South Carolina lawyers: We have a new UPL case

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This blog is about dirt, and the facts of the new unauthorized practice of law case do not involve real estate, but who among us doesn’t like to keep up with what our Supreme Court is thinking about UPL, the topic we believe can make us or break us at any moment?

The case, Westbrook v. The Murkin Group, LLC*, was decided March 18 and involved a Florida company that provides debt collection services in exchange for contingency fees. The Murkin Group advertises itself as having “in-house collection specialists”. Under the terms of its agreement with clients, once an account is turned over to Murkin, the client agrees to cease all communication with the debtor and to allow Murkin to be the sole point of contact. The agreement further authorizes Murkin to forward accounts to an attorney designated by Murkin when legal action is required.

In 2017, Wando River Grill became dissatisfied with its linen supplier, Cintas, and suspended its services. Cintas claimed the suspension constituted a breach of contract and invoked a liquidated damages provision in the contract, seeking more than $8,000 in damages. Cintas hired Murkin to collect the debt.  A South Carolina licensed attorney represented the restaurant in the dispute.

Murkin sent a demand letter, and the parties began to communicate about the dispute via email. Murkin claimed Cintas would waive its damages claim if the restaurant paid a “one-time processing fee for reinstatement”. Murkin prepared and sent the reinstatement agreement to the restaurant with signature lines for the restaurant and “The Murkin Group, on behalf of Cintas Corporation – Charleston, SC.”

The restaurant sent the proposed reinstatement agreement to the Petitioner, its lawyer, Edward Westbrook. Westbrook contacted Murkin and asked to discuss the matter directly with Murkin’s South Carolina counsel. The response was, “Whether or not this gets forwarded to local counsel is a decision which out office will make, with our client, when we feel it appropriate.”

(I can only imagine how that comment was received!)

The dispute continued, and Westbrook emailed Murkin asking for the South Carolina Bar numbers of several Murkin employees. Westbrook then filed a declaratory judgment action pursuant to our Supreme Court’s request that individuals who become aware of UPL bring a declaratory judgment action in the Court’s original jurisdiction.

The Court referred the matter to a special referee who filed a report recommending that the Court find Murkin’s actions constituted UPL.

The Supreme Court held that Murkin engaged in UPL when it interpreted Cintas’ client agreement and gave legal opinions as to what damages were recoverable. It also engaged in UPL when it sought to negotiate the contract dispute and advised Cintas on settlement.

While Murkin characterized its actions as “debt collection”, the Court stated that the true nature of the underlying matter is a contract dispute. The Court enjoined Murkin from engaging in any further such conduct.

 

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27952 (March 18, 2020).

Recent HOA foreclosure case leads to new rule in Beaufort County

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Master imposes rule based on Chief Justice Beatty’s concurring opinion

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This blog recently discussed the remarkable homeowners’ association foreclosure case, Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, 2019.) You can read the earlier blog here.

The case focused on the inadequacy of the foreclosure sales price and the business model of a third party to leverage a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear eviction. I believe the case will require HOA foreclosure attorneys to rethink their approach going forward.

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beatty said he would go a step further than the majority opinion and adopt the equity method of determining an adequate sales price for residential property in a foreclosure. The equity method compares the winning bid price to the equity in the property. The alternative debt method compares the total debt on the property to its fair market value.

The majority opinion stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but a search of our South Carolina’s jurisprudence reveals that our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does. In this case, the debt method would have resulted in a ratio of 53.9 percent, while the equity method would have resulted in a ratio of 4.9%.

The new rule of the Beaufort County Master-in-Equity Marvin Dukes focuses on a totally separate issue in the case. The homeowners, who were in default, did not receive a notice of the date and time of the foreclosure sale. Judge Dukes’ office disseminated a message to foreclosure attorneys requiring new wording in foreclosure orders.

The new required wording entitled “Special Default Foreclosure Order and Sale Notice Service Instructions” reads as follows:

That, in addition to all notices to the property owner(s) which are required by the  SCRCP or other law, in a case involving property owner’s SCRPC 55 default, or any other case or circumstances where property owner(s) would not ordinarily receive a copy of the Order of Foreclosure and/or Notice of Sale, the party seeking foreclosure (Foreclosing Party) shall, within 5 (five) days of the execution of this Order cause this Order and Notice of Sale (if available) to be served by US Mail upon said property owner(s).

An affidavit of such service shall be filed with the Clerk of Court expeditiously.

In cases where the Notice of Sale is executed later in time than the Order, service shall be accomplished separately, and shall be sent no later than 5 (five) days from receipt by the Foreclosing Party.”

I suspect additional guidance will be coming from our courts about whether the Winrose case will have broad application in foreclosure cases or be limited to its facts. I’m confident foreclosure attorneys feel they need more information.

