South Carolina lawyers: We have a new UPL case

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scales of justice small

This blog is about dirt, and the facts of the new unauthorized practice of law case do not involve real estate, but who among us doesn’t like to keep up with what our Supreme Court is thinking about UPL, the topic we believe can make us or break us at any moment?

The case, Westbrook v. The Murkin Group, LLC*, was decided March 18 and involved a Florida company that provides debt collection services in exchange for contingency fees. The Murkin Group advertises itself as having “in-house collection specialists”. Under the terms of its agreement with clients, once an account is turned over to Murkin, the client agrees to cease all communication with the debtor and to allow Murkin to be the sole point of contact. The agreement further authorizes Murkin to forward accounts to an attorney designated by Murkin when legal action is required.

In 2017, Wando River Grill became dissatisfied with its linen supplier, Cintas, and suspended its services. Cintas claimed the suspension constituted a breach of contract and invoked a liquidated damages provision in the contract, seeking more than $8,000 in damages. Cintas hired Murkin to collect the debt.  A South Carolina licensed attorney represented the restaurant in the dispute.

Murkin sent a demand letter, and the parties began to communicate about the dispute via email. Murkin claimed Cintas would waive its damages claim if the restaurant paid a “one-time processing fee for reinstatement”. Murkin prepared and sent the reinstatement agreement to the restaurant with signature lines for the restaurant and “The Murkin Group, on behalf of Cintas Corporation – Charleston, SC.”

The restaurant sent the proposed reinstatement agreement to the Petitioner, its lawyer, Edward Westbrook. Westbrook contacted Murkin and asked to discuss the matter directly with Murkin’s South Carolina counsel. The response was, “Whether or not this gets forwarded to local counsel is a decision which out office will make, with our client, when we feel it appropriate.”

(I can only imagine how that comment was received!)

The dispute continued, and Westbrook emailed Murkin asking for the South Carolina Bar numbers of several Murkin employees. Westbrook then filed a declaratory judgment action pursuant to our Supreme Court’s request that individuals who become aware of UPL bring a declaratory judgment action in the Court’s original jurisdiction.

The Court referred the matter to a special referee who filed a report recommending that the Court find Murkin’s actions constituted UPL.

The Supreme Court held that Murkin engaged in UPL when it interpreted Cintas’ client agreement and gave legal opinions as to what damages were recoverable. It also engaged in UPL when it sought to negotiate the contract dispute and advised Cintas on settlement.

While Murkin characterized its actions as “debt collection”, the Court stated that the true nature of the underlying matter is a contract dispute. The Court enjoined Murkin from engaging in any further such conduct.

 

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27952 (March 18, 2020).

HOA threatens to fine members over negative social media comments

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Living in a community with a homeowners’ association is not always for the faint of heart. My husband and I attended our very first (and what turned out to be our last) annual meeting when we bought a new property several years ago.

A kindly looking older gentleman raised his hand to ask what appeared to us to be an innocuous question, and the president immediately threatened to have him escorted from the meeting. There were audible gasps…two from the Mannings in attendance. There was never a public explanation of what had just happened, but there was a lot of post-meeting gossip and sniping.

We’ve learned a lot about the personalities of the other property owners since that meeting. One thing we know for sure is to never step between this kindly looking gentleman and his kindly looking female neighbor across the street. It’s not a safe place to be. We don’t even drive our golf cart down the street that separates their houses. (I’m kidding, but we do laugh about that meeting when we drive down that road.)

One lesson we learned for sure is that retired folks who formerly had high-powered jobs up north can be prickly when it comes to their properties. And they have lots of time on their hands to manage things.

We decided we would be good neighbors. We would pay our assessments on time, keep our property clean and up to neighborhood standards, join in clean-up efforts and generally be happy and friendly neighbors.

But we decided we would never actively participate in the governance of the owners’ association.

Some homeowners in a community in Phoenix, Arizona have probably decided on the same course of action. Apparently, board elections got heated in the Val Vista Lakes community, and the neighbors engaged in a heated debate on social media, specifically on the association’s Facebook page. The debate included topics concerning the qualifications of the individual candidates and how the association was spending money.

The administrator of the Facebook page has apparently been instructed to take down the negative comments. But, more drastically, the Val Vista Lakes owners’ association sent out a letter threatening to fine residents as much as $250 per day for posting negative comments on social media.

