Protracted litigation leads to noteworthy federal title insurance case

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Early in my legal career, I searched a title prior to contentious litigation surrounding a commercial tract in Horry County. I was eight months pregnant with my son at the time. Title examiners as old as I am will remember we used to pull huge books down from high shelves to search titles in South Carolina. I remember this project so well not because of the difficult work in my puffy condition, but because of the time it took to resolve the litigation. When we finally received the final order, my son was in the second grade.

That timing may not hold a candle to the case decided last year in The United States District Court for South Carolina surrounding a tract in Dorchester County. Dudek v. Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company* is the culmination (I hope) of what the court calls a “long- standing and enduring legal battle” over an eight-acre tract that was divided into two parcels of six and two acres, respectively.

Summarizing the almost undisputed facts as briefly as possible, plaintiffs Stephen Dudek and Doreen Cross entered into a contract to purchase the six-acre tract in 2012. A third party, Molly Morphew, entered into a back-up contract with the sellers to purchase the property in the event the plaintiffs’ purchase fell through. Both parties ultimately sued the seller for specific performance, and the plaintiffs in this case prevailed.

Dudek and Cross purchased the property in 2017 and obtained a title insurance policy from Commonwealth. The litigation with Morphew continued with two subsequent suits, the first alleging fraud and abuse of process in the purchase, and the second seeking to enforce a contract provision setting up a water and sewer easement in favor of the two-acre tract, which by this time had been purchased by Morphew. Dudek and Cross filed a title insurance claim on the easement issue, and Commonwealth denied the claim relying on an exception for easements and the exclusion for risks created by or known to the insured prior the policy date.

I’m eliminating a lot of facts and procedural nuances that title insurance nerds like me will find fascinating, so pull the case for the long story.

The Court held Commonwealth had no duty to defend the insured property owners, relying on the fact that they knew about the easement before they closed. Simple enough, right?

The more convoluted and interesting discussion revolves around the treatment of the policy of the easement issue.  The covered risk in question in the policy was that “someone has an easement on the Land”. The policy contained two exceptions, however, one for unrecorded easements and one for recorded easements. The court stated that the policy simultaneously extended and eliminated coverage for easements, rendering the policy provision meaningless and illusory.

Title insurance agents routinely add specific exceptions to title insurance policies to limit coverage. This case cautions against adding exceptions that operate to prevent all coverage from a covered risk. We will all need to be careful about this holding as time progresses.

*466 F. Supp. 3d 610 (D.S.C. 2020)

Department of Revenue issues common law marriage ruling

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On February 1, South Carolina’s Department of Revenue issued SC Revenue Ruling 21-3 concerning common law marriage. You can read the ruling in its entirety here.

I love the topic of common law marriage because it because it reminds me of the movie “The Big Chill”. “The Big Chill” is one of my husband’s favorite movies, in fact, it’s up there with “Brave Heart” and “Casablanca”. Several years ago, we celebrated a milestone birthday by inviting two couples who were friends from law school to the mountains for a “Big Chill Weekend” of eating great food, playing great music* and reminiscing about the old days. We did agree to eliminate drugs and spouse swapping from the Big Chill agenda.

Effective July 24, 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court abolished common law marriage in South Carolina.** This rule will be prospective only. Parties may no longer enter into a valid marriage in South Carolina without a license.

Hang on. I will explain how the movie and common law marriage in South Carolina connect for those two young to remember the news. (And the connection has nothing to do with our Big Chill weekend.)

When the movie was being filmed in the winter of 1982-83 in Beaufort, actor William Hurt was living with Sandra Jennings, a former dancer in the New York City Ballet. Ms. Jennings became pregnant with Mr. Hurt’s son, Alexander Devon Hurt, who was born in 1983. The couple lived together in New York and on the road from 1981 – 1984.

