Court of Appeals answers novel JTROS question

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In the first Advance Sheet of 2022, our Court of Appeals answered a novel question concerning the severance of a joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The case* involved the estate of a father who owned property in Garden City with his son, one of his five children. Father and son had purchased the property together, each owning a fifty percent interest.  

The facts are simple. The property owners entered into a contract to sell the property in November of 2013, prior to the father’s death on December 20, 2013. The transaction closed on December 27, just seven days after the father’s death. The son, who was also the personal representative, treated the sale as if he was the sole owner and claimed the proceeds of the sale individually. His siblings argued that the contract severed the joint tenancy, entitling the estate to half of the proceeds.

The Probate Court and Circuit Court agreed with the siblings, relying on South Carolina Federal Savings Bank v. San-A-Bel Corporation**, which held that a purchaser under a contract has an equitable lien on the property. The Probate Court reasoned that the sales contract entered into prior to the Decedent’s death encumbered the property, entitling the purchaser possession of the property upon payment of the purchase price and entitling the estate to one-half of the proceeds. The Circuit Court found that the Probate Court had correctly interpreted the law.

Dirt lawyers understand the San-A-Bel case sets up a trap for the unwary lawyer who fails to deal with the equitable lien that case established, but we have never understood that case to affect JTROS severance. The Court of Appeals agrees with us. Since neither San-A-Bel nor the JTROS statutes address the question at hand, the Court decided to look at rulings from other states to address the novel issue of whether a contract of sale severs a joint tenancy.

The Court cited cases from the states of Washington and Florida (citations omitted) and decided to follow the Florida court which held that severance does not automatically occur upon the execution of a contract executed by all joint tenants unless there is an indication in the contract or from the circumstances that the parties intended to sever and terminate the joint tenancy.

The Court found that the contract at issue was silent on the severance issue and no extraneous circumstances indicated severance was intended by the parties, so the joint tenancy was not severed by the contract, and the son was entitled to the sales proceeds.  

Dirt lawyers tend to hold our collective breath when our Courts address a novel real estate issue. But I believe that, this time, we can agree that they got it right. Let me know if you disagree with me!

*In the Matter of the Estate of Moore, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5887, January 5, 2022.

**307 S.C. 76, 413 S.E.2d 852 (Ct. App. 1992).

Should law firms use mascots in advertising?

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Should limitations be imposed on the use of mascots?

One South Carolina law firm claims to have been unfairly targeted

Left Shark Law?

Several news sources (The Post and Courier, The State, AP News) have recently published stories involving a South Carolina law firm with a mascot problem.

According to the news reports, South Carolina attorney John Hawkins said he has been unfairly targeted by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel because of his law firm’s mascot, a hawk. You have probably seen the television ads showing the hawk and actors flapping their arms like hawks to promote the firm’s personal injury practice.

Hawkins has purportedly sued the ODC in Federal Court complaining that the ODC has reached a settlement with another legal entity that uses a tiger as a mascot for a national network of motorcycle accident attorneys styled “Law Tigers.”

Mr. Hawkins has complained in court filings that his mascot is a three-pound bird that eats mice, squirrels, and other small animals, while Law Tiger’s mascot is a 400-plus pound animal that mauls, attacks and eats people. Which mascot, he questions, unfairly represents the ability to “obtain results” in the personal injury arena?

The news reports indicate that two rival law firms and a former employee all filed complaints with the ODC about the hawk mascot in 2017. This year, the ODC filed formal disciplinary charges.

Hawkins’ lawsuit purportedly makes constitutional arguments against the ODC’s enforcement action. I’m not a litigator, but it seems to me that the place to make this argument is in the disciplinary action itself. It never occurred to me that the ODC could be sued in Federal Court.

What do you think, dirt lawyers? Will that suit be dismissed? Can advertising using mascots unfairly tout a law firm’s strength and ability? Are potential clients confused or unduly influenced by the use of mascots? It will be interesting to see how this story plays out.

