Real estate agent rental scam exposed

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Two agents, one in Texas, and one in NY, allegedly involved

Most successful dirt lawyers have excellent working relationships with the real estate agents who assist their clients in buying, selling and leasing real estate. And most effective real estate agents prove themselves to be trustworthy in their business practices. Recently, two almost identical scams in remote states involved alleged real estate agents, according to a May 4 article in Housing Wire titled, “Two real estate agents caught behaving badly”, by Jacob Gaffney.

house sale fingers crossed

The first story is set in Missouri City, Texas, and was originally reported by the television station, KHOU 11 News. According to this story, police are investigating a woman purporting to be a real estate agent who approached John and Pamela Hall offering to sell their dream home located at the corner of Montego Bay and Palm Harbour. The Halls had already vacated the home, and the alleged real estate agent promised to sell the home quickly. Both homeowners signed the paperwork allowing the culprit to list their home.

Several days later, the Halls were called by someone interesting in renting their attractive waterfront home from a listing they saw on Craigslist. When the Halls investigated the Craigslist entry, they discovered that the alleged real estate agent had actually created fraudulent documents, including a power of attorney and a deed, to take title to their home in the name of an LLC. When the Halls drove by their property, they saw someone moving in! The new “tenant” reported that he had paid $5,000 up front to lease the home.

The television station attempted to find the real estate agent’s name in the records of The Texas Real Estate Commission, but no such agent was found. The culprit used different names in dealing with the Halls and the tenant, and, so far, has been successful in stealing $5,000. The scam has no doubt caused a great deal of inconvenience to the Halls, not to mention the potential expenditure of funds in the form of attorney’s fees necessary to straighten out the public records.

The second story took place in Hampton Bays, New York. Southhampton Town Police said they received two complaints in February involving an alleged real estate agent taking deposits for a rental home. The prospective tenants were told the home was not yet available when the respective move-in dates approached, and the home owners had no relationship with the real estate agent and never received rent. Additional victims came forward, and police arrested Melanie Williams, 54, in April, on three counts of fourth degree grand larceny and three counts of first degree scheme to defraud. Detectives say they believe there may be additional victims in this scheme.

The Russian proverb quoted by President Ronald Reagan seems to be good advice in any situation concerning a real estate agent, or any professional for that matter, who is not known personally. Tell your clients to trust but verify!

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Family squabble leads to promissory estoppel claim

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SC Court of Appeals doesn’t buy it

The facts of a recent Court of Appeals* case involve a dispute between brothers who immigrated from India. Sam Patel moved first, in 1979, and settled in Chicago. Sam’s extended family followed and lived with Sam and his wife. In 1989, Sam moved to Lynchburg, South Carolina, after he purchased a store on Willow Grove Road.

Sam’s family, along with his parents and his younger brother, Kim, followed. The family worked in and lived on the store property. The business grew, and the brothers acquired a store in Sumter. Kim Patel operated the store in Sumter, while Sam Patel continued to operate the store in Lynchburg. Over the years, Sam helped Kim financially.

grocery store country

By 2010, Sam owned three parcels in Lynchburg and operated a liquor store, a grill and a gas station. Sam, himself, faced financial difficulties at this time, and his properties were foreclosed on by First Citizens. At Sam’s request, Kim purchased the properties through the foreclosure in the name of a limited liability company. Sam continued to run businesses on the properties and placed his businesses in the name of another limited liability company.

Sam’s LLC obtained the operating, lottery and alcohol licenses for the properties and made improvements. But Kim’s LLC expended funds for gasoline purchases and property taxes. There was never a lease or written agreement between the brothers or their entities concerning rent and expenses. And when Sam failed to pay rent, Kim’s LLC brought a suit for ejectment and damages. Sam and his LLC counterclaimed, alleging Kim had promised to convey the title to him.

