Supreme Court calls Awendaw’s annexation efforts “nefarious conduct”

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Conduct results in standing for challengers

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The Town of Awandaw’s annexation of a ten-foot wide, 1.25 mile-long parcel of land within beautiful Francis Marion National Forest was challenged by two individuals and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in a recent South Carolina Supreme Court case.*

The sole question before the Court was whether the challengers had standing to contest the annexation in a case where the “100 percent method” of annexation is used, meaning all property owners petition the municipality to have their property annexed.

The case involved three parcels of land serving as links in a chain necessary to satisfy the contiguity requirement of annexation. The first link is the ten-foot strip managed by the United States Forest Service. The second link is owned by the Mt. Nebo AME Church, and the third link is approximately 360 acres of unimproved real estate surrounded by the National Forest on three sides and owned by Defendant EBC, LLC.

In the fall of 2003, the Town sought to annex the ten-foot strip which required a petition signed by the Forest Service. Town representatives sent the Forest Service four letters seeking approval. Through verbal discussions, the Town learned the Forest Service was opposed to annexations because of their impact on the Service’s ability to conduct controlled fire burns. Additionally, the Forest Service indicated any petition would have to come from Washington, D.C., officials, a process that might take several years.

The Town annexed the property anyway in 2004, relying on a 1994 letter from a Forest Service representative, stating it had “no objection” to annexing several strips of property in the same vicinity. However, the Town had previously stated that it realized this letter was unclear.

In 2009, EBC, LLC requested that Awendaw annex its property, and the Town passed an ordinance annexing that property and simultaneously rezoning it as a “planned development” to permit residential and commercial development. In annexing the EBC property, the Town relied on the ten-foot National Forest strip as well as the church property. Without either component, there would be no contiguity and annexation would be impossible.

In November of 2009, the petitioners filed a complaint against the Town and EBC alleging, among other things, that the Town lacked authority to annex the ten-foot strip of National Forest property because the Forest Service never submitted an annexation petition. The Town and EBC moved for partial summary judgment contending the petitioners lacked standing and that the statute of limitations had run.

At trial, a surveyor testified that the 1994 Forest Service letter referred to a different strip of land. The Town’s administrator responded that the Town had used the 1994 letter at least seven times, and that he believed the letter incorporated the property in question. The petitioners testified they were concerned about potential harm caused by developing the property, including damage to unique species of animals. They testified that they were also concerned that the proposed development would threaten the Forest Service’s ability to conduct the controlled burns necessary to maintain the health of the forest.

The trial court found that the petitioners had standing and concluded that the annexations were void because the Town never received the required petition from the Forest Service. The Court of Appeals concluded that the petitioners lacked standing.

In analyzing the standing issue, the South Carolina Supreme Court discussed its prior cases that held “non-statutory parties” (meaning, non-property owners of the annexed properties) lacked standing to challenge a purportedly unauthorized annexation. Those cases, however, were premised on good faith attempts by annexing bodies, according to the Court.

The opinion at hand stated that the Court did not believe the General Assembly intended in establishing the statutory framework for annexation to preclude standing where there is a credible allegation that the annexing body engaged in “deceitful conduct”. The Court held that a party that can demonstrate the annexing body engaged in “nefarious conduct” has standing to challenge the annexation.

The Court also discussed the public importance exception to the standing rule. This exception states that standing may be found when an issue is of such public importance as to require its resolution for future guidance. The Court stated that the petitioners had satisfied the “future guidance” prong of the public importance exception because the Town had used the 1994 letter numerous times and fully intended to use it again.

The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals to address the Towns’ remaining arguments.

*Vacary v. Town of Awendaw, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 27855 (December 19, 2018).

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Deadline approaching for new HOA recording requirement

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“Governing documents” should be recorded by January 10

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The South Carolina Homeowners Association Act, an amendment to Title 27 of the South Carolina Code which included new §27-30-130, was signed into law by Governor Henry McMaster and became effective on May 17.

The act states that in order to continue to be enforceable, a homeowners association’s governing documents must be recorded in the county where the property is located by January 10, 2019 for associations in place on the effective date of the legislation. For new associations or for amendments to governing documents, recording must take place by January 10 of the year following the adoption or amendment of the documents.