Finkel Firm files suit against Charleston ROD for neglect of duties

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Real estate practitioners don’t often get excited about litigation, but this lawsuit should bring cheers from dirt lawyers in every part of the Palmetto State! The Finkel Law Firm, LLC, as plaintiff, filed suit on November 24 against Michael Miller, individually and in his official capacity as the Charleston County Register of Deeds. You can read the complaint in its entirety here.

The complaint points to Miller’s chronic and willful failure to timely record real estate documents within one month of delivery. The allegations state that Miller has allowed substantial delays since late 2019, and that these delays have increased significantly in 2021, sometimes amounting to as long as four months.

Further, the complaint states the Charleston ROD routinely files documents that are hand delivered immediately while allowing hundreds or even thousands of documents delivered to his office by mail or parcel delivery to be stored for later filing.

We all know that South Carolina is a race notice state. Delay in filing real estate documents will, of course, create liability for parties and their lawyers. The complaint makes this point clearly.

The law firm alleges that these failures have substantially interfered with its ability to meet its professional obligations to protect the interests of its clients and has exposed the firm to potential liability for correcting title problems resulting from the ROD’s dereliction of duty.

The complaint seeks a writ of mandamus ordering the ROD:

  • To immediately file all real estate documents that have been delivered and have not been filed within one month of delivery;
  • To mark the recorded real estate documents as being recorded on the same date that they were delivered; and
  • To record all real estate documents in the order of the times at which they were brought to the ROD, regardless of whether they are personally delivered or are delivered by U.S. mail or parcel post.

The complaint asks the court to maintain jurisdiction for a reasonable time to monitor the continued operations of the ROD.

Every real estate practitioner in South Carolina should thank their friends at the Finkel Firm for taking this action. And every ROD in the State should take notice!

Did Columbia destroy an archeological structure?

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Court of Appeals holds the City is not responsible

On November 10, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a summary judgment order in favor of the City of Columbia concerning the alleged destruction of an archeological and historical bridge abutment during a sewer rehabilitation project*.

The Brinkmans, Colemans, Fosters and Collins (property owners) own real estate on Castle Road on the banks of the Broad River in Richland County. The City of Columbia owns and operates sewer lines that run beneath portions of the property and has a permanent, 15-foot easement across the property for the purpose of maintaining the sewer lines. In 2014, the City began a sewer rehabilitation project which required access to the sewer lines.

According to the property owners, two bridge abutments stood on their property located outside the easement. The owners claim these abutments, which were made of carved rock, were built in the 1700s and were the “oldest existing structures in the Midlands.”

One of the owners testified that he shouted to the City’s contractors and said there was a valued monument on the property. Unfortunately, while the City and the contractors were clearing the land, they destroyed the stones that allegedly comprised the bridge abutments. The City acquiesced to the owner’s request that all work cease, and the property owners brought the subject lawsuit alleging various causes of action, including the destruction of archaeological resources in violation of §16-11-780 of the South Carolina Code.

This statute states that it is unlawful for a person to willfully, knowingly, or maliciously enter upon the lands of another and disturb or excavate a prehistoric or historic site for the purpose of discovering, uncovering, moving, removing or attempting to remove an archaeological resource.

The property owner’s expert testified that he believed the structures were historic abutments from the 1700s or early 1800s and likely to be the “Compty bridge abutment.” He explained that additional excavation and review of other properties across the river would have been the appropriate “next step”.

The property owners submitted an application in 2008 to the National Register of Historic Places, but the Department responded that a great deal more research and archeological investigation was needed before a determination of eligibility could be made.

The record contains a screenshot from the website “ArchSite. The property owner’s expert testified that ArchSite is a multi-agency website that allows access to the archaeological resources database. He explained that when ArchSite receives information about historic sites, it verifies the information and posts it to the website. The image in the record shows a rendering of part of the Broad River and Castle Road, and it includes the notation “Historic Areas: Broad River Ferry and Bridge Site.”

The trial court found no governing preservation or conservation authority had recognized the structures as either archaeological resources or historical structures. In granting the City’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that the City was not liable under the statute.