At trial, the brothers gave conflicting accounts of their verbal arrangement. Kim testified that he told Sam he could continue to operate the businesses for six or seven months rent-free so Sam could get back on his feet. After that time frame, Kim expected his brother to pay rent, taxes, insurance and maintenance. Sam testified that Kim purchased the properties in order to convey them back to Sam. Sam intended to repay Kim over three to five years and have title returned to him after repayment.

The special referee’s order stated that Sam owned an equitable interest in the properties and had a right to repurchase them, but that Sam owed Kim approximately $42,000 for expenses.

The Court of Appeals held that Sam’s claim of an equitable interest based on promissory estoppel failed, stating that promissory estoppel is a flexible doctrine that aims to achieve equitable results, but it, like all creatures of equity, has limitations. The court said promissory estoppel is a quasi-contract remedy with four elements:  (1) a promise unambiguous in its terms; (2) reasonable reliance upon the promise; (3) the reliance is expected and foreseeable by the party who makes the promise; and (4) the party to whom the promise is made must sustain injury in reliance on the promise. The court held that Sam’s claim failed on the first two elements.

The testimony of Sam and Kim at trial made it clear, according to the Court, that there was no meeting of the minds as to the terms of the alleged contract. In other words, there was no unambiguous promise to be enforced. And Sam’s reliance was held to be unreasonable in light of the ambiguities of the alleged promise.

The case was remanded to the special referee to conduct the eviction proceeding and to determine rent and expenses between the parties.

 

A&P Enterprises, LLC. v. SP Grocery of Lynchburg, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5545 (March 28, 2018).

Two new fraud scams

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The fraudsters keep updating their repertoires!

Fraudsters are creative! It seems as soon as we learn and educate our staff members about new fraud schemes, the swindlers change their schemes to keep us on our toes. I wanted to pass along two new schemes that recently came to my attention.

The first was reported in our company publication, Fraud Insights, and it involved a residential sale in Las Vegas. An astute title insurance company employee, Larissa Conrad, was able to frustrate the fraudster’s plans. Here’s how the scheme unfolded. On March 7, Larissa sent an estimated closing statement to the listing agent. The closing involved the payoff of a Wells Fargo mortgage. The listing agent purportedly sent back to Larissa, by email, an “updated” payoff statement. Larissa compared the two payoff statements carefully. The wiring instructions were particularly troubling:

Larissa called the payoff lender and confirmed her suspicion that the second payoff was from a fraudster. She then called the listing agent, using a trusted telephone number, and reported that someone was posing as him in the transaction and sending emails from an account that looked like his. She wired the correct payoff amount using the correct wiring instructions, saving $153,300.37.

The second scam, involving texting, was reported by CyberheistNews. The victim receives a text asking whether a password reset for a Gmail account has been requested. If not, the text advises, please reply with the word “STOP”. If the victim replies with “STOP”, the next text urges the victim to send a six-digit numerical code in order to prevent the password from being changed. By sending the code back to the attacker, the victim is enables the bad guy to complete the password change and to have access to the account and all its email.

Remember that Google and other companies will not ask whether you don’t want to do something with your account. A reply to a text like this often notifies the fraudster that a valid telephone number has been reached.

two factor authentication

A two-factor authentication process is highly recommended because it provides an additional layer of security and makes it harder for attackers to gain access. The victim’s password alone is not enough to pass a two-factor authentication process. Typically, the first authentication factor would be based on knowledge (a password) and the second factor would be based on possession (of an ID card, a token or a smartphone, for example). Ask your IT professionals for assistance is keeping your accounts safe by using this process.

And, as always, the best advice may be to keep schooling yourself about the various scams as they are reported. I’ll do my best to help!

Despite a decade of litigation by lot owners….

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Two Surfside golf courses are being redeveloped into residential lots

The North and South courses at Deer Track Golf Resort in Deerfield Plantation have been closed for more than ten years and are finally being redeveloped as residential lots. Adjacent lot owners waged class actions in Horry County seeking to have the use of the properties in question restricted to golf courses or open spaces. While these battles were being waged in court, nature attempted to reclaim the properties. One property owner testified that his views changed from overlooking a manicured golf course to overlooking a “sea of weeds”.

Similar battles have been successful in other parts of the country. The cases are fact intensive and turn on the law of implied easements, which, of course, varies widely from state to state. Plats showing golf courses may provide rights in adjacent lot owners, depending on the recorded documents, the sales program and the law of implied easements in the location.

golf course

Let’s look at how the Deerfield Plantation cases were decided. First, the facts:  The golf courses and surrounding residential subdivisions were originally developed beginning in the late 1970’s. The plats contained notes to the effect that the streets were dedicated for public use but the golf courses were to be maintained privately and were specifically not dedicated to public use.

The covenants gave the lot owners no rights, property, contractual, or otherwise, in the golf courses. A Property Report that was delivered to all prospective lot purchasers described the costs of golf memberships, which were not included in lot prices, and stated that to be allowed to use the golf courses, members would be required to pay initial dues and annual dues and fees. The real estate agents made it clear during the sales program that the mere purchase of a lot did not give a lot owner any right or entitlement to use the golf courses. The deeds of the lots did not convey any easements or other interests in the golf courses.

One plaintiff, who was also a real estate agent, testified that he was never told the golf courses would operate in perpetuity and that the real estate agents never told other potential purchasers that the golf courses would always exist on the properties.

What caused the golf courses to fail? When the golf courses opened, there were 30 – 40 golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area. By the time the golf courses closed, there were nearly 125 courses. Property taxes in the golf courses increased from $7,800 per year to $90,000 per year.  And then the economy tanked. These three factors have occurred across the country to varying extents.

Now, let’s look at South Carolina law. In one of the cases, a 38-page Order of Thomas J. Wills, Special Referee, examined the law of implied easements in South Carolina. I’m summarizing and eliminating the citations for this brief discussion.

The Order states that implied easements are not favored by the courts in South Carolina and must be strictly construed. The intent of the parties controls the existence and scope of implied easements, and the best evidence of that intent is the recorded documents. While case law in South Carolina is clear that lot owners in subdivisions hold easements in streets shown on plats by which their lots are sold, the order states that this rule does not extend beyond access, which is necessary and expected for residential purposes. Finally, the order states that no implied easements in views, breezes, light or air exist in this state.

Finally, these golf courses will be redeveloped into new residential subdivisions. Will we see more of this litigation in South Carolina? Probably. While the law in South Carolina appears generally to favor redevelopment in these cases, there is no doubt that the facts in some of the situations may give rise to implied easements in adjacent lot owners, even in the face of our law.

Dirt lawyers: Did you know some County boundary lines in South Carolina are changing?

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For your reading pleasure, here is a repost of an excellent blog (with maps!) by my friend Josh Lonon of The Wyche Firm in Greenville. We will have to pay particular attention as this un-folds. Some of us who have been involved in the practice of real estate law for many years will remember confusion and extra work for title examiners and practitioners when other county boundary lines changed. Thanks, Josh, for the great information!

Drafting survivorship deeds continues to be a concern

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Pay attention to tricky South Carolina law!

This blog has addressed the issue of drafting survivorship deeds previously. This issue comes back up today because the South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Practices Section’s listserv discussed this issue, in part, last week.

The thread began with a question about whether a tenancy in common with a right of survivorship is a recognized estate in South Carolina. I believe that the concern arose from some drafting liberties taken by attorneys with these deeds. In my opinion, to create a survivorship deed in South Carolina, the drafter should follow the case or the statute exactly. And it is my opinion that if the drafter follows the case or statute exactly, then a valid survivorship estate is created, and that estate will avoid probate for the property in question at the first death.

