Dear History, please stop repeating yourself!

Standard

Hurricane Irma is the third disaster in two years for South Carolina

pen quill

Hurricane Irma is the third disaster to pummel our beloved state since this blog was launched in 2014. After the 1,000 year flood in October of 2015, Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016. Rebuilding is not complete from either catastrophe.

On my way to work this morning, I passed the remains of several businesses that were destroyed when Gills Creek flooded in 2015. Thankfully, I heard recently that Richland County is about to purchase those properties to turn them into green spaces. Other areas in and around Columbia are still in the rebuilding process or have been completely abandoned. Many homeowners have made their homes bigger, stronger and certainly taller. Others have given up and moved away.

Enter Irma. A friend joked on Facebook that we’re lucky here in South Carolina Irma passed us by. You would never know it passed us by from the many feet of water we’re seeing in pictures of Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, Georgetown, Garden City and surrounding areas. And the pictures and video coming from Florida and the Caribbean, not to mention the pictures and video coming from the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas and Louisiana, all show unspeakable damage.

Our company’s home office is located in Jacksonville where surrounding streets are under water. Employees with power are trying to work remotely. Others are out of commission.

A wise man in our building here in Columbia said to me this morning that these disasters bring out the best and the worst in folks. There are looters, but there are many more heroes who have rescued their neighbors in boats. There are neighborhoods without power who are gathering in their streets for impromptu block parties. Chainsaws are chopping downed trees. Supplies and helping hands are being donated. Celebrities and charities are raising millions. I’d like to believe that we’re seeing much more good than bad in people.

Our hearts are breaking for those who have lost so much. Rebuilding will take time, resources and patience. Many have lost everything and are without insurance coverage. Millions are without power and water. Many are in shock.

Dirt lawyers are in an exceptional position to support clients who may not be familiar with the assistance available to them. We have all learned a lot in the last few years. I challenge each of us to continue to educate ourselves and to be available to offer the valuable advice our neighbors and others will need in the days ahead. Local, state and federal governments seem better prepared this time around and seem to be working better to coordinate efforts. Here is a link to the South Carolina Bar’s Key Assistance Numbers. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger and more resilient now than we were for the last disaster.

Let’s once again rise to the occasion, real estate lawyers, and provide the best advice available for our clients and friends who will need it as they sort out, clean up and rebuild.

Advertisements

Feds extend footprint of shell game again

Standard

Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

shell game

Secretly purchasing expensive real estate continues to be a popular method for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

In early 2016, The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasurer issued an order that required the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

At that time, the reach of the project extended to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies were required to disclose to the government the names of buyers who paid cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. The natural persons behind the legal entities had to be reported for any ownership of at least 25 percent in an affected property.

By order effective August 28, 2016, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, were required to be involved in the reporting process, and the footprint of the project was extended.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds as of August 28, 2016 were:

  • Borough of Manhattan, New York; $3 million;
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Borough of Staten Island, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Florida; $1 million;
  • Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Diego Counties, California; $2 million; and
  • Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas; $500,000.

By order effective September 22, 2017, wire transfers were included, and the footprint of the project will include transactions over $3 million in the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Although the initial project was termed temporary and exploratory, FinCEN has indicated that the project is helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and is also informing future regulatory approaches. The current order extends through March 20, 2018.

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program may be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in money laundering schemes. We will keep a close watch on this program for possible expansion

Total eclipse of the heart….I mean sun

Standard

eclipse

What an experience! Millions were expected to descend upon beautiful and “famously hot” Columbia, S.C. for the total eclipse on Monday. Hundreds of events were planned to welcome the natives as well as the visitors. I thought it was an overly-hyped occasion, but I was mistaken. The eerie darkness descending on the otherwise bright day, the sounds of evening crickets; the brightening of streetlights in mid-afternoon; it was all surreal. And watching the main event was no less than dreamlike. No horror movie ever depicted an eclipse more vividly. A few clouds passed into our vision like inky smoke as we watched the moon chase and completely capture the sun. And two minutes later, the process reversed itself. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

A few people who had to miss the eclipse were described in an August 14 HousingWire story by Ben Lane entitled “Ringleader of elaborate mortgage fraud scheme gets 10 years in prison.” Mr. Lane described the complex New Jersey mortgage fraud scheme that involved fake everything, sellers, businesses, lawyers, title agents and notaries. The co-conspirators pled guilty to money laundering in a scheme that involved using stolen identities to pilfer more than $930,000 from lenders in at least eight fraudulent loan transitions.

The criminals created all the aspects of legitimate closings by using stolen and fictitious identities to fill all the required roles. The homes were real, but the homeowners were totally unaware. Virtual offices and businesses were created by setting up dozens of phone numbers, email addresses, fax numbers, websites and mail drop addresses. Several lenders were deceived by the elaborate scheme. Once the loans were disbursed to the accounts of fictitious law firms and title agents, the criminals withdrew loan proceeds by visiting ATMS and bank branches for several months until the entire amounts were withdrawn.