The requirement to record Master Deeds is, of course, not new to South Carolina practitioners. We have recorded Master Deeds and their required attachments since the creation of Horizontal Property Regimes became possible in South Carolina. The new requirement applies to rules, regulations and bylaws of associations, including amendments to rules, regulations and bylaws. Practitioners have not routinely recorded these documents. It is interesting that recording rules, regulations and bylaws will not be subject to the requirement of witnesses and acknowledgements of §30-5-30.

A memorandum from the Register of Deeds of Horry County states that these documents will be accepted electronically and across the counter. Documents recorded across the counter must contain an original wet signature plus the printed name and title of the signatory. Horry County will also require contact information (address, email address or telephone number) of the person recording the document, the Homeowners Association’s name and the physical address or legal description of the property. Horry County also highly recommends, but does not require, the book and page number of the recorded Master Deed. This additional information may be included in a cover sheet.

The law also creates a new duty to disclose whether real property being sold is part of a homeowners association and a duty to disclose the condition of floors, foundations, plumbing, electrical and other components of the property. Real estate practitioners may be called upon to assist with these newly-created disclosures.

Another requirement of the legislation includes a 48-hour notice for meetings that are intended to increase budgets by more than ten percent. A requirement for access to community documents by owners was also added. This requirement was previously in place for associations that are created as non-profit corporations. The new law makes it clear that all homeowners associations must provide similar access to documents for owners. The law also gives magistrate’s courts concurrent jurisdiction for monetary disputes of up to $7,500 involving homeowners association disputes.

Good news during Thanksgiving week for real estate agents…and us!

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Many real estate lawyers rely on their local real estate agent friends for the bulk of their residential closing business. When business is good for them, it’s good for us! Two recent stories in national publications are good signs for all of us.

First, an article from Housing Wire dated November 12, which you can read here, indicates more Americans are using real estate agents than ever before, including Millennials. The article cites a Harris Insights housing consumer study, which shows a full 90% of consumers use real estate agents to buy and sell their homes. These numbers are higher than those shown in previous similar studies, up 5 points from 2014 and 9 points from 2001.

We have all assumed that Millennials, ages 18 – 34, are replacing real estate agents with technology, but this study found the 91% of them use real estate agents in their transactions. According to this article, that number is higher among the Gen X group, ages 35 – 44, at 94%.

Surprising to me, this study indicates the older generations are more likely to cut real estate agents out of their transactions. Only 81% of consumers ages 55 and older indicate they use real estate agents in their transactions. And, apparently, more educated consumers enjoy the use of real estate agents in buying and selling their homes. High school graduates reported 83% use, while college educated consumers reported 94%. Higher income earners were also more likely to use real estate agents (98% of $75,000 – $100,000 earners vs. 79% of $50,000 or less earners.)

Read the article and the underlying study for more insight.

The second article that caught my attention is from Realtor Magazine on November 7. This article, entitled “Big Night of Midterm Wins for Realtors®”, reported that candidates across the country at federal, state and local levels won elections with the promise to benefit the real estate industry’s goals of strong communities and healthy residential and commercial property markets.

This article reports that the National Association of Realtors® supported hundreds of candidates they considered to be real estate champions, regardless of party affiliations.

It’s budget time for me, and our company is predicting a slight softening of residential and commercial markets in 2019. This positive news for our real estate agent partners makes me feel better about the year to come!

Here’s wishing everyone a very happy Thanksgiving with family and friends!

Brad Pitt foundation sued for faulty post-Katrina construction

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Charitable intent to replace Ninth Ward housing results in extensive legal battles

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South Carolinians are no strangers to the extensive destruction caused by hurricanes and floods. Our friends in Conway, Nichols and surrounding areas are in the process of cleaning up from the most recent disaster that hit our state in October. And we look on with empathy as our friends in other parts of the world face similar disasters. I lived in Panama City, Florida during my middle and high school years, and the destruction my friends there are facing at this very moment as a result of Hurricane Michael is unimaginable.

It does not go unnoticed when a celebrity attempts to make a difference in the face of natural disasters. The Make it Right Foundation is a non-profit founded by actor Brad Pitt in 2007 to build environmental friendly homes in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The homes were intended to be storm-safe, certifiably green, energy efficient and affordable. The original goal was to build 150 homes in the area hit hardest by Katrina. The homes were available at prices around $150,000 to residents who received resettlement financing, government grants and donations from the foundation. Brad Pitt was apparently proud of the construction, calling the area an oasis of color and solar panels.

More than ten years and $26 million later, construction has stopped 40 houses shy of the goal because of alleged faulty construction including leaky roofs, faulty HVAC systems, sagging porches and rotting and mildewing wood. Residents have reported headaches and illnesses. A New Orleans attorney has brought a class action lawsuit against the foundation, alleging that the construction is substandard and the homes are deteriorating at a rapid pace.

Related claims have been filed by the foundation against the makers of an experimental wood product called TimberSIL which didn’t fare well in the hot and humid south Louisiana environment as well as architects who may be responsible for failure to property waterproof the structures. Insufficiently sloping roofs may be partially to blame.

The original suit was brought in Orleans Parish Civil District Court but has been removed recently to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Despite the good intentions of Brad Pitt and his foundation, it appears the lawsuits related to these Ninth Ward homes may linger for years.

Nat Hardwick convicted on 23 counts

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Nat HardwickMany South Carolina real estate lawyers know the name Nat Hardwick.

Nathan E. Hardwick IV, 53, described himself as the face of Morris Hardwick Schneider, an Atlanta residential real estate and foreclosure firm that grew into sixteen states, including South Carolina. The firm once had more than 800 employees and boasted of offices in Charleston, Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville.

On October 12, Hardwick was convicted in federal court in Atlanta of 21 counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and one count of making false statements to a federally insured financial institution. In federal court, sentencing is typically delayed, and the convicted person is released and allowed to get his affairs in order. In this case, however, Hardwick had been released pending trial on bond. After his conviction, he was described by the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted him as a flight risk and was handcuffed and taken to jail immediately.

This story hits close to home. My company was one of the victims of the crimes.

The prosecutor described an extravagant lifestyle that Hardwick enjoyed at the expense of others. The case was said to be particularly troubling because the illegal activity was orchestrated by a lawyer who swore an oath to uphold the law and represent his clients with integrity. The U.S. Attorney said he hoped the case sent the message that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office will not tolerate this type of white-collar crime.

According to the evidence, from January 2011 through August 2014, Hardwick stole more than $26 million from his law firm’s accounts, including its trust accounts, to pay his personal debts and expenses. The firm’s audited financial statements showed that the firm’s net income from 2011 through 2013 was approximately $10 million. During that time, according to the evidence, Hardwick took more than $20 million from firm accounts.

Asha Maurya, who managed the firm’s accounting operations, was also charged. She reached an agreement in May with the U.S. Attorney’s office and pled guilty. She was expected to testify at the trial, but was unexpectedly not called as a witness.

Hardwick did take the stand in his defense and attempted to blame Maurya with the theft. He said that he trusted her to his detriment, that he was entitled to the funds, and that he was unaware that the funds were wired from trust accounts. Hardwick testified for more than a day and explained that he believed Maurya followed proper law firm procedures.

On the stand, Hardwick, described as the consummate salesman, said that he gave his cellphone number to almost everyone. He said he returned calls and messages within a few hours and instructed his employees to do the same. He apparently believed himself to be a master in marketing and customer service and prided himself in focusing on the firm’s expansion strategy. He hoped to expand to all fifty states and make money through a public stock offering.

With his ill-gotten gains, Hardwick bought expensive property, made a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island, spent $635,000 to take his golfing friends to attend the British Open in 2014, paid off bookies, alimony obligations, and sent more than $5.9 million to various casinos, all according to trial evidence. Hardwick’s activities lead to the loss of his law license and the bankruptcy of his firm.

A scary Halloween story to keep real estate attorneys up at night!

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This South Carolina man’s criminal conviction will stop you in your tracks!

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BOO!

A South Carolina man made a name for himself this year in Washington, DC, and not in a good way. Robert McCloud, a 39-year old former resident of Warrenville, in Aiken County, was sentenced in federal court in Washington, DC, to 18 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release including six months of home confinement. He also forfeited almost $60,000 and will be required to pay restitution in an amount to be determined later. Finally, he will be required to perform 150 hours of community service.

The charges were based on wire fraud statutes and involved real estate transactions. McCloud pled guilty in June in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. His sentence was imposed October 19.

McCloud and co-conspirators identified residential properties that appeared to be vacant and abandoned. They prepared and recorded fake deeds into fictitious names and later fraudulently sold the properties, using fake drivers’ licenses, to legitimate purchasers. McCloud and his co-conspirators involved unsuspecting title and escrow companies in the subsequent closings.

In his guilty plea in June, McCloud admitted to participating in two of these fraudulent transactions in 2015, which generated a total of around $580,000.  Of that total, law enforcement officials were able to seize almost $370,000 in administrative forfeiture proceedings. In both cases, the properties were unencumbered. The true owners of both properties are elderly owners and have been involved in difficult proceedings to have the properties re-titled in their names.

The harm caused to the true owners and the legitimate buyers was covered by title insurance, and the restitution represents funds owing to the title insurance companies. Dirt lawyers, when you need an example of why your clients should be protected by title insurance, you can use this story! And I have many others if you need them.

Welcome to The Hotel California*

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You can resign; but you can never stop paying dues

 

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A recent South Carolina Supreme Court case deals with whether the governing documents of a Beaufort County development, Callawassie Island, unambiguously require equity members to continue paying expenses after resignation.** The trial court and Supreme Court found no ambiguities. The Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Hearn disagreed.

In 1999, Ronnie and Jeanette Dennis purchased a home on Callawassie Island for $590,000 and joined a private club known as the Callawassie Island Club, paying $31,000 to become “equity members”. The governing documents in place at the time of the purchase provided that an equity member who resigns will be obligated to continue to pay dues and food and beverage minimums to the Club until the equity membership is reissued.

In 2010***, Mr. and Mrs. Dennis decided to resign their membership in the club but to retain ownership of their home. They sent a letter of resignation to the club and stopped making all payments. At that time, the required payments included $634 monthly as membership dues, $100 monthly in special assessments, and $1,000 yearly in food and beverage minimums.

The governing documents were amended many times over the years, and the dissent argued that the controlling documents at issue in the case could not even be identified by the Club. The Supreme Court held, however, that all versions of the documents contained the language requiring the continued payments.

Mr. and Mrs. Dennis argued, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that the Club’s interpretation violates §33-31-620 of the South Carolina Nonprofit Corporation Act which provides that a member of a nonprofit corporation may resign at any time. The Supreme Court pointed to subsection (b) of that statute, however, which states that a resignation does not relieve the member from any obligations incurred prior to the resignation. The dissent said the majority’s interpretation effectively eliminates any meaningful right of resignation.

The dissent called the majority’s result “harsh” and stated that taking the majority’s view to its “logical end”, the monetary obligations to the club would extend beyond a member’s lifetime. The majority stated that they were not deciding whether the governing documents could support perpetual liability. The emphasis was provided by the Court.

The Supreme Court suggested that Mr. and Mrs. Dennis could have eliminated their obligations to the Club by selling their home. In footnote 7, the dissent countered that the majority “blithely” suggests selling the house, which may be easier said than done.

The footnote refers to a news article included in the record that reveals the Club’s membership scheme has significantly chilled potential buyers. **** According to this article, one member failed to sell her property for more than two years, despite listing it for $1. As of July of 2016, according to the article, eight lots were listed at less than $10,000 each. The footnote asserts that these facts bely the use by the majority of the description of Callawassie Island property as “exclusive.”

The circuit court had awarded the Club summary judgment, and the Supreme Court reinstated that order. What an interesting case! I hope some of my lawyer friends from Beaufort County will let me know whether the homes in this development are selling better in 2018.

 

*Not my joke.  See footnote 4 of the case:  “Although we disagree with the court of appeals’ legal reasoning here, we do applaud the reference to the Eagles’ hit Hotel California.”  Who said justices aren’t funny?

**The Callawassie Island Members Club, Inc. v. Dennis, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27835 (August 29, 2018).

***Keep in mind how dismal the economy continued to be in South Carolina in 2010.

****Kelly Meyerhofer, Callawassie Club ruling: Court sides with members, cited Eagles song, The Beaufort Gazette (August 5, 2016).