Representing a subcontractor and a homeowner against the contractor. Is it ethical?

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Please take a look at South Carolina Bar Ethics Advisory Opinion 19-05 here. This blog rarely touches litigation, primarily because the litigation knowledge of this blogger would fit easily on the head of a pin. But this EAO does affect real estate, and I can envision dirt lawyers getting themselves into this ethical conundrum, so here goes.

The facts are simple:  The attorney represents a subcontractor against a contractor regarding payment for work performed on a new home. The time for filing a mechanics’ lien has run, and the contractor has been paid in full. The homeowners want to retain the attorney to represent them to sue the contractor for breach of contract and negligently performed construction work. The homeowners’ claims do not appear to involve the work of the subcontractor.

The attorney is concerned that the contractor may not have sufficient assets to satisfy judgments of both parties.

So, the question becomes whether the attorney may ethically represent both parties.

The Ethics Advisory Committee provides the framework for consideration, but leaves the difficult analysis to the attorney.

The short answer is: The attorney may represent both parties provided the attorney analyses the prospective representation under Rule 1.7, SCRPC, and then considers whether the “material limitation” conflicts section in section (a)(2) may apply.

The attorney must also evaluate the risk of future availability of assets and should engage in a course of ongoing assessment for conflicts, particularly those that may arise if the claims are reduced to judgments and the clients dispute their recovery amounts relative to each other.

Rule 1.7 provides:

  • Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a current conflict of interest. A current conflict of interest exists if:
  • The representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or (2) there is significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third party or by a personal interest of the lawyer.
  • Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:
  • the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;
  • the representation is not prohibited by law;
  • the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and
  • each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

 

 

(I added the emphasis.)

The material limitation of (a)(2) is the primary concern. Given the attorney’s concern about the sufficiency of the assets of the contractor to satisfy judgments, the attorney must evaluate whether that potential risk may materially limit his ability to represent either party.

The Committee eliminated (b)(2) and (b)(3) from consideration based on comments to the rule.

The analysis boils down to (b)(1) and (b)(4): the attorney’s assessment of whether he can provide competent and diligent representation to both parties and whether they consent to the representation after being informed of the benefits and risks of joint representation, particularly of the possibility of inadequate assets and the possibility of needing new counsel should they dispute recovery between themselves.

What do you think? Would you do it?

SC Supreme Court may have eradicated HOA foreclosures

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Third party bid was held grossly inadequate

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On December 18, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided a case that will force homeowners’ association attorneys to carefully consider whether they will initiate foreclosure actions in the future*. This blog discussed the Court of Appeals case last April. You can read that blog here but the very short version is that the Court of Appeals did not upset any apple carts and left the foreclosure process status quo.

The facts are simple. Mr. and Mrs. Hale bought their home in Richland County in 1998 for $104,250. In the next 20+ years, they built up $60,000 in equity, and the property now has a fair market value of $128,000.

In 2011, the Hales fell behind on their homeowners’ association payments. The HOA initiated a foreclosure complaint seeking a sale of the property in exchange for $566.41 in principal and interest. The Hales defaulted.

Interestingly, after the affidavit of default was filed, the HOA sent the Hales a bill for $250, which they paid. Also interestingly, the law firm representing the HOA sent the Hales a notice that the lien had been satisfied.

Three months after the HOA filed the affidavit of default, the Master entered a default judgment, calculating the amount due to the HOA as $2,898.67, comprised of $250 in principal, $80.87 in interest, $542.80 in litigation costs and $2,025 in attorneys’ fees. The property was sold at auction two weeks later to a third party, Regime Solutions, LLC.

This is the Hale’s explanation of the facts in their motion to vacate the sale:

“When we were served with the lawsuit to take away our home, I put the papers in a drawer and forgot about them. Some time after that, we received a bill from the HOA asking for the $250.00. I paid that without a problem. In November, we received a letter from the law firm of (the HOA) telling us that the Lien had been Satisfied…I thought that everything was OK after that. The next thing I know, someone is knocking on my door telling me that they bought my home and that me and my family were being evicted.”

The Master denied the Hales’ motion and adopted the position that the “effective sales price” was $69,040, consisting of the successful bid plus the balance of the mortgage. In his order, Richland County’s Master-in-Equity, Joseph Strickland, stated that “the practice of homeowners’ association foreclosures would effectively be eradicated if (the Hale’s) position came to bear.”

The appeal was handled by the law office of my friend, Brian Boger, a Columbia lawyer and well-known champion of consumers’ rights. The appeal argued that the $3,036 bid “shocked the conscience” and violated equitable principles.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Chief Justice Lockemy dissented, saying:

“A buyer at a judicial sale in which a senior lienholder is not a party takes the property subject to that lien, but the buyer is not responsible for its payment. The evidence in this cases shows (the Hales) have continued to pay the mortgage for a home for which they have no title because they will suffer the severe consequences of default if they do not. The buyer (Regime) has paid nothing. I do not believe it proper to give a judicial sale buyer credit for assuming a debt which is not legally required to pay.”