Some residents have claimed this action would result in censorship.

What do you think, lawyers? Would this fine be enforceable in South Carolina? Would we need to read the formative documents to determine whether the association has the power to levy this fine? Would any of us want to live in that community?

Padding legal bills leads to suspension of South Carolina lawyer

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The South Carolina Supreme Court meted out discipline to a lawyer in terms of a definite three-year suspension on January 22.* Three straightforward reasons for the suspension are highlighted by the very short opinion:

  1. The lawyer fell behind on his billable hours and falsified his time;
  2. The lawyer was not always truthful with clients regarding their cases in an attempt to cover for his uncompleted work; and
  3. The lawyer falsified expense reports. Specifically, he altered hotel and airline bills to receive reimbursement for trips that were not made and client dinners that did not occur.

The opinion details that the lawyer padded his time by more than 35 hours and his expense reports by more than $5,000.

I don’t know about you, but I find these sums shockingly small. I don’t mean the lawyer should not have been disciplined. The punishment clearly fits the crime in my mind. Rather, it seems to me that putting a license to practice at law at risk for such minor sums is a colossal act of inanity.

The time and effort each of us puts into obtaining the privilege to practice law should encourage all of us to follow the rules. Some of the rules are not intuitive. Some of them are indisputably difficult to understand and remember. But the rules this lawyer broke are the simplest of all and breaking them can be described by one word: dishonesty.

I remember the first time I handled a closing for more than $20 million way back in the 1980s. I joked that I knew then that I would never dip into my trust account. In retrospect, that was a terrible joke. None of us should ever think for a moment that we can “borrow” from our trust accounts, no matter how small or how large the number.

But facing a three-year suspension for $5,000 and 35 billable hours is inconceivable.

Be smart and safe out there, lawyer friends!

 

*In the Matter of Sloan, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27936 (January 22, 2020)

Recent HOA foreclosure case leads to new rule in Beaufort County

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Master imposes rule based on Chief Justice Beatty’s concurring opinion

foreclosure notice

This blog recently discussed the remarkable homeowners’ association foreclosure case, Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, 2019.) You can read the earlier blog here.

The case focused on the inadequacy of the foreclosure sales price and the business model of a third party to leverage a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear eviction. I believe the case will require HOA foreclosure attorneys to rethink their approach going forward.

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beatty said he would go a step further than the majority opinion and adopt the equity method of determining an adequate sales price for residential property in a foreclosure. The equity method compares the winning bid price to the equity in the property. The alternative debt method compares the total debt on the property to its fair market value.

The majority opinion stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but a search of our South Carolina’s jurisprudence reveals that our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does. In this case, the debt method would have resulted in a ratio of 53.9 percent, while the equity method would have resulted in a ratio of 4.9%.

The new rule of the Beaufort County Master-in-Equity Marvin Dukes focuses on a totally separate issue in the case. The homeowners, who were in default, did not receive a notice of the date and time of the foreclosure sale. Judge Dukes’ office disseminated a message to foreclosure attorneys requiring new wording in foreclosure orders.

The new required wording entitled “Special Default Foreclosure Order and Sale Notice Service Instructions” reads as follows:

That, in addition to all notices to the property owner(s) which are required by the  SCRCP or other law, in a case involving property owner’s SCRPC 55 default, or any other case or circumstances where property owner(s) would not ordinarily receive a copy of the Order of Foreclosure and/or Notice of Sale, the party seeking foreclosure (Foreclosing Party) shall, within 5 (five) days of the execution of this Order cause this Order and Notice of Sale (if available) to be served by US Mail upon said property owner(s).

An affidavit of such service shall be filed with the Clerk of Court expeditiously.

In cases where the Notice of Sale is executed later in time than the Order, service shall be accomplished separately, and shall be sent no later than 5 (five) days from receipt by the Foreclosing Party.”

I suspect additional guidance will be coming from our courts about whether the Winrose case will have broad application in foreclosure cases or be limited to its facts. I’m confident foreclosure attorneys feel they need more information.

Representing a subcontractor and a homeowner against the contractor. Is it ethical?

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Please take a look at South Carolina Bar Ethics Advisory Opinion 19-05 here. This blog rarely touches litigation, primarily because the litigation knowledge of this blogger would fit easily on the head of a pin. But this EAO does affect real estate, and I can envision dirt lawyers getting themselves into this ethical conundrum, so here goes.