Let’s take a look at the case and the statute.

dee house

More than a decade has elapsed since our Supreme Court surprised dirt lawyers with Smith v. Cutler,* the case that told us there were already in place two survivorship forms of ownership in South Carolina. We apparently missed that day in law school! These two forms of ownership are joint tenancy (which we knew and loved) and tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship (which slipped by us somehow). This is a mini-history lesson about how we got to this state of the law and a reminder for dirt lawyers to carefully draft deeds.

Under the common law in South Carolina, tenancy in common is the favored form of ownership. A deed to George Clooney and Amal Clooney (whether George and Amal are married or not) will result in a tenancy in common. At the death of George or Amal, the deceased’s fifty percent interest in the property will pass by will or intestacy laws. Joint tenancy was not favored in South Carolina, and there was no tenancy by the entirety that would have saved the property from probate (and creditors) for a married couple.

A rather convoluted 1953 case** interpreted a deed that intended to create a tenancy by the entirety as creating a shared interest in property between husband and wife referred to as a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of ownership. This is the case that the Smith v. Cutler Court referred to as creating the form of ownership we missed.

It’s not technically true that all of us missed this form of ownership. Some practitioners did use the language from the 1953 case to create a survivorship form of ownership. The magic language is “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple.”  Other practitioners routinely used the common law language: “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.”

Conveying title from a person to himself and another person establishing survivorship was not possible in South Carolina prior to 1996 because the old common law requirement of unities of title could not be met. To create a survivorship form of ownership, the property owner conveyed to a straw party, who would then convey to the husband and wife, complying with the unities of title requirement and establishing survivorship.

A 1996 statutory amendment to §62-2-804 rectified this problem by providing that a deed can create a right of survivorship where one party conveys to himself and another person. The straw party is no longer needed. This statute was given retroactive effect.

In 2000, our legislature added §27-7-40, which provides that a joint tenancy may be created, “in addition to any other method which may exist by law” by the familiar words “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common”.  The statute addresses methods for severing joint tenancies which typically results in a tenancy in common. For example, unless the family court decides otherwise, a divorce severs a joint tenancy held by husband and wife, vesting title in them as tenants in common.  A deed from a joint tenant to another severs the joint tenancy. A conveyance of the interest of a joint tenant by a court severs the joint tenancy.

Following the enactment of §27-7-40, most practitioners used the language set out in the statute to create a joint tenancy, “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.” Five years later, Smith v. Cutler required us to examine our drafting practices with fresh eyes. The court held that a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship is capable of being defeated by the unilateral act of one tenant, but a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not capable of being severed by a unilateral act and is also not subject to partition.

Real estate lawyers in the resort areas in our state are often asked to draft survivorship deeds because couples from other states are accustomed to tenancy by the entirety. Until Smith v. Cutler, most practitioners did not believe different estates were created by the different language commonly in use. We believed joint tenancy was created in both cases.

Now, clients should be advised about the different estates and should choose the form of ownership they prefer. I’ve discussed this issue with many lawyers who advise married couples to create the indestructible form of ownership under the case. Others who seek survivorship are often advised to create joint tenancy under the statute.  I see many deeds from the midlands and upstate that use the traditional tenancy in common form of ownership. I’ve heard estate planners prefer tenancy in common so the distribution at death can be directed by will. Lawyers who draft deeds for consumers need to be aware of and need to address the various forms of ownership with their clients.

One final thought on the survivorship issue in South Carolina. Do we now have a form of ownership that protects property from creditors of one of the owners? If a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not subject to partition, then it may not be reachable by the creditors of one of the owners. Let me know if you see a case that makes such a determination. It would be an interesting development.

If anyone on the listserv has different opinions from those stated here, I would love to hear them. The real estate bar in South Carolina would love to hear them, too!

 

 

 

*366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)

**Davis v. Davis, 223 S.C. 182, 75 S.E.2d 45 (1953)

South Carolina Dirt Lawyers: Are you as confused by the SC Supreme Court’s most recent implied easement case as I am?