The Supreme Court seemed truly troubled by Regime’s business model. In a footnote, the Court stated that Regime either allows the senior mortgagee to (re)foreclose on the property or quitclaims the property to the original homeowners for a hefty fee. The Court seemed to be disturbed by Regime’s failure to assume mortgages in the ordinary course of its business.

The Court discussed two methods to calculate whether a bid price is so grossly inadequate as to shock the conscience. The debt method is a ratio comparing the total debt on the property to the fair market value. Under the debt method, Regime would have paid 53.9% of the value of the property. The equity method is a ratio comparing the winning bid price to the equity in the property. Under the equity method, Regime would have paid 4.9% of the value of the property.

The Court stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but that a search of our jurisprudence reveals our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does.

The Court stated that when the foreclosure purchaser assumes the mortgage, the debt method should be used. But the court rejected the blind application of the debt method because of the facts in this case. Under these facts, the Court stated, applying the equity method is the only logical option.

The Court expressed concern about the foreclosure proceeding itself, stating that it morphed in to “a proxy to capitalize on a small debt”. The Court said it was especially troubled by Regime’s participation in a foreclosure proceeding to accommodate its business model of leveraging a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear the prospect of an eviction. The Court said, “We do not countenance the improper use of foreclosure proceedings by the HOA, its attorney or Regime.”

The decision should not be read as a shift toward providing relief to homeowners despite their own poor choices, according to the Court. The Court said the case would have turned out very differently if the HOA and Regime had pursued “foreclosure in the normal course and made affirmative efforts to assume the Hales’ mortgage”. And that under the “unique facts of this case”, the Hales have demonstrated Regime’s bid was grossly inadequate.

I am quite sure my foreclosure lawyer friends are deciding how to change their practices in light of this case. I’m not sure the Court is correct about the normal course of foreclosures. I also doubt that the facts in this case are unique.

Justice Beatty concurred in a separate opinion, stating that he would adopt the equity method generally. That approach would certainly provide more clarity. Justice Beatty also said, “homeownership is the quintessential American dream. Purchasing a home is the largest investment that most South Carolinians will make. To allow the hard-earned equity to be confiscated by a bidder’s minimal investment is unconscionable. This is especially troubling when the foreclosure sale is the result of an HOA lien.”

For many reasons, I am glad today that I am not a foreclosure lawyer!

*Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, , 2019).

SC Supreme Court rule change affects every lawyer with a trust account

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Make one simple change to stay in compliance

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On October 23, our Supreme Court implemented several changes to the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules dealing with lawyer and judicial disciplinary rules enforcement procedures. If things go well in our respective practices, most of us will never have to study the rule changes.

But one change affects every lawyer with a trust account.

Rule 1.15(h) of the Rules of Professional Conduct has been amended to state that every lawyer maintaining a trust account must file a written directive requiring his or her financial institution to report to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, rather than to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct, when any properly payable instrument is presented for payment against insufficient funds.

In other words, NSF checks must now be reported by your bank to the ODC.

The Court recognized in a footnote that these written directives will take time to update and that lawyers whose written directives currently require reporting to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct are not in violation of the rule. The Court stated that lawyers should update these directives at their earliest convenience.

Most dirt lawyers pay close attention to detail, and I would recommend paying attention to this one sooner rather than later.

SC DOR announces implementation of tax lien registry as of Nov. 1

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SC tax liens will no longer be filed in individual Counties

This blog previously discussed tax lien legislation effective March 28, 2019 that will change the way titles are examined in South Carolina. The South Carolina Department of Revenue has announced that the change will be effective November 1.

The announcement indicates the statewide tax lien registry will have a similar look and feel to the Mississippi Department of Revenue Lien Registry, which can be accessed here.

The legislation, an amendment to South Carolina Code §12-54-122, is intended to allow the Department of Revenue (DOR) to implement a statewide system of filing and indexing tax liens centrally, that is, “accessible to the public over the internet or through other means”. Once the new system in in place, the clerks of court and registers of deeds will be relieved of their statutory obligation to maintain newly filed tax liens.

The new law states that it is not to be construed as extending the effectiveness of a tax lien beyond ten years from the filing date, as set out in South Carolina Code §12-54-120.

When the new system is implemented, the law requires a notice to be posted in each county where liens are generally filed providing instructions on how to access the DOR’s tax lien database.

We will keep you posted as more details become available. Title insurance company underwriters will certainly weigh in on this issue.

South Carolina Supreme Court abolishes common law marriage

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Maybe we’ll get a “Big Chill” sequel

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The Big Chill” is one of my husband’s favorite movies, