ALTA’s Board approves revision to Best Practices

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Change would require ALTA ID

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The Board of Governors of American Land Title Association approved a motion on February 21 to revise the Title Insurance & Settlement Company Best Practices to include a requirement for companies to be listed in the ALTA Registry. The amendment is under a 30-day review period ending April 12. Comments may be sent to bestpractices@alta.org.

The proposed amendment to Pillar 1 of Best Practices includes the following requirement:

  • “Establish and maintain a unique ALTA Registry Universal ID (ALTA ID) using the ALTA Registry platform for each settlement office location (subject to those business entity types supported by the ALTA Registry).

ALTA, the national trade association of the land title insurance industry, formally launched the national ALTA Registry in 2017, allowing title insurance agents and settlement companies to communicate with underwriters to confirm their company name and contact information.

Using the ALTA Registry, lenders and their vendors are able to identify title agents, title underwriters and other participants in the closing process and communicate in a timely and consistent manner throughout the mortgage transaction.

Because there has been no unique ID number used across the industry to help match provider records in different databases, communication has often been difficult and costly for the title industry and its customers. This is especially important with new regulations driving vendor oversight requirements and the need for collaboration.

The ALTA Registry is a free, searchable online database of underwriter-confirmed title agent companies and underwriter direct offices. The registered information includes the title agent’s legal entity name, location and contact information. ALTA offers a unique 7-digit identifier, the ALTA ID, which is automatically assigned to each new database record as a permanent ID number and is never changed, reassigned or reused. ALTA ID numbers are available free of charge to title agents and real estate attorneys.

ALTA’s Best Practices is designed to assist lenders in managing third-party vendors. Pillar 1 requires title companies (closing attorneys in South Carolina) to maintain licenses for doing business in the title industry. This includes the license required by the South Carolina Department of Insurance and the ALTA policy forms license. The registry helps lenders determine they are working with legitimate title providers.

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SC Court of Appeals takes a deep dive into developer duty case

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Was I’On Village’s developer obligated to convey specific amenities to the HOA?

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Photo courtesy of Iioncommunity.com

This case was called “convoluted” by our Court of Appeals, and I couldn’t agree more with that characterization! The February 27 decision involved I’On Village in Mt. Pleasant. * The community, founded in 1995, was named for the first mayor of the Town of Sullivan’s Island, Jacob Bond I’On and is a mixed use “new urbanist development”, meaning it consists of charming walkable neighborhoods containing a wide range of housing and job types.

At the heart of the case is the developer’s alleged promise to convey certain amenities in a residential community to the homeowners’ association. Specifically, homeowners allege the developers promised to convey a community dock and creekside park on a lot containing a boat ramp to the owners’ association but instead sold those amenities to a third party. The developers alleged that they promised to convey and did convey a “generic” community dock and creekside park to the association, but not the specific ones located on the boat ramp lot.

This blog will attempt to stay out of the weeds of this 27-page case in an effort to point out only those decisions of the Court that may be of interest to real estate practitioners.

Does a developer have a fiduciary relationship with the homeowners’ association and its members requiring it to convey common areas?

The Court’s answer is “yes”, but the duties of the developer should be determined by a careful reading of the restrictive covenants.

The developer had argued that the “business judgment” rule would control, and that absent a showing of bad faith, dishonesty or incompetence, the judgment of the developer should not be set aside in a judicial action. The Court rejected the argument that the business judgment rule precludes the existence of a fiduciary relationship. Citing an earlier case, the Court stated that the business judgment rule is compatible with the good faith requirement for fiduciaries.

The Court said a confidential or fiduciary relationship exists when one reposes a special confidence in another, so that the latter, in equity and good conscience, is bound to act in good faith with due regard to the interests of the one imposing the confidence.  Citing a second case, the Court said anyone acting in a fiduciary relationship shall not be permitted to make use of that relationship to benefit his own personal interests, specifically, a developer in control of an owners’ association may not make decisions that benefit the developer’s own interest at the expense of the association and its members.

However, the Court held, South Carolina precedent does not impose on developers a generic fiduciary duty to convey title to a subdivision’s common areas to the owners’ association in every case. Rather, the restrictive covenants of the subdivision controls. The Court decided that the record in the case did not support the duty of the developers to convey to the association the specific amenities demanded.

Does the after-acquired property doctrine apply to a recreational easement in South Carolina?

The Court’s answer is “no”.

In February of 2000, the developer conveyed to the owners’ association a “Recreational Easement and Agreement to Share Costs”. Curiously, the developer did not obtain title to the property in question until six months later. At trial, the circuit court issued an order declaring the document invalid and void ab initio.

The developer argued on appeal that the after-acquired property doctrine would have acted to ratify the easement when title was obtained, but the Court of Appeals, finding no South Carolina authority for the proposition that this doctrine applies to the grant of an easement, declined to apply the doctrine to the recreational easement in question.

 May a derivative action be filed by property owners when a developer-controlled owners’ association fails to protect the interests of the owners?

The Court’s answer is “maybe”, but only if the complaint properly outlines the efforts made by the owners to obtain the action sought from the board of directors of the association and the reasons for failure to obtain the action or for not making the effort. The pleadings in this case did not satisfy the “demand requirement” to the Court’s satisfaction nor did they allege facts indicating a demand on the board of directors would have been futile. So the Court rejected the derivative action.

