A recorded power of attorney may not be necessary to establish agency where real estate is involved

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In a recent South Carolina Court of Appeals case*, a mother was held to be bound by the actions of her wheeler-dealer son who appeared to act in her behalf buying and selling properties in Laurens County.

Frank Lollis lived with and took care of his mother, Kathleen Lollis, and managed real estate transactions for the family. The attorney who handled these transactions testified that he saw Frank sign his mother’s name and that he thought he recalled Frank showing him a power of attorney.

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Lisa and Dennis Dutton, plaintiffs in this case, suing to enforce contracts Frank signed, testified that Frank had said he had a power of attorney. At trial, following Frank’s death, Mrs. Lollis denied the existence of the power of attorney.

Lisa Dutton testified that she had known Frank for nineteen years and had done a lot of real estate business with him and his family. She said that all of the locations where she had lived for the ten years prior to the trial were related to the Lollis family and every time she purchased property that was titled in Mrs. Lollis’ name, she dealt with Frank and his attorney. She said she “never had an issue” until she tried to obtain a deed to enforce a contract at issue in this case.

Frank’s attorney testified that Frank did a lot of his business in cash and always carried a lot of cash. Frank typically bought property in other individuals’ names and signed their names to documents, including not only his mother, but a former employee. The attorney signed an affidavit to the effect that Frank explained his “checkered past” required him to operate in the names of other individuals. The affidavit further stated that Mrs. Lollis knew Frank titled properties in her name.

Frank was diagnosed with cancer, and when he became increasingly ill, he asked his attorney to prepare a power of attorney for his mother naming his sister as the attorney-in-fact. After Frank’s death, the Duttons unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the deed to consummate the contract Frank had signed in his mother’s behalf. This lawsuit followed.

The case contains a detailed discussion of the law of agency in South Carolina. Real estate lawyers should know that their clients can become bound by their actions even in the absence of a recorded power of attorney because agency is a question of fact that does not necessarily depend upon an express appointment and acceptance.

An agency relationship is frequently implied or inferred from the words and conduct of the parties and the circumstances of the particular case. The Court of Appeals stated that agency may be proved circumstantially by the conduct of the purported agent exhibiting a pretense of authority with the knowledge of the principal.

The doctrine of apparent authority provides that the principal is bound by the acts of his agent when he has placed the agent in such a position that persons of ordinary prudence, reasonably knowledgeable with business usages and customs, are led to believe the agent has authority and they can deal with the agent based on that assumption.

This rule is based on public policy and convenience to provide safety for third parties.  In this case, the attorney testified that the mother was “fully aware that Frank was buying and selling property in her name” and was “transacting business in her name.” Lisa and her husband testified that Mrs. Lollis was present when they made some payments to Frank. Mrs. Lollis never objected and even retrieved the receipt book for Frank on a few occasions.

Lisa testified (1) Frank told her he had a power of attorney; (2) Lisa relied on Frank’s representation; and (3) she would not have entered into the contract and made payments had she known Mrs. Lollis would not acknowledge the existence of the contract. Dennis testified that (1) he believed Frank was acting on his mother’s behalf; (2) he relied on the course of dealing established in a number of transactions; and (3) if he had known Mrs. Lollis was not going to honor the contract, he would not have entered into it nor made payments.

The Court said that Mrs. Lollis’ knowledge that her son was buying and selling real estate in her name and her tacit acceptance of this practice placed Frank in such a position that the plaintiffs were led to believe he had the authority to act. The plaintiffs dealt with Frank based on that assumption. The preponderance of the evidence, according to the Court, shows an agency relationship between Mrs. Lollis and Frank as well as his apparent authority to sell. Frank’s actions were binding on his mother.

*Lollis v. Dutton, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5522 (November 1, 2017)

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Reminder for dirt lawyers of a “secret lien” trap

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The sale of a majority of the assets of a business

Real estate lawyers despise unrecorded liens. I like to refer to them as secret liens. One such trap for the unwary dirt lawyer in South Carolina is the state tax lien imposed by Code §12-54-124. This statute was effective June 18, 2003, and I can vividly remember the day we first read it and scratched our heads about what it meant.

The statute reads:

“In the case of the transfer of a majority of the assets of a business, other than cash, whether through a sale, gift, devise, inheritance, liquidation, distribution, merger, consolidation, corporate reorganization, lease or otherwise, any tax generated by the business which was due on or before the date of any part of the transfer constitutes a lien against the assets in the hands of a purchaser, or any other transferee, until the taxes are paid. Whether a majority of the assets have been transferred is determined by the fair market value of the assets transferred, and not by the number of assets transferred. The department may not issue a license to continue the business to the transferee until all taxes due the State have been settled and paid and may revoke a license issued to the business in violation of this section.” (Emphasis added.)