The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that no evidence exists that the City cleared the land “for the purpose of” discovering, uncovering, moving, removing or attempting to remove an archaeological resource. Clearly, the City was attempting to clear the easement area to access the sewer lines. In addition, the owners provided no evidence that the City had any knowledge of the historic nature of the site.

The owner who shouted at the contractors could not testify that the contractors heard him and did not know whether this incident took place before or after the destruction of the stones. In addition, the Court held that the owners failed to show the City was obligated to consult ArchSite. The Court also questioned whether the entry on ArchSite contained sufficient information to conclude the property is historic because the entry indicates the site is “not eligible or requires evaluation.”

Finally, the Court held that regardless of whether any preservation or conservation authorities designed the structures as archaeological resources, the property owners failed to demonstrate the City had either actual or constructive knowledge of the existence of such resources.

*Brinkman v. Weston & Sampson Engineers, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5870, November 10, 2021

Borrower sues mortgage lender for violation of attorney preference statute

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Court of Appeals holds lender’s foreclosure action is not a compulsory counterclaim

South Carolina’s Court of Appeals ruled on a noteworthy foreclosure case* in August.

The facts are interesting. In 1998, the borrowers signed a fixed-rate note in the amount of $60,400 at a 9.99% interest rate secured by a mortgage on property in Gaston. The note contained a balloon provision requiring payment in full on July 1, 2013.

On June 27, 2013, days before the note matured, the borrowers brought an action against the lender alleging a violation of South Carolina Code §37-10-102, the Attorney Preference Statute. The complaint alleged that no attorney supervised the closing, that the loan was unconscionable, and that the borrowers were entitled to damages, attorney’s fees and penalties as provided in the Consumer Protection Code. In addition, the complaint asserted a claim under the Unfair Trade Practices Act. All the allegations were premised on the same alleged violation of the Attorney Preference Statute.

The borrowers immediately defaulted on the note, and the lender filed an answer asserting no counterclaims. At trial, the jury found for the lender. About a year later, the borrowers sent a letter by certified mail to the lender requesting that it satisfy the mortgage. The letter included a $40 check to pay the recording fee for the mortgage satisfaction. The lender refused to satisfy the mortgage and returned the check.

The lender brought the present action for foreclosure in October of 2016. The borrowers asserted defenses of res judicata, laches, unclean hands, waiver, and setoff, but admitted no payments had been made on the loan after July 1, 2013. The borrowers then sought a declaratory judgment that the lender held no mortgage on the property, or, alternatively, that the mortgage was unenforceable. They alleged that the lender was liable for failing to satisfy the mortgage and for noncompliance with the Attorney Preference Statute. The lender denied the allegations and argued that the claims under the Attorney Preference Statute were time-barred.

Both parties sought partial summary judgments before the master-in-equity. The master granter the borrower’s motion and denied the lender’s motion. He ruled that the mortgage was satisfied and instructed the lender to file a satisfaction.

On appeal, the lender argued the master erred by finding its foreclosure action was a compulsory counterclaim in the 2013 action. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the two claims arose out of separate transactions. The Attorney Preference claim arose from the closing, while the foreclosure arose from the borrower’s default, according to the Court. The Court reversed the master’s award of partial summary judgment to the borrower and remanded the case for further proceedings. Because of its decision on this issue, the Court determined that it did not need to address the remaining issues.

*Deutsche Bank National Trust Company v. Estate of Houck, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5844, August 11, 2021.

EAO 21-01 says it’s ethical to pay $249 to be on lender’s closing attorney list

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The first Ethics Advisory Opinion of the year is noteworthy for South Carolina real estate practitioners.

Here is a brief summary of the facts:  In a residential refinance, the lender’s loan estimate package provided the name of a specific South Carolina licensed attorney that the bank “identified” as one who could close the loan. The package expressly said the borrower could “shop for (the borrower’s) own providers” for legal and other services.

The borrower informed the bank that a different lawyer had been selected, but the bank’s second set of loan estimate documents again identified a different lawyer and again said the borrower could chose its own provider.

When the borrower asked why another lawyer’s name was identified, the bank responded that the borrower’s chosen lawyer could sign with a third-party company that the bank had contracted with to produce loan forms for an annual fee of $249 to be included on the list.

