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!

NC title agent fakes title insurance policies and gets fourteen month sentence

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A North Carolina title agent was sentenced this month for selling fake title insurance policies. Ginger Lynn Cunningham owned Blue Ridge Title Company, a title insurance agency located in Buncombe County, North Carolina.

The title insurance company that had done business with Cunningham had canceled the agency in March of 2016, but Cunningham continued through October of 2017 to represent herself as being a title insurance agent. During this time, she purportedly sold falsified title insurance policies, retaining 100% of the premium.

The court records reflect that at least 973 counterfeit title insurance policies were sold to the tune of around $400,000 in bogus premiums. Cunningham pleaded guilty to wire fraud on October 28, 2019.

Cunningham was sentenced to fourteen months in prison and three years of court supervision. She was also ordered to pay restitution.

I would love to say this is a novel case and that these facts don’t make my skin crawl, but former attorney, Brian Davis, was disbarred in South Carolina in 2015 for the same activity.*

By way of background, the vast majority of real estate lawyers in South Carolina are also licensed as title insurance company agents.  In other parts of the country, lenders receive title insurance documents directly from title companies’ direct operations.  In South Carolina, title companies run agency operations, supporting their networks of agents, almost all of whom are South Carolina licensed attorneys.

Lenders require closing protection letters for closings involving agents.  Stated simply, these letters inform lenders that the insurer may be responsible in the event a closing is handled improperly by the closing attorney.

Title insurance company agents also produce title insurance policies and commitments, following the guidelines of their insurance underwriters, and using software programs designed to support the production of these documents.

Some closing attorneys are not agents but instead act as approved attorneys for title insurance companies. Approved attorneys can obtain closing protection letters from their title companies, but they are not able to issue their own title insurance documents. Instead, they certify title to a title insurance company or to a title company’s agent.

If an attorney cannot provide lenders with closing protection letters, that attorney generally cannot close mortgage loans in South Carolina.

In 2007, Mr. Davis was canceled as an agent by his title insurance company**.  After that cancellation, he was able to legitimately obtain title insurance commitments and policies through an agent. In 2011, however, Mr. Davis was canceled as an approved attorney.  He didn’t let that fact stop him though. He began to fraudulently produce title insurance documents, making it appear that the title insurance company was issuing closing protection letters, commitments and policies for his closings.  He also collected funds designated as title insurance premiums, but he never paid those premiums to the title insurance company.  He continued to handle closings using fraudulent title insurance documents until his actions were discovered and he was suspended from the practice of law by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2013. In 2015, Mr. Davis was disbarred.

I supposed I should close by saying don’t do this!  Please!

 

* In the Matter of Davis, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27480 (January 21, 2015)

** In the interest of full disclosure, I work for that company.

South Carolina is one of three states without remote online notarization

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This HousingWire article really caught my attention this morning. South Carolina is one of only three states without an online notarization option.

Efforts have been in progress to pass Remote Online Notarization (RON) legislation here for a couple of years, but the Council of the Bar’s Real Estate Section opposed the legislation on the theory that RON would challenge the control South Carolina licensed lawyers currently enjoy. Many other lawyers disagree with that position, but the legislation stalled.

Other states have used a variety of permanent and temporary solutions to allow for remote online notarization during the COVID-19 crisis. But, at this moment, California, Oregon and South Carolina are the only states with no solution.

What’s your opinion, South Carolina real estate lawyers? Would RON be a good solution to facilitate closings in South Carolina or would it erode your control? The legislation is likely going to be discussed in the next legislative session. Your opinion matters!

SC Supreme Court disbars two lawyers

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On June 24, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued two disciplinary opinions that both resulted in disbarment. Both involved interesting fact patterns, and I invite you to read  them as cautionary tales.

In the Matter of Brooks* involved a lawyer who was sworn in on February 19, 2019. Her application had been based on the Uniform Bar Exam score from Wyoming. One day after her admission, the Office of Bar Admissions learned that the lawyer had knowingly provided false or misleading information in her application.