The facts are simple:  The attorney represents a subcontractor against a contractor regarding payment for work performed on a new home. The time for filing a mechanics’ lien has run, and the contractor has been paid in full. The homeowners want to retain the attorney to represent them to sue the contractor for breach of contract and negligently performed construction work. The homeowners’ claims do not appear to involve the work of the subcontractor.

The attorney is concerned that the contractor may not have sufficient assets to satisfy judgments of both parties.

So, the question becomes whether the attorney may ethically represent both parties.

The Ethics Advisory Committee provides the framework for consideration, but leaves the difficult analysis to the attorney.

The short answer is: The attorney may represent both parties provided the attorney analyses the prospective representation under Rule 1.7, SCRPC, and then considers whether the “material limitation” conflicts section in section (a)(2) may apply.

The attorney must also evaluate the risk of future availability of assets and should engage in a course of ongoing assessment for conflicts, particularly those that may arise if the claims are reduced to judgments and the clients dispute their recovery amounts relative to each other.

Rule 1.7 provides:

  • Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a current conflict of interest. A current conflict of interest exists if:
  • The representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or (2) there is significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third party or by a personal interest of the lawyer.
  • Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:
  • the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;
  • the representation is not prohibited by law;
  • the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and
  • each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

 

 

(I added the emphasis.)

The material limitation of (a)(2) is the primary concern. Given the attorney’s concern about the sufficiency of the assets of the contractor to satisfy judgments, the attorney must evaluate whether that potential risk may materially limit his ability to represent either party.

The Committee eliminated (b)(2) and (b)(3) from consideration based on comments to the rule.

The analysis boils down to (b)(1) and (b)(4): the attorney’s assessment of whether he can provide competent and diligent representation to both parties and whether they consent to the representation after being informed of the benefits and risks of joint representation, particularly of the possibility of inadequate assets and the possibility of needing new counsel should they dispute recovery between themselves.

What do you think? Would you do it?

SC Supreme Court may have eradicated HOA foreclosures

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Third party bid was held grossly inadequate

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On December 18, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided a case that will force homeowners’ association attorneys to carefully consider whether they will initiate foreclosure actions in the future*. This blog discussed the Court of Appeals case last April. You can read that blog here but the very short version is that the Court of Appeals did not upset any apple carts and left the foreclosure process status quo.

The facts are simple. Mr. and Mrs. Hale bought their home in Richland County in 1998 for $104,250. In the next 20+ years, they built up $60,000 in equity, and the property now has a fair market value of $128,000.

In 2011, the Hales fell behind on their homeowners’ association payments. The HOA initiated a foreclosure complaint seeking a sale of the property in exchange for $566.41 in principal and interest. The Hales defaulted.

Interestingly, after the affidavit of default was filed, the HOA sent the Hales a bill for $250, which they paid. Also interestingly, the law firm representing the HOA sent the Hales a notice that the lien had been satisfied.

Three months after the HOA filed the affidavit of default, the Master entered a default judgment, calculating the amount due to the HOA as $2,898.67, comprised of $250 in principal, $80.87 in interest, $542.80 in litigation costs and $2,025 in attorneys’ fees. The property was sold at auction two weeks later to a third party, Regime Solutions, LLC.

This is the Hale’s explanation of the facts in their motion to vacate the sale:

“When we were served with the lawsuit to take away our home, I put the papers in a drawer and forgot about them. Some time after that, we received a bill from the HOA asking for the $250.00. I paid that without a problem. In November, we received a letter from the law firm of (the HOA) telling us that the Lien had been Satisfied…I thought that everything was OK after that. The next thing I know, someone is knocking on my door telling me that they bought my home and that me and my family were being evicted.”

The Master denied the Hales’ motion and adopted the position that the “effective sales price” was $69,040, consisting of the successful bid plus the balance of the mortgage. In his order, Richland County’s Master-in-Equity, Joseph Strickland, stated that “the practice of homeowners’ association foreclosures would effectively be eradicated if (the Hale’s) position came to bear.”

The appeal was handled by the law office of my friend, Brian Boger, a Columbia lawyer and well-known champion of consumers’ rights. The appeal argued that the $3,036 bid “shocked the conscience” and violated equitable principles.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Chief Justice Lockemy dissented, saying:

“A buyer at a judicial sale in which a senior lienholder is not a party takes the property subject to that lien, but the buyer is not responsible for its payment. The evidence in this cases shows (the Hales) have continued to pay the mortgage for a home for which they have no title because they will suffer the severe consequences of default if they do not. The buyer (Regime) has paid nothing. I do not believe it proper to give a judicial sale buyer credit for assuming a debt which is not legally required to pay.”