That’s it! Very simple, but how are those terms defined?  What’s a business? Is a rental house in Pawleys Island a business?  How can a purchaser’s lawyer know whether taxes are due to South Carolina by the seller?  How can a purchaser’s lawyer know whether the sale of one Subway store is a sale of the majority of the assets of a franchisee’s business?

I had a friend and former law school professor who worked at the Department of Revenue at the time, so I called him and told him we were struggling with the meaning of the statute.  He gave me two very valuable pieces of information: (1) the terms in the statute are defined as the Internal Revenue Code defines them; and (2) the Department of Revenue (DOR) was likely to give us some guidance at some future date.

We struggled with the definitions in the Internal Revenue Code and finally decided that unless a property is an owner-occupied single family residence, the closing attorney should consider that it might be a business asset.

Thankfully, in 2004, the DOR did provide guidance in the form of Revenue Ruling 04-2. The Revenue Ruling stated that the code section does not apply if the purchaser receives a certificate of compliance from the DOR stating that all tax returns have been filed and all taxes generated by the business have been paid. The certificate of compliance is valid, according to the Revenue Ruling, if it is obtained no more than thirty days before the sale.

This Revenue Ruling also authorized attorneys to accept Transferor Affidavits, in the form promulgated by the DOR, when the transferor can state that the assets subject to the transfer are not business assets or are less than a majority of the transferor’s business assets, based on fair market value, in the current and other planned transfers.

house mousetrapThe Revenue Ruling addressed whether a vacation home is a “business” by stating that it is not a business if IRC §280A limits the deduction of vacation home rental expenses. That’s a little deep for dirt lawyers, so the safe approach is to always obtain a certificate of compliance or Transferor Affidavit when you close on that rental home in Pawleys Island.

I like to remind dirt lawyers that they are not tax lawyers (unless they ARE tax lawyers). Generally, when you represent a purchaser in a real estate transaction, do not give the seller tax advice on how to complete a Transferor Affidavit.

Mortgages without appraisals?

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Fannie and Freddie are relaxing their rules!

Government-chartered entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are relaxing their decades-old appraisal rules to allow some refinances and, more significantly, some sales to close without new appraisals. Both entities indicate they will only permit loans to close without appraisals in situations where they have substantial data on the properties in question as well as the local real estate markets.

How will the new plans work? Lenders will submit loan files to either Fannie or Freddie for underwriter analysis. The entities’ proprietary systems (automated valuation models) will be employed to determine whether sufficient valuation data is available to support the requested loan amounts.  These systems are said to be depositories of millions of prior appraisal reports and “proprietary analytics” that allow for computer-driven valuations of properties. If the system determines that no appraisal is required, the borrower will be given the choice of proceeding without an appraisal or coming out of pocket for an appraisal.

Should local residential contracts be tweaked? Should lawyers advise their purchaser clients to obtain appraisals?  We will have to cross those particular bridges.

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This seems reminiscent of the situation in the early 1990s where title insurance companies limited their requirements for current surveys. Residential lenders were given the survey coverage they required without the cost of updated surveys. Lawyers were left holding the bag, so to speak, to advise their purchaser clients of the benefits of surveys and to encourage them to incur the cost despite the fact that there was suddenly no lender or title company requirement.

Lawyers are not typically involved in residential transactions prior to loan approval, however, so it is entirely possible they will not be involved with the question of whether to obtain appraisals unless astute and cautious buyers specifically seek advice up front.

Fannie and Freddie have been quietly phasing in this new process for months and indicate appraisals will continue to be required for most loans. Fannie estimated that only ten percent of loans were eligible to close without appraisals at the inception of its program for refinances. That percentage is likely to be smaller for sales.

Both entities require at least twenty percent equity to qualify. Fannie’s program includes single-family homes, second homes and condominiums.  Freddie’s program is limited to single-family, single-unit primary residences. Homes in disaster areas, manufactured homes, and homes valued at more than $1 million will not qualify. The borrower’s credit scores and credit worthiness will also be considered.

Real estate agents are likely to love this new technology-based innovation. It will save money as well as time. Appraisers (like surveyors in the 1990s) will not be happy as this program is phased in.

What do you think? Are appraisals a good thing?  Will foregoing appraisals be akin to the “no doc” and “low doc” mortgages that helped lead us to the financial crisis of 2008? Are actual inspections by trained human beings of the interiors of residences necessary to establish value? Let’s see how this plays out!