She failed to disclose information about 2005 and 2014 arrests for driving under the influence (DUI), a resulting license suspension, use of cocaine and marijuana during her release as well as issues with Character and Fitness Boards in bar applications in other jurisdictions.

Bottom line: do not lie or omit facts on bar applications if you seek to practice in other jurisdictions. And advise potential South Carolina lawyers in your life to tell the truth and the whole truth on their applications.

The other case** is interesting only because of an underlying criminal conviction. The lawyer stole about $440,000 from trust accounts and was sentenced to probation. Never having worked in the criminal law arena, this sentence sounds unreasonably lenient to me. The disbarment makes complete sense though.

Bottom line: do not ever touch client funds for your own use!  Don’t borrow client funds, planning to replace them. Remove from your thought processes the idea that client funds are available to you for any reason other than to protect them for your clients.

 

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27983 (June 24, 2020).

**In The Matter of Collins, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27984 (June 24, 2020).

Court of Appeals case lets us talk dirt

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In the midst of COVID-19, it’s a pleasure to return to a simple discussion of South Carolina dirt law. A case decided by our Court of Appeals last week* surrounds the rights of a condominium project’s owner’s association and a successor developer.

The Edgewater on Broad Creek is a luxury condominium project in Hilton Head developed beginning in 2002. The developer, Broad Creek Edgewater, L.P. planned to develop the project on 23.65 acres in multiple phases. Phase 1, located on 7.64 acres of the property, consisted of a building containing 23 units and a clubhouse. The developer recorded a master deed in Beaufort County on December 31, 2002. In the master deed, the developer reserved the right to incorporate the remaining 16.01 acres into future phases.

The developer failed in the great recession. Its creditors placed Broad Creek Edgewater, L.P. into involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy in May of 2007. The bankruptcy court approved a sale of the additional property to Bear Properties, LLC on May 28, 2008. In addition to the property, the successor developer was given all of the developer’s reserved rights by a quitclaim deed and a bill of sale. Later, Bear Properties assigned all its rights and interests to Appian Visions, LLC, which subsequently assigned its rights and interests to Ephesian Ventures, LLC, the appellant in this case.

While the parties are involved in other litigation, this case involves the attempted construction of a pool and tabby walk by the owner’s association on Phase 1. In March of 2010, the association sought a development permit from the Town of Hilton Head to construct a swimming pool. Following a hearing, the permit was granted and the association began construction. Later, the association began constructing a tabby walk leading from the residential building to the swimming pool. Construction was halted when the Town notified the association that an additional permit was required for the tabby walk.

Ephesian administratively opposed the permit to construct the tabby walk, alleging the master deed required its approval for any construction. The Town rescinded approval for the development permits, stating that it planned to hold the matters in abeyance until the covenant issue was resolved. In 2011, the association brought suit in circuit court seeking a declaratory judgment as to Ephesian’s reserved rights in Phase 1. The association sought an order that it had a right to construct a swimming pool and other amenities on Phase 1, subject only to the land use requirements of the Town, free of any interference by Ephesian.

Although the developer argued that other language created an ambiguity,  language focused on by the Master in Equity and Court of Appeals reads:

“The Declarant expressly reserves the right to improve the aforementioned property by clearing, tree pruning, constructing additional parking and common facilities, including, but not necessarily limited to recreational facilities, draining facilities, lagoons, and the like, pertaining to The Edgewater on Broad Creek Horizontal Property Regime.”

The Master in Equity found, and the Court of Appeals agreed, viewing the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the successor developer, as is required in considering summary judgment, that the successor developer maintains the right to construct additional amenities in Phase 1, but that this right is not exclusive.

The Court held that the master deed was unambiguous in its reservation of a non-exclusive right in the developer. Litigation between the parties is likely to continue, so we may be able to discuss further developments later.

Talking dirt law is so refreshing!

 

*The Edgewater on Broad Creek Owners Association, Inc. v. Ephesian Ventures, LLC, Opinion 5724, South Carolina Court of Appeals (May 6, 2020).

 

South Carolina lawyers: We have a new UPL case

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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).