Litigators may find fascinating long discussions about statutes of limitations in various causes of action, abuse of process, amalgamation of parties and awards of attorney’s fees, but I’m opting to spare dirt lawyers any discussion of those issues. Read the case if you find those issues captivating. This litigation is not over as the Court of Appeals remanded the case for consideration of several issues by the trial court. My guess is that we will probably visit this case again.

 *  Walbeck v. The I’On Company, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5588 (February 27, 2019)

Nat Hardwick sentenced to 15 years

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Nat HardwickThis blog discussed Nat Hardwick, a name familiar to many South Carolina real estate lawyers, last fall when he was convicted of embezzling more than $25 million from his former companies, including his former law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider. Last week, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His co-conspirator and controller, Asha Maurya, was sentenced to seven years after she cooperated with the government.

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, reached an agreement last 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.

Here’s a new word to add to your vocabulary: “surban”

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Reston Town Center, Virginia

A new term has been coined and trademarked by John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a company that provides research and consulting services relating to the housing market. The term is “surban”, and it is defined as “a suburban area that has the feel of urban, with walkability to great retail from a house or apartment.”

Even though the company trademarked the term, its website indicates everyone has permission to use the word without the trademark. The company just wanted credit for coining the phrase. I don’t see any examples in South Carolina from a list compiled by the company, not any in the South, for that matter.

Millennials are apparently the impetus for the new term as they look for a compromise between city living and suburban space. They typically enjoy the choices of the city: restaurants, bars, shops music, ball games and movies. But when they start pairing up and having children, they, like their predecessors, began seeking more room and lower housing costs. Not only are millennials raising families, they are often saddled with student loan debt and unable to afford the costs of city living. But they don’t want the strip malls and chain restaurants of the suburbs.

The compromise? A blended type of neighborhood that combines the energy and walkability of the city with the space and affordability of the suburbs. Millennials want pubs, microbreweries and nice restaurants. They want retail shopping, but not the big box variety. They prefer boutiques with unique choices.

Examples of surban areas, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting, include:

  • Reston Town Center in Washington, DC, suburb of Reston, Virginia
  • Downtown Naperville, Illinois, in the suburbs of Chicago
  • Old Town Pasadena, California, in the suburbs of Los Angeles
  • A-Town in Anaheim, California, in a neighborhood around the Angels Major League Baseball park
  • Legacy Town Center in Plano, Texas, in the suburbs of Dallas
  • Santana Row in San Jose, California
  • City Centre in Houston, Texas
  • Downtown Tempe, Arizona, in the suburbs of Phoenix
  • Larkspur, California, north of San Francisco
  • Geneva, Illinois, in the suburbs of Chicago

Maybe there are examples in Atlanta, Charlotte, or even Charleston, Greenville or Columbia. Let me know if you know of any!

Have you heard about “Zillow Offers”?

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It’s not available in South Carolina yet, but it may be a matter of time

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In early 2017, Zillow tipped its toe into the process of selling homes by launching a product it called “Instant Offers”. The product was initially tested in Las Vegas and Orlando and was described as a method for homeowners to sell their homes for a discounted price without the traditional complications of repairing, listing, staging and allowing for open houses.

The process started with a homeowner providing basic information via Internet about the home (square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and remodeling information) and uploading photos. The Zillow product then connected the homeowner with investors who buy homes in the area, and, typically, an all-cash offer was made by one or more of the investors. The homeowner paid no fee for the service and was not obligated to accept any offers. Zillow touted the product as a method to alleviate the seller’s stress and to allow the seller to close in a shorter timeframe.

Other companies, OpenDoor and OfferPad were already operating in this space at the time of the Zillow launch. The launch was called another example of technology disrupting the process of closing real estate transactions.

Real estate agents, of course, met the news with alarm. They said sellers would be suckered into making mistakes that might cost them the education of their kids, vacations or just the ability to sleep better at night because they have more money in their bank accounts. An online petition was initiated, asking the National Association of Realtors to threaten Zillow with being removed from access to listings. The NAR responded that it could not sponsor or encourage such a boycott.

Zillow has always stated publicly that it is not in the business of getting rid of real estate agents. Its executives called Zillow a media company, not a real estate company, and said it sold ads, not real estate. Even the Instant Offers program encouraged sellers to use a realtor even while avoiding the traditional listing and sales process. The question then became the amount of commission the real estate agent would earn for reduced services. When real estate agents initially complained about Instant Offers, Zillow responded that 70% of its revenue came from working with real estate agents.

In early 2018, however, Zillow announced that it would begin buying homes directly from sellers and then turning around and selling them. With this announcement, Zillow began selling ads and houses. Two test markets were announced, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Zillow said that when it buys homes, it will make the necessary repairs and updates and list the homes as quickly as possible. Zillow said local real estate agents would represent Zillow in the transactions. Zillow also announced in a press release that the vast majority of sellers who requested an Instant Offer ended up selling their homes with agents.

The program was later launched in several other markets, Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver and Charlotte. And last week, Zillow announced that it would be expanding to Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville, Orlando and Portland in 2019. So far, nothing is in the works for South Carolina as far as we know, but I did get a kick out of one article that referred to one of the markets as “Charlotte, South Carolina”.

Stay tuned for more news on this topic. Real estate lawyers will need to figure out how to remain in the game whether properties are sold through the Internet or not!

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).

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.