were equally dangerous. McKeever and her husband left Kentucky in the midst of a foreclosure of their $1 million home loan. She arrived in Charleston and came into contact with Betty McMichael who owned two properties, 991 Governors Road where she resided, and 986 Governors Road, which she rented out.

McMichael faced foreclosure on both properties, and McKeever offered her legal representation despite not being licensed in South Carolina. McMichael repeatedly declined the offer but ultimately agreed to an arrangement, after repeated phone calls and visits, that allowed McKeever and her family to live at 986 Governors Road.

I hear the Supreme Court say, “what you’re NOT gonna do is to enter into an improper fee arrangement where the scope of the legal representation and the basis of the fee are not clearly explained to the client.) I also hear the Court say, “what you’re NOT gonna do is to create a conflict of interest by taking a possessory interest in property that is the subject of litigation.”

Later McKeever induced McMichael to execute a quitclaim deed in favor of Bondson Holdings, a “fictitious entity” owned by McKeever and her husband. (I can’t even put to paper the words the Court really wanted to use for this bit of deception.)

The saga continued with delay tactics, frivolous and meritless legal positions, false statements to courts, threatened civil actions and criminal prosecutions against opposing counsel, the presiding judge and the clerk of court. The Court was not amused and, in addition to the permanent debarment, reserved the right to void the deed after other proceedings involving the property are finally resolved.

I recommend the case as interesting reading in classic hutzpah and failing to follow any rules.

CFPB announces top TRID mistakes

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cfpb-logoWe’re learning for the first time what the CFPB considers the top mistakes being made by lenders in mortgage originations under TRID. CFPB’s September 2017 Supervisory Highlights reports on the Bureau’s first round of mortgage origination compliance examinations. Prior to these examinations, the Bureau refused to provide a grace period for lender compliance but stated publicly that it would be sensitive to the progress made by lenders who focused on making good faith efforts to comply with the rule.

Some of these mistakes may be attributed, at least from the viewpoint of the lenders who were pinpointed by CFPB, to settlement service providers (real estate lawyers in South Carolina), so we should pay close attention to this list. Failure to pay attention to it may place some of us squarely on lenders’ naughty lists.

This report indicates most lenders were able to effectively implement and comply with the rule changes, but the examiners did find some violations. The following list contains the most common mistakes:

  • Amounts paid by the consumers at closings exceeded the amounts disclosed on the Loan Estimates beyond the applicable tolerance thresholds;
  • The entity or entities failed to retain evidence of compliance with the requirements associated with Loan Estimates;
  • The entity or entities failed to obtain and/or document the consumers’ intent to proceed with the transactions prior to imposing fees in connection with the consumers’ applications;
  • Waivers of the three-day review period did not contain bona fide personal financial emergencies;
  • The entity or entities failed to provide consumers with a list identifying at least one available settlement service provider in cases where the lender permits consumers to shop for settlement services;
  • The entity or entities failed to disclose the amounts payable into an escrow account on the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure when consumers elected to escrow taxes and insurance;
  • Loan Estimates did not include dates and times at which estimated closing costs expire; and
  • The entity or entities failed to properly disclose on the Closing Disclosures fees the consumers paid prior to closing.

The report boasts that the CFPB examiners worked in a collaborative manner with one or more of the entities to identify the root causes of the violations and to determine appropriate corrective actions, including reimbursements to consumers.

The report also covered the Bureau’s supervisory activities outside the mortgage origination arena and indicated nonpublic supervisory resolutions have resulted in total restitution payments of approximately $14 million to more than 104,000 consumers during the review period (January through June, 2017). The CFPB also touted resolutions of public enforcement actions resulting in about $1.15 million in consumer remediation and an additional $1.75 million in civil penalties during the review period.

Despite the notion that the CFPB may be in disfavor in the Trump administration, it remains a powerful body in our industry. Compliance with its directives is crucial to remain in the residential closing business at this point.

What should dirt lawyers do about the Equifax data breach?

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Protect yourself! Advise your clients!

Everyone should have heard about the Equifax data breach at this point, but have you taken any action to protect yourselves and your clients in the face of it?

Equifax has created a website that allows individuals to determine whether their information has been compromised and allows them to sign up for a free year of credit monitoring. Originally, the fine print on this site indicated taking advantage of the free-year credit monitoring service would result in a waiver of legal rights against the company, but I understand the company folded under extreme pressure and removed this language. In any event, please read the fine print since it is apparently changing as this story unfolds.

This website indicated my information had been stolen as well as my husband’s and several colleagues at work. I recommend that you check here to find out whether you need to take further action.

security unlocked data breach

What action should you take?  I am already a member of a credit monitoring service, so I did not sign up for the free year with Equifax. Regardless, I prefer to keep my legal rights intact. I may need those rights! You may decide to take advantage of the service. You may decide to bite the bullet and sign up for an independent credit monitoring service, and you may decide to remain with that service for more than a year.

What else can be done? I have read many news articles and opinion pieces on this matter and decided to have my credit reports frozen with TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.  You may want to take that action, too, so I have linked those websites for you.