The borrower’s lawyer did not enroll in the program but did close the loan.

The question to the Ethics Advisory Committee was whether a lawyer may participate in a service provider network for an annual fee of $249 to be listed as an “identified” service provider without violating S.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2(c)?

Rule 7.2 (c) generally provides that a lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services. One exception to the rule is that a lawyer may pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by the Rule.

The Committee pointed to Comment 7 which states that a communication contains a recommendation if it endorses or vouches for a lawyer’s credentials, abilities, competence, character, or other professional qualities. The bank’s form in this case only provides contact information for participating lawyers and indicates the lawyers on the list have been identified. And the borrower is told in each instance that he or she can choose a different lawyer.

The Committee said these limited statements hardly match up the verbs and nouns used to describe a “recommendation” in the comment because the language in the forms says nothing substantive about the credentials, abilities, competence, character, or professional quality of the listed lawyers.

The Opinion further stated that participation in the network appears to be open to any real estate attorney and that the fee appears to be reasonable considering the enrollment, onboarding, and maintenance charges for including attorneys in the network.

The short answer to the question was “yes”, a lawyer may pay the fee and participate in the network of legal service providers and be “identified” as a possible service provider.

It is interesting that the facts included this statement: “The package and disclosures are assumed to be compliant with federal and state requirements for loan applications and attorney-preference notices.” The Committee answered the very specific question put to it and clearly has no authority to address federal law.

Lawyer publicly reprimanded for closing irregularity

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Most South Carolina dirt lawyers were disappointed with the result of the 2017 Quicken Loan case which did not hold, as many had hoped, that a South Carolina licensed lawyer must be at the center of each residential real estate closing, overseeing each step, and ensuring that the consumer client’s interests are protected in each step. That case blessed a scenario where an out-of-state entity oversaw the closing process and divvied up the required lawyer functions among various functions.

A disciplinary case* from August of 2021 demonstrates just one way the scenario approved by Quicken can go awry.

The lawyer was hired by Superior Closing and Title Services, LLC to serve as closing attorney for a home purchase for an attorney’s fee of $200. That fee is our first clue about the type of closing that is the subject of this case.  The Court refers to the purchaser as “C.W.” The lender was 1st Choice Mortgage, and the loan was assigned to Wells Fargo.

Almost two years after the closing, Wells Fargo demanded 1st Choice repurchase the loan because of a discrepancy with the title. The Court states “it was discovered” that C.W. was a straw purchaser who never made a payment on the loan.  The lawyer argued, and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel did not dispute, that the lawyer was unaware of the straw purchase. The closing statement showed a payment by C.W. of $11,598.16. At the closing, a copy of a $12,000 cashier’s check made payable to Superior Closing was shown to the lawyer and to 1st Choice Mortgage as the source of the down payment.

The lawyer signed the normal certification at closing representing that the settlement statement was a true and accurate account of the transaction.

The $12,000 check was never negotiated, and 1st Choice never received the funds. 1st Choice paid over $39,000 to settle the claim with Wells Fargo.

1st Choice sued Superior Closing and the lawyer. The lawyer represented that Superior Closing prepared the closing statement and acknowledged that he failed to properly supervise the preparation of the settlement statement and the disbursement of funds. As a result of the lawsuit, a $39,739 judgment was filed against the lawyer and Superior Closing. The judgment has been satisfied.

We all know how challenging it is to supervise the disbursement of a residential closing where the funds do not flow through the closing attorney’s trust account. This disciplinary case demonstrates the danger of skipping that problematic but necessary step.

*In the Matter of Ebener, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 28047 (August 11, 2021)

This tax sale case has an interesting twist

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The alleged successful purchaser seeks to void the sale!

I’ve always believed our courts will happily void any tax sale on the flimsiest of technicalities, but apparently not when the purported tax sale buyer is the party seeking to get out of the purchase.

Alterna Tax Asset Group, LLC v. York County* is a Court of Appeals case from July dealing with a 2014 tax sale. Alterna claims it was the successful bidder at the sale and sought to void the sale and cancel its ownership relying on §12-61-20 of the South Carolina Code, which reads, in part:

“Any…person…(that) has purchased at or acquired through a tax sale and obtained title to any real or personal property, may bring an action in the court of common pleas of such county for the purpose of barring all other claims thereto.”

The complaint alleged that the title to the property was clouded because of York County’s failure to provide proper notice. The complaint set up four causes of action: (1) declaratory judgment; (2) injunctive relief, (3) quiet title, and (4) unjust enrichment.

The Master consulted the County’s records and took judicial notice that Alterna was neither the purchaser of the property at the tax sale, nor the owner currently listed on the deed. The Master ruled Alterna was not a real party in interest and lacked standing. The Master also ruled that the quoted code section does not create a valid cause of action to void a tax sale.

Alterna appealed claiming the Master erred in taking judicial notice of the public records. The Court of Appeals termed this use of judicial notice “problematic” but decided the appeal on what it called a more fundamental issue:  whether, as the alleged tax sale purchaser, Alterna may seek to rescind its successful purchase based on the facts in this case.

Since the purpose of the code section is to clear tax titles, the Court held that Alterna states to viable cause of action when it seeks to defeat rather than defend its title.

The Court accepted for the purposes of this appeal from a 12(b)(6) motion Alterna’s allegation that it purchased the property at the tax sale and concluded that no valid causes of action for declaratory judgment or injunctive relief existed.

The Court then stated that the remaining questions whether a winning bidder at a tax sale may use the quiet title doctrine or claim of unjust enrichment to defeat rather affirm the bidder’s title, are novel questions in South Carolina. The Court held that the complaint does not allege a proper cause of action for quiet title because there is no existing adverse claim. Neither the County nor anyone else was challenging Alterna’s tax title, so the claim is “imaginary or speculative”.

The unjust enrichment cause of action, which claimed the county was enriched by picketing the tax sale proceeds yet delivering a clouded title, collides, according to the Court, with South Carolina Code §12-51-160, which establishes as a matter of law the presumption that a tax deed is prima facie evidence of good title.

The Court further noted that Alterna’s alleged cloud on the title, that York County’s notification was defective, was a matter of public record visible to Alterna before the sale.

Finally, the Court held that Alterna’s claim was not a justiciable controversy. Alterna claimed its title was hopelessly clouded and would someday be snatched away by someone with a superior claim. The court resisted the request to “tame paper tigers or pass upon issues not subject to a genuine, concrete dispute.”

This is a very interesting case! I’ll keep you posed of future developments.

*South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5836, July 14, 2021

South Carolina Supreme Court protects Captain Sam’s Spit again

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Photo courtesy of the Post and Courier

This blog has discussed “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island three times before. Googling that picturesque name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a beautiful and extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

In the latest case*, South Carolina’s Supreme Court refers to the property as one of our state’s only three remaining pristine sandy beaches readily accessible to the general public. The other two are Hunting Island State Park and Huntington Beach State Park. I enjoy the blessing of walking the pristine beach of Huntington Beach State Park on a regular basis, so despite having a career on the periphery of real estate development, I am in favor of maintaining these three state treasures.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in 2016 and 2018 included field trips to Captain Sam’s Spit, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University of South Carolina School of Law was an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as dirt lawyers, have for field trips? The South Carolina Environmental Law Project, located in Pawleys Island, fights these cases. Amy Armstrong, an attorney with that entity, joined our group to explain the environmental and legal issues.

Here are greatly simplified facts. Captain Sam’s Spit encompasses approximately 170 acres of land above the mean high-water mark along the southwestern tip of Kiawah Island and is surrounded by water on three sides. The Spit is over a mile long and 1,600 feet at its widest point, but the focal point of the latest appeal is the land along the narrowest point (the “neck”), which is the isthmus of land connecting it to the remainder of Kiawah Island. The neck occurs at a deep bend in the Kiawah River where it changes direction before eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via Captain Sam’s Inlet.