When the couple split, Ms. Jennings brought suit in New York claiming a share of Mr. Hurt’s substantial assets, based on the theory that they had established a common law marriage during the few months they lived in South Carolina. She sought a divorce. Child support was not an issue because Mr. Hurt was paying $65,000 per year to support the couple’s son. Common law marriages hadn’t been recognized in New York since 1933, so the claim was based on South Carolina law and the short time the couple lived together in Beaufort.

Ms. Jennings was not successful in the lawsuit, but litigation is very expensive, and the story got lots of mileage in South Carolina. The standing line was that actors had to be careful in this state! Maybe the cast can finally return for a sequel.

The Supreme Court stated that the time has come to join the overwhelming national trend, despite our legislature’s failure, to abolish common law marriage. The court said, “The paternalistic motivations underlying common-law marriage no longer outweigh the offenses to public policy the doctrine engenders.” 

I know some other outdated ideas I’d like to see abolished in South Carolina.

The Revenue Ruling acknowledged the abolishment of common law marriage and stated that any couple living in South Carolina in a common law marriage established prior to July 24, 2019 is married for federal and state income tax purposes and must file their returns using the filing status “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately”. They cannot file using the filing status “single”.

On or after July 24, 2019, according to the Revenue Ruling, unmarried South Carolina couples must obtain a marriage license to use the filing status “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately”.

If a couple entered into a valid common law marriage in another state, , South Carolina continues to recognize the couple as married when they establish their domicile in South Carolina, according to the Revenue Ruling.

Dirt lawyers recognize that common law marriage can make a huge difference in title and probate matters, so this Revenue Ruling is a good reminder for us.

* Favorite lines from the movie which demonstrate, in part, why it’s a favorite: Michael: “Harold, don’t you have any other music, you know, from this century?” Harold: “There is no other music, not in my house.”  There is no other music in the Manning house either. 

Favorite movie trivia: The dead guy, the corpse being dressed for his funeral in the opening scenes, was played by none other than Kevin Costner. There were plans to have flash-back scenes to the characters’ college antics, but those scenes were later eliminated.

** Stone v. Thompson, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27908 (July 24, 2019).

Some news from the transition that may affect dirt lawyers

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While we don’t all agree on politics, something we can all embrace from last week were the hilarious Bernie Sanders’ mitten memes. I saw friends from both sides of the aisle post one funny version after another. I even saw an interview that had Bernie himself laughing about them. He appears to be a good sport!  As a South Carolinian, my two favorites involved the Coburg cow and Cocky. I, for one, needed the comic relief.

There were a couple of real news items for real estate practitioners to consider.

First, the CFPB Director, Kathy Kraninger, stepped down at the request of the new administration. This blog has discussed several cases that have argued the CFPB was unconstitutionally organized as violating the separation of powers doctrine because it had a single director that could only be removed for cause. Last year, the Supreme Court held in Seila Law v. CFPB that the director can be removed at will by the president.

An interim director was named to take control until a permanent director can be confirmed. Rohit Chopra, a commissioner of the Federal Trade Association, is the choice to be the permanent CFPB Director. Stay tuned for changes that may be implemented under the new leadership. Speculation is that the bureau’s enforcement and oversight activities will be beefed up with an emphasis on COVID-related consumer relief.

Speaking of COVID relief, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will extend their moratoriums on single-family foreclosures and real estate owned (REO) evictions through February 28. The moratoriums were set to expire at the end of this month.

The administration would also like to ease the current housing market pain of high home prices and low inventories by proposing a $15,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit which would serve as down payment assistance. There is also speculation that mortgage insurance premiums may be reduced.

On the other hand, mortgage rates appear to be on the rise, so it remains to be seen whether the new administration’s efforts to encourage development and home ownership will be successful.  As always, real estate practitioners will need to keep an eye on the news to assist them in predicting how 2021 will sort out on the housing front and in their businesses.

One-day error invalidates mechanic’s lien

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South Carolina’s Court of Appeals has made it crystal clear that our mechanics’ lien statutes must be strictly construed. In a case* refiled December 2, the Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s award of summary judgment because the lien was filed 91 days after the last work was performed, not 90 days, as the statute requires.

The case involved a kitchen remodel job in Columbia. The contractor was a kitchen designer who was paid not by the hour, but by the difference in the wholesale and retail cost of the products she purchased and installed. In this case, she was hired because she was the only dealer for Crystal Cabinets in the Columbia area.

The homeowner’s quote was slightly less than $50,000 plus about $3,000 for cabinet installation, payable in three installments. The homeowners paid two-thirds of the contract price but refused to pay the final installment because they were dissatisfied with the cabinets. The parties and the manufacturer were unable to come to terms. The contractor’s last work, according to its own pleadings, was performed on August 18, 2015, and the mechanic’s lien was served on November 17, 2015, a difference of 91 days. The Circuit Court granted the homeowner’s motion for summary judgment and awarded attorney’s fees, based on the one-day discrepancy.

On appeal, the contractor argued that the work actually extended beyond August 18, but the Court of Appeals held the contractor was bound by the pleadings. The contractor then argued that an amendment to the pleadings could easily cure the “slight discrepancy” between the date alleged in the lien and the actual date of the last work, but the Court held that this issue could not properly be raised on appeal. The contractor should have requested leave of the lower court to amend its pleadings.

The bottom line is that counting correctly is crucial in mechanics’ lien litigation! Be careful out there, lawyers!

* The Kitchen Planners, LLC v. Friedman, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5738, Refiled December 2, 2020.

Rock Hill residential real estate lawyer gets five years in jail

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Thankfully, it has been ten years or more since we’ve heard word “defalcation” used in connection with a South Carolina real estate lawyer. Sadly, we have to use that word in 2020 because a Rock Hill lawyer was arrested in 2019 after funds allegedly went missing from a residential closing.

That lawyer, Thomas Givens, was suspended by the South Carolina Supreme Court on September 25, 2019. Earlier this month, the 67-year old pled guilty for breach of trust and was sentenced to five years in prison, five years’ probation, and restitution. 

The closing took place on July 15, 2019 but the $166,000 mortgage payoff was never made. Two months later, Givens was arrested and charged with breach of trust over $10,000. The arrest warrant reads that Givens failed to make the mortgage payoff and does not have the funds.

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

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

This time, the economy was good. There are simply no excuses. It is a very sad commentary, and one I hoped not to see again.

Lawyers: Help Get the Vote Out

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South Carolina licensed lawyers have been nudged by our Supreme Court to provide assistance with our greatest responsibility as citizens: voting!  See the attached Order of the Court granting CLE credit to lawyers who work the polls on November 3. 

There are, of course, guidelines. You must work the entire day, for example, and you can’t get paid. Pay attention to the details if you seek the credit.

What a great way for lawyers to demonstrate we are leaders in our communities! And in this problematic political environment, the more clear-headed, logical, calm lawyers who can be present, the better!

In other election news, the United States Supreme Court held on Monday that South Carolina mail-in ballots must be witnessed. Help get that word out to your family, friends and clients.

Thank you to all lawyers who stand and lead!

Newberry land-transaction dispute replete with equitable issues

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We don’t often see current land-transaction dispute cases among South Carolina’s appellate court decisions, but the Court of Appeals handed down an opinion on September 16 that covers the gamut of equitable issues. Not uncommon, though, is that the facts in this equitable case involving real estate, like most, are quite interesting.

The use of the property in the case, Shirey v. Bishop*, is interesting in itself. Mr. and Mrs. Bishop operated a grave digging and burial vault business on the property for more than 30 years. Mr. Bishop died in 2010, leaving his wife to run the business by herself. Mrs. Bishop suffered from depression and anxiety and ultimately determined that she did not want to continue operating the business.

In 2012, Mrs. Bishop entered into a contract to sell the property to her niece, Cassandra Robinson. Although the bank wasn’t consulted, Robinson agreed to assume the mortgage and make the monthly payments until the mortgage was satisfied.

In 2014, however, Mrs. Bishop approached Shirey about purchasing the property, and a contract was signed in 2015 to sell the property to Shirey for $125,000. (Apparently Robinson was late on many mortgage payments.) The closing was to occur between August 3 and August 12, 2015. Time was stated to be of the essence.

On August 12, 2015, Shirey attempted to close by tendering funds to his attorney. After it became apparent that Mrs. Bishop was not going to appear, Shirey’s attorney called Bishop to ask if the closing period could be extended to August 13. Bishop agreed.

On August 13, Shirey arrived at his attorney’s office, but Bishop again failed to appear. Bishop’s doctor sent a note to Shirey’s attorney asking that Bishop be excused from the closing. (I’ve never seen a doctor’s excuse for a closing!) However, that afternoon, Bishop entered into a second contract with Robinson. This contract added a provision that Bishop would indemnify Robinson against “any and all issues of illegality or fraud concerning the transaction.” Bishop executed a deed conveying the property to Robinson, and Robinson recorded the deed the same day.

This lawsuit followed. The special referee ordered specific performance in favor of Shirey and further determined that Shirey was a bona fide purchaser who took free of any interest of Robinson, that Robinson and Bishop were in a confidential relationship, that the phone call from Shirey’s attorney to Bishop was tantamount to an extension of the contract, and that Bishop’s entering into the 2015 contract with Robinson demonstrated an intention to hold Robinson in default of the 2012 contract.

The Court of Appeals affirmed and made the following points:

  1.  Bishop and Robinson waived their statute of frauds argument by failing to plead it or argue it in the lower court.
  2.  Robinson was not entitled to the property under the 2012 contract because the 2015 contract held her in default.
  3.  The equities in the situation favored Shirey.
  4.  Bishop and Robinson were in a confidential relationship, not only because of their familial relationship, which is not sufficient standing alone, but because the facts indicated Bishop trusted Robinson and failed to seek legal advice. Additionally, Robinson drafted her second contract, and Bishop testified she didn’t understand what she was signing.
  5.  Shirey partially performed by tendering funds.
  6.  Shirey was a bona fide purchaser because he did not have notice of Robinson’s claim at the time he attempted to close. The Court held he had the “best right to” the title to the property.
  7.  Shirey was entitled to attorney’s fees because he prevailed under his contract, which provided for the award of attorney’s fees to the successful party.

All these issues are discussed in detail, and I recommend this case to any lawyer who seeks a refresher on equitable questions involving real estate under South Carolina law.

*South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5718 (September 16, 2020).

Court of Appeals sets a timing rule on ATI exemption

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The new rule favors the taxpayer

A case* from the South Carolina Court of Appeals on August 26 concerns South Carolina Code Section 12-17-3135 which allows a 25% property tax exemption when there is an “Assessable Transfer of Interest” of real estate. The issue was one of timing, whether a property owner must claim this exemption during the first year of eligibility.

The Administrative Law Judge had consolidated two cases. In both cases, the property owner had purchased property during the closing months of 2012. Neither taxpayer claimed the ATI Exemption in 2013, but both claimed it in January of 2014. The Dorchester County Assessor denied the requests, but the ALJ decided the exemptions had been timely claimed.

The statutory language in question provides that the county assessor must be notified before January 31 for the tax year for which the owner first claims eligibility. The taxpayers argued that the plain meaning of this language allows them to choose when to claim the exemption. The Assessor argued that the exemption must be claimed by January 31 of the year following the transfers.

The Court looked at taxation of real property as a whole and held that the legislature intended that all purchasers would have a meaningful opportunity to claim the exemption. Under the Assessor’s interpretation, there would be a much less meaningful opportunity for taxpayers who purchase property later in the calendar year.

The Court also stated that the ATI Exemption is not allowed to override the appraised value set in the statutorily required five-year reassessment scheme, so there would be a built-in time limit for claiming the exemption.