Consider this. If your name, address and social security numbers were compromised, this information is not going to change and the potential financial devastation is not going to resolve itself in the span of one year. Everyone who was compromised will need to be vigilant about checking and credit card accounts indefinitely.

As a real estate lawyer, you may want to advise your clients, as a service to them, about this conundrum and the actions they may be able to take to protect themselves. You may also want to reach out to your real estate agents and lender contacts to ask them to spread the word. Assuming a leadership role in this situation will serve those who rely on you well and will set you apart as a professional who works diligently to protect those who need protection.

The Episcopal Church case is out; It will take more than faith to deed, mortgage and insure church properties

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Today, I am thankful to be a real estate lawyer. As I attempt to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2,* my mission is limited to the real estate issues.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains, but I am attempting here to boil those issues down to a manageable few words for all of us.

charleston episcopal churches

St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Episcopal Churches, Downtown Charleston, SC 

 

News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant.  I assume a petition for rehearing will ensue as well as an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began five years ago when 39 local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

Wednesday’s ruling upholds the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. It also orders the breakaway group to return 29 properties to the national church. Seven parishes may maintain their independence.

The position of the properties turns on whether the local parishes agreed to be bound by the “Dennis Canon” which was enacted in 1979 and provided, in effect, that real property of a parish is held in trust for the national church and the local Diocese, subject to the power of the local parish over the property, so long as the parish remains a part of the national church and Diocese. No evidence was found in the records of the seven parishes that those parishes ever agreed to be bound by the Dennis Canon. The other 29 properties were the subject of documentation to the effect that the local churches intended to hold the property in trust for the denomination. The opinion did not uphold the Dennis Canon in and of itself. Explicit recognition of the Canon was required.

That, in short, is the impact of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need to watch for a possible rehearing, appeal periods and a potential settlement. In the meantime, we will sit tight and not involve ourselves in sales and mortgages of these properties.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I am always thankful to be a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

The Quicken decision is out

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It’s not what dirt lawyers wanted or expected

The South Carolina Supreme Court never ceases to amaze when it decides real estate cases. Dirt lawyers seldom know what to expect. We read the precedents. We attend the hearings. We listen to the Justices’ questions. We believe we get a glimpse of what they may be thinking. But we miss the mark. Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided the much anticipated Quicken case*, and if I had predicted the top five possible outcomes, I would not have come close to the actual decision.

I fully expected a 3-2 decision in either direction. But it is a 5-0 strongly written decision. It is a decision that was written to dispose of the controversy. It is a decision that was written to deny the possibility of reconsideration.

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This is an unauthorized practice of law case brought in the Court’s original jurisdiction. The case was assigned to Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein as Special Referee to take evidence and issue a report. Judge Goodstein held a two-week trial and issued a report finding, essentially, that no South Carolina licensed lawyer quarterbacked (my word) the mostly Internet-based residential refinance closings. In the facts recited in Judge Goodstein’s report, lawyers were peripherally involved in all of the steps required by State v. Buyers Service Co.** and its progeny, but no lawyer was actually involved in a way that the interest of the borrower was protected.

(Summarizing the prior decisions, the steps requiring lawyers are: (1) document preparation; (2) title search; (3) closing; (4) recording; and (5) disbursement.)

The Supreme Court somehow reviewed the same record and found that lawyers were involved and used their professional judgment in each step. The facts recited in the Court’s decision were not recognizable from the facts recited by Judge Goodstein’s report. The Court completely rejected the report and apparently decided that a finding of UPL under the circumstances would “mark an unwise and unnecessary intrusion into the marketplace”. “Simply put,” the Court stated, “we believe requiring more attorney involvement in cases such as this would belie the Court’s oft-stated assertion that UPL rules exist to protect the public, not lawyers.”

Most South Carolina dirt lawyers were hoping the Court would find a South Carolina licensed lawyer must be at the center of each closing, overseeing each step, and insuring that the consumer client’s interests were protected in each step. That is definitely not what we got.

There is, however, some good news in this decision. The Court made the clearest implication to date (without an explicit holding) that Buyers Service and its progeny may not apply in the commercial arena. The Court repeatedly stated that the context of this case is the residential refinance arena. I have discussed this case with several commercial lawyers to ascertain whether they are now comfortable to forego certifications that other South Carolina licensed lawyers are involved in the closing steps that are not under their control. They seem to feel slightly more comfortable, but not comfortable enough to let go of that step. Perhaps the passage of time will help.

Other good news is that, despite the facts recited by Judge Goodstein to the contrary, the Court clearly stated that lawyers were involved and used their professional judgment in each required step. The out-of-state entities who do business here should make sure their processes include this professional judgment in each step of the closing.

After reading this case a dozen times, I’ve decided that no law has changed. Nothing will change in our local processes. Nothing will likely change dramatically in the processes of the out-of-state entities who do business here. If I had not read Judge Goodstein’s report and if I had not attended the Supreme Court’s hearing, I would probably not be shocked with this result.

I would love hear what you think.

*Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc., South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27727, July 19, 2017

** State v. Buyers Serv. Co., 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987)