The Supreme Court seemed truly troubled by Regime’s business model. In a footnote, the Court stated that Regime either allows the senior mortgagee to (re)foreclose on the property or quitclaims the property to the original homeowners for a hefty fee. The Court seemed to be disturbed by Regime’s failure to assume mortgages in the ordinary course of its business.

The Court discussed two methods to calculate whether a bid price is so grossly inadequate as to shock the conscience. The debt method is a ratio comparing the total debt on the property to the fair market value. Under the debt method, Regime would have paid 53.9% of the value of the property. The equity method is a ratio comparing the winning bid price to the equity in the property. Under the equity method, Regime would have paid 4.9% of the value of the property.

The Court stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but that a search of our jurisprudence reveals our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does.

The Court stated that when the foreclosure purchaser assumes the mortgage, the debt method should be used. But the court rejected the blind application of the debt method because of the facts in this case. Under these facts, the Court stated, applying the equity method is the only logical option.

The Court expressed concern about the foreclosure proceeding itself, stating that it morphed in to “a proxy to capitalize on a small debt”. The Court said it was especially troubled by Regime’s participation in a foreclosure proceeding to accommodate its business model of leveraging a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear the prospect of an eviction. The Court said, “We do not countenance the improper use of foreclosure proceedings by the HOA, its attorney or Regime.”

The decision should not be read as a shift toward providing relief to homeowners despite their own poor choices, according to the Court. The Court said the case would have turned out very differently if the HOA and Regime had pursued “foreclosure in the normal course and made affirmative efforts to assume the Hales’ mortgage”. And that under the “unique facts of this case”, the Hales have demonstrated Regime’s bid was grossly inadequate.

I am quite sure my foreclosure lawyer friends are deciding how to change their practices in light of this case. I’m not sure the Court is correct about the normal course of foreclosures. I also doubt that the facts in this case are unique.

Justice Beatty concurred in a separate opinion, stating that he would adopt the equity method generally. That approach would certainly provide more clarity. Justice Beatty also said, “homeownership is the quintessential American dream. Purchasing a home is the largest investment that most South Carolinians will make. To allow the hard-earned equity to be confiscated by a bidder’s minimal investment is unconscionable. This is especially troubling when the foreclosure sale is the result of an HOA lien.”

For many reasons, I am glad today that I am not a foreclosure lawyer!

*Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, , 2019).

Eighth Circuit Court ruling makes loans disappear

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The decision could make significant changes in the secondary market

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I refer you to this article from Bloomberg that led me to read the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case decided last month, CityMortgage, Inc. v. Equity Bank, N.A.*.

In South Carolina and most other states, the bank has the power to pursue the borrower personally if it can’t sell the property that is subject to a mortgage for the full amount of the loan after a foreclosure. There are a handful of “non-recourse” states where it is not possible to pursue the borrower personally. But this case was decided under Missouri law, and Missouri is not one of those unusual states.

The article makes a point that’s news to me: non-recourse mortgages are standard in most countries other than the United States.

The case involved a repurchase demand under an agreement between CityMortgage and Equity Bank. Twelve loans were involved, six that had been foreclosed and six that had not. The surprising ruling relates to the six mortgage foreclosures. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court, which had held that the six loans that had been foreclosed no longer existed.

The dissent got it right, however, by stating that the loans were not “liquidated” or “extinguished” by the mortgage foreclosures. The dissent states the obvious: a mortgage is a security interest in real property that serves as collateral for the borrower’s loan. When the mortgage is foreclosed, the underlying promissory note survives and the borrower continues to be liable for the resulting deficiency (absent further action such as a new agreement or a discharge in bankruptcy.)

The article correctly states that the Eighth Circuit transformed recourse loans into non-recourse loans by its ruling. The article also states that non-recourse loans may lead to higher interest rates and larger swings in housing prices.  Purchasers on the secondary market won’t pay as much for non-recourse loans, and, for that reason, this case could have a significant impact on the secondary market if other circuits follow the lead of the Eighth Circuit.

* No. 18-1312 (8th Cir. 2019)