Feds extend footprint of shell game again

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

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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

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

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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.

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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.

The Quicken decision is out

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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.

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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)

Sometimes the sky isn’t so blue in Malibu

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California case might spell trouble for real estate agents and brokers across the country

The California Supreme Court decided a case in late 2016 that may have wide-ranging effect for real estate companies in that state.* The case involves a Chinese millionaire’s 2007 purchase of a mansion in Malibu for $12.25 million.

The seller, a trust, engaged Chris Cortazzo, a salesman in Coldwell Banker’s Malibu West office to sell the property.  As Cortazzo prepared to list the property, he obtained information from the tax assessor’s office that indicated the property’s living area was 9,434 square feet. The building permit described a single-family residence of 9,224 square feet, a guest house of 746 square feet, a garage of 1,080 square feet and a basement of unspecified area. The MLS listing stated that the property “offers approximately 15,000 square feet of living area”. Cortazzo also prepared and distributed a flyer making the same square footage representation.house measuring tape

In 2007, a couple made an offer to purchase the property. By handwritten note, Cortazzo informed them that Coldwell Banker did not “guarantee or warrant” the square footage, and advised them to “hire a qualified specialist to verify the square footage”. When the couple requested documentation of the square footage, Cortazzo gave them a letter from the property’s architect stating the “size of the house, as defined by the current Malibu building department ordinance is approximately 15,000 square feet.”  In a cover note, Cortazzo again cautioned them to hire a specialist. This sale fell through.

Horishi Horiike had been working for several years with Chizuko Namba, a sales person in Coldwell Banker’s Beverly Hills office, to find a residential property to buy. Namba showed Horiike the residence in question. Cortazzo gave Horiike the marketing flyer advertising approximately 15,000 square feet and an MLS printout that did not specify the square footage and contained note in small print that “Broker/Agent does not guarantee the accuracy of the square footage.” Horiike and the selling trust entered into a contract.

Before the closing, Horiike signed three disclosure forms confirming that Coldwell Banker represented both the buyer and the seller in the transaction. Under California law, a real estate broker may act as a dual agent for both parties, provided both parties consent to the arrangement after full disclosure.  The broker may act through one or more “associate licensees”, typically the salespeople who operate under the broker’s license and supervision. The governing statute provides that when an associate licensee owes a duty to any party in a real estate transaction, that duty is equivalent to the duty owed to that party by the broker.

Cortazzo did not state in writing to Horiike that there may be a discrepancy in the square footage, as he had done with the previous potential buyer. He also did not advise Horiike to retain an expert to verify the square footage. After the closing, Horiike learned that the property had less than 12,000 square feet of living area (although Coldwell Banker experts testified at trial that the living area was 14,186 square feet.)

In 2010, Horiike filed suit against Cortazzo and Coldwell Banker for intentional and negligent misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair business practices and false advertising. He did not sue the selling agent, Namba.

In a unanimous decision, California’s Supreme Court stated that the case presented a single, narrow question:  whether the associate licensee who represented the seller owed a duty to learn and disclose all information materially affecting the property, including the discrepancy in the square footage. The Court held that Coldwell Banker, as broker, owed a fiduciary duty to both parties and that Cortazzo, as associate licensee, had the responsibility to properly investigate and disclose all important information related to the transaction. The Court concluded Cortazzo owed a duty to Horiike equivalent to the duty owed to him by Coldwell Banker.

Several trade associations filed amicus briefs in the case. One concern is that an agent working with a buyer has no idea what property that buyer will ultimately purchase. Whether the same broker will represent the seller can’t be predicted. Another concern is that this decision may also reach commercial transactions. It is also possible that this case may open selling agents open to lawsuits from their clients for over-disclosure.

Could this happen in South Carolina? A provision in our statutory scheme may save brokers from the fate set out in this case, at least where different branch offices of a real estate firm are involved. Here, each branch office must be managed by a broker-in-charge. South Carolina Code §40-57-350 (I)(2) states that a broker-in-charge and associated licensees in one office of a real estate brokerage firm may conduct business with a client of another office of the real estate brokerage firm without creating a dual agency relationship, so long as the branch offices each have separate brokers-in-charge and do not share the same associated licensees.

I can’t find similar protection for listing and selling agents who work in the same branch office, nor for companies with listing and selling agents in the same location.  And, as we all know, there is no predicting what our court might say in connection with real estate matters. We will have to pay attention to see whether other courts, and particularly South Carolina courts, follow the lead of the California Supreme Court.

*Horiike v. Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Co., 1 C5th 1024 (2016)