 

*Fairfield Waverly, LLC v. Dorchester County Assessor, Opinion 5769 (August 26, 2020)

Succession planning and the real estate practitioner

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Like me, many of my real estate practitioner friends are retirement age. Before COVID-19 prevented travel, I often visited our law firms across South Carolina and at some point became acutely aware of our aging population. Real estate must not be as fascinating to young folks as it is to me and many other lawyers my age. I announced last week that I will retire next February. For corporate employees like me, the retirement process is easy. Let me restate that. Once the extremely difficult mental threshold is crossed, the paperwork is easy.

Retirement from a law firm is much more difficult both in the decision-making process and the paperwork! The old not-so-funny joke is that lawyers don’t retire; they die at their desks. Don’t do that!

My office encourages our real estate lawyers to seriously consider succession planning at least five years before they plan to step away from their offices. For sole practitioners, no succession planning means the value built over a lifetime of work vanishes the moment of death or disability. Lawyers who practice in firms can also lose their sweat equity if they don’t have the foresight to plan.

We encourage sole practitioners to consider hiring younger lawyers to train up to take over their practices. We also encourage lawyers to identify other lawyers who may be interested in purchasing their practices or merging practices. Conversely, we encourage younger lawyers who seek to grow their practices to reach out to lawyers nearing retirement age to explore purchasing or merging practices.

Several years ago, I contacted my friend Bill Higgins, a practitioner here in Columbia who has worked extensively with ethics and business entity issues, and asked him to develop a practice area that includes succession planning for lawyers. Bill has done that, and if you need legal advice in this regard, I highly recommend Bill as an excellent source.

If you want information about the firms who practice real estate and who might be open to discussing the issues of merging or purchasing practices, reach out to your title insurance company. We are singularly positioned to know what’s going on in the market place and we might be able to point you in the direction of a lawyer or firm that may want to discuss these issues.

The reason this topic came to my mind now is that the Ethics Advisory Committee issued new EAO 20-03 that touches on the issue of succession planning. The question in this opinion is a little complicated. “A, B, C & D, P.A.” is the name of an existing law firm.  Lawyer A is already retired. Lawyer B is the 100% equity owner of the firm, and now seeks to retire. Lawyers C and D are non-equity members who have each practiced with the firm more than ten years. Lawyer C plans to practice with another firm.

Lawyer D seeks to purchase most of the assets of the firm and to operate a new firm called “A, B & D, P.A.” in the same location, using the same phone number and website and retaining two or more of the employees. Lawyer D seeks to continue to represent Lawyer B’s current clients in ongoing and future matters if the clients elect to retain the new firm’s services via formal substitution of counsel agreements. The question became whether Lawyer D may ethically utilize the names of retired lawyers A and B in the name of the new law firm.

Analyzing Rules of Professional Responsibility 7.1 and 7.5 and prior Ethics Advisory Opinions 79-06 and 75-01, the Committee opined that Lawyer D may use the names Lawyers A and B in the new firm name.  The Rules have changed since the prior opinions, and the Committee sought to provide us with this updated analysis. The Committee assumed Lawyer D had the legal right to use the names of the two retired partners.

In Opinion 02-19, the Committee opined that a law firm may continue to use the name of a deceased or retired partner if the new law firm is a “bona fide successor” to the prior firm.  The question for the current opinion became what constitutes a bona fide successor, and the Committee stated that Lawyer D will be a part of the continuing line of succession of the firm and may use the names.

The Committee encouraged Lawyer D to review the comments to Rule 7.5 and EAO 05-19. The Committee also suggested that Attorney B remain at the firm for a time after the purchase to increase the “bona fides” of the firm name since both lawyers will work under the new name and therefore provide a continuing succession in the firm’s identity. Additionally, Lawyer D was encouraged to take care to avoid misleading the public by using asterisks or some other means to show that Lawyers A and B are retired.

This brief discussion is an example of how complicated succession planning can become. I encourage you to start early!