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I’ve never maintained a list of the South Carolina real estate cases I find mystifying, but the most recent implied easement case, which involves a gravel driveway in Lexington County, may compel me to start.* When I say mystifying, I mean I can’t figure out why the Court came to the conclusion it did, based on what I had previously understood to be the law.

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The case is Gooldy v. The Storage Center-Platt Springs, LLC **, decided March 18.  One reason I found the case puzzling was that it failed to include the plat. When that happens, I usually attempt to draw the properties based on the language in the case, but I was unable to accomplish that in this situation. So for your edification, the main plat in question is included here.

Thanks to the efforts of my friend, Bill Booth, who sent the plat along with the chains of title and aerial views for both properties, I’ve at least figured out the facts in the case.

Here’s what happened. Congaree Associates owned 500 acres in Lexington County. In the 1980s, Congaree developed a residential subdivision of thirteen lots, called Westchester Phase I. Robert Collingwood created the plat for the subdivision. The plat was dated August of 1983 and was recorded. The northernmost lot (Lot 13) bordered the property now owned by Gooldy. This plat does not show a road crossing Lot 13. Six months later, in January of 1984, Collingwood was asked to prepare a survey for Westchester Phase II. That plat included the disputed road as “50’ Road”. The plat was conditionally approved, but the developer abandoned the subdivision. We don’t know the date of this abandonment.

In December of 1985, Collingwood prepared the Loflin plat, linked above. Note the “50’ Road” bordering the 0.68 tract. In September of 1986, Congaree conveyed the 0.68 tract to Loflin by a deed that incorporated this plat but made no mention of the road. The 0.68 acre tract was conveyed four times during the next sixteen years, and each deed incorporated the Loflin plat. The final conveyance was to Gooldy in January of 2002. Gooldy used the road for access for himself and the customers of his chiropractic business. In 2007, Congaree conveyed a 7.5 acre tract to The Storage Center. The disputed road was included in the 7.5 acre tract. The Storage Center’s representatives informed Gooldy that he was no longer entitled to use the road. Gooldy filed suit seeking to establish an easement.

The master in equity held that the deed incorporated the plat and established a presumption of an implied easement which The Storage Center failed to rebut. The master found that because Collingwood surveyed Westchester Phase I and II, he knew Congaree intended to build a road, and armed with that knowledge, Collingwood included the road on the Loflin plat.  Huh?  What if another surveyor had been employed? Does the fact that a surveyor called it a road make it so?

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding the presumption did not arise because the deed only incorporated the plat to describe the metes and bounds of the 0.68 acre tract rather than to demonstrate the intent to create an easement.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Loflin plat created the presumption of an implied easement as established by Blue Ridge Realty Co. v. Williamson*** and its progeny. In Blue Ridge, a developer subdivided its property into lots and streets and recorded the plat. The Court held that purchasers of lots with reference to the recorded plat acquired every easement, privilege and advantage shown on the plat, including the right to use all the streets, near or remote, shown by the plat by which the lots were purchased.

There is no question that the Loflin plat was in The Storage Center’s chain of title. And there is no question that the two properties share a common grantor, Congaree Associates. What is missing in my understanding of the Blue Ridge holding is a subdivision plat, by which conveyances from the common grantor to Loflin and The Storage Center were made. Here, the common grantor did record a subdivision plat before any out conveyances were made and it did not show the road. Years later, the surveyor, who happened to have knowledge of a proposed (but later abandoned subdivision), depicted a road that he knew would be used if the subdivision was created on a plat he made, not for the common grantor, but for the purchaser, Loflin.  And that plat and a deed referring to it created an implied easement.

If this case makes sense to you, please explain it to me!

Here are two off the top of my head:  Smith v. Cutler and Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc. Name your favorite!

** South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27782, March 14, 2018.

*** 247 S.C. 112, 145 S.E.2d 922 (1965).