The HousingWire story accurately states that mortgage fraud is an expensive drain on the lending agency which ultimately raises the cost of borrowing for consumers. The astute New Jersey and federal investigators who successfully apprehended these criminals benefited us all.

As the criminals report to jail, we will return to our normal lives but will remain in awe of the powerful occurrence we witnessed yesterday.

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

Standard

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.

CFPB rules have been revised

Standard

Are we now free to share Closing Disclosures with real estate agents?

cfpb-logoThe CFPB recently issued amendments to its rules governing residential loan closings, but it did not settle the debate about whether Closing Disclosures can be shared with real estate agents. Traditionally, real estate agents were provided settlement statements both before closings, to give them the opportunity to explain the numbers to their buyer and seller clients, and after closings, to enable them to close MLS listings.

Since we have been operating under the CFPB rules and generating Closing Disclosures, we have struggled with the insistence on the part of real estate agents to receive those documents and the reluctance on the part of lenders to share them.  Most of us have resolved this conflict by providing real estate agents with separate settlement statements, such as ALTA’s Settlement Statements, which are similar to our prior HUD-1 Settlement Statements. It took us awhile to figure out that Closing Disclosures are not traditional closing statements and do not facilitate disbursement. Once we realized separate settlement statements are actually needed to fully inform borrowers, sellers and real estate agents, this issue became less important.

The CFPB has indicated it has received many questions about sharing Closing Disclosures with third parties. The amendment says:

“(T)the Bureau notes that such sharing of the Closing Disclosure may be permissible currently to the extent that it is consistent with (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) and Regulation P and is not barred by applicable State law. However, the Bureau does not believe that expansion of the scope of such permissible sharing would, in this rulemaking, be germane to the purposes of Regulation Z.”

Lenders will likely continue to refuse to allow sharing of Closing Disclosures in light of this clear-as-mud directive. Most lenders currently state that the consumer may provide the Closing Disclosure to real estate agents if he or she chooses to do so. That rule is not likely to change.

The Quicken decision is out

Standard

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.

real estate button keyboard

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)

Despicable Acts: Absentee property owners can be targets of fraud

Standard

Despicable acts

And real estate lawyers may be the best minions to prevent these crimes!

Imagine this scenario: Lucy Wilde’s family owns a farm in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina. Since the sudden death of Lucy’s husband, Felonius Gru in 2007, no one has farmed the property. The fields are sitting fallow awaiting the opening of the estate and the division of the property among and Felonius’ heirs, including Lucy. The relatives have all fled small-town living to join the Anti-Villain League, so no one is available to literally mind the farm, and no one is in a hurry to settle the estate.

Enter Balthazar Bratt, a fraudster from Miami who sees the vacant property, searches the public records and learns the property is owned by the late Felonius Gru. Bratt also learns the property is ripe for development because it is located near the prime corridor between Charleston and Columbia, and very near Interstate access.

How can Bratt take advantage of this scenario while the Anti-Villain League employed family members are not paying attention? Absentee owners of real property are often the targets of criminals who pose as true owners offering the property for sale or as collateral for a new loan. These fraudsters may sell or refinance the property and abscond with the sale proceeds or strip any equity in the property with a new loan. The true owner has no idea the property is the subject of a real estate transaction.

In our fictional account, if Bratt was able to ascertain through the public records that Felonius Gru was deceased, a good title examiner should be able to use the same sleuthing methods.  If rural Orangeburg County is not your stomping grounds, as we say in the South, you might hire a title examiner who does have experience in the locale. In small towns in South Carolina, people know each other!

Another tip to fight criminals like Bratt is to compare the mailing address provided by the seller or borrower to the tax bill. While this step may not help in an estate situation, it may very well reveal an absentee owner located in a different address than the one provided by the fraudster.  If the address is different from the address provided to you or the lender, send a letter to the address shown on the tax bill. Your letter might simply suggest that you are happy to be of service to the buyer in the transaction and that if the seller is unaware of the situation, he should have his attorney contact you. That letter should get the attention of an absentee and clueless property owner.

Another tip is to compare signatures of the seller or borrower against documents in the public records. While we are not expected to be handwriting experts, we can spot obvious forgeries. I remember a war story from long ago where one person signed in seven spots in a deed, for the five owners and the two witnesses. The alert closing attorney called an immediate halt to the potentially disastrous real estate transaction!

A well-known and well-used technique that often works is to obtain and carefully review picture identifications for everyone who signs documents in your office. Also, do not accept an assignment of proceeds. Make sure proceeds are paid to the seller or borrower of record only.

And finally, give yourself and your staff members permission to carefully and slowly consider every aspect of your closings. Staff members should be encouraged to be cautious and suspicious and to discuss their concerns with each other or with an attorney in the office.  If the closing attorney needs a sounding board, she should call her friendly title insurance company lawyer.  I can’t count the number of times someone has called me, explained a situation, and before I could even respond, said, “oh, that’s a problem, isn’t it?”

minions

Sometimes just explaining the situation out loud to another person makes the problems crystal clear!

Be careful out there!