The neck has been migrating eastward because of the erosive forces of the Kiawah River. The “access corridor”—the buildable land between the critical area and the ocean-side setback line—has narrowed significantly in the past decade to less than thirty feet. Googling this issue will lead to active maps which show the change over time. The width of the neck is significant because the developer needs enough space to build a road. At the base of the neck is Beachwalker Park, operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission. Our fieldtrips were conducted on that Park.

Previously, the administrative law court (ALC), over the initial objection of DHEC, has granted permits for the construction of an extremely large erosion control device in the critical area. In the prior cases (citations omitted), the Supreme Court found the ALC erred. The current appeal stems from the ALC’s third approval of another structure termed “gargantuan” by the Supreme Court—a 2,380-foot steel sheet pile wall designed to combat the erosive forces carving into the sandy river shoreline in order to allow the developer to construct the road to support the development of fifty houses. The Court again reversed and, in effect, shut down the proposed development, at least temporarily. The economic interests of an increased tax base and employment opportunities do not justify eliminating the public’s use of protected tidelands, according to the Court.

After a motion for a re-hearing, the result is the same. The Court reaffirmed its earlier decision without further arguments. We’ve pondered whether each case is the end of the litigation. At this point, we don’t know. Creative developers and lawyers may make further attempts to proceed. Stay tuned.

*South Carolina Coastal Conservative League v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28031 (June 2, 2021); Re-Filed September 1, 2021.

Court decides an interesting, but unpublished, case on the effect of a plat notation

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Unpublished opinions don’t typically get my attention, but my friend, Bill Booth, sent this one* to me because he found it interesting, and I do, too. As a reminder, unpublished opinions have no precedential value, but they sometimes provide insight on how the Court might react in a similar situation, at least under the current makeup of the court.

The issue in this case was whether a notation on a subdivision plat that certain lots were “for agricultural use only” created a valid restriction of the use of the lots. Mikell Scarborough, Master-in-Equity for Charleston County, granted summary judgment, relying on extrinsic evidence to conclude that there was no intent to create a restriction despite the plain language on the face of the plat. That decision was affirmed.

The Court cited familiar cases holding that restrictive covenants are contractual in nature and must be strictly construed in favor of the free use of property. The Court also referred to cases holding that when a deed describes land as shown on a plat, the plat becomes a part of the deed. The interesting twist became whether the plat notation created an ambiguity that would allow the introduction of extrinsic evidence.

The Court found that the language in the plat was not ambiguous, but that the origin of the note created the ambiguity. The surveyor provided an affidavit to the effect that the Charleston County Planning Commission placed the agricultural use restriction on the plat “for the purpose of indicating that Charleston County would not, at that time, approve building permits for the lots because (the lots in question) did not meet current minimum standards for a modified conventional sub-service disposal system.”

When the plat was submitted for approval, the property owners included a letter explaining they were aware that the land possessed poor soil conditions for septic systems. The letter requested that the subdivision be approved with the stipulation that any lot that did not support a septic system would be restricted from becoming a building lot until public sewer service became available.

The case doesn’t make this point clear, but I am assuming the Appellant sued other lot owners who had built on their lots despite the plat notation. In other words, the Appellant wanted the restriction enforced as to other lots, not the lot the Appellant purchased. Interestingly, one house had been built before the Appellant purchased its lot.

A representative of the Appellant claimed he relied on the plat notation and that his title insurance company told him the lots were restricted. The Court found it significant, however, that the property owners who recorded the plat did not intend to restrict the property.

The Appellant argued that the deeds for all the lots specifically state that the property is subject to all restrictions, reservations, easements and other limitations that appear of record, including on the Plat. The Court held, citing 20 Am. Jur. 2d Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions §151 (2015) that common “subject to” language does not create a restriction where none exists.

The Appellant also argued that an agricultural use exception in the title insurance policy was evidence that the restriction ran with the land, but the Court held that the title insurance company was merely noting the provision was on the plat so that it would not be liable if the Appellant could not build on its lot.  

The Court concluded that the record does not contain a scintilla of evidence to support the imposition of a building restriction on the Respondents’ lots.

Carpenter Braselton, LLC v. Roberts, South Carolina Court of Appeals Unpublished Opinion No. 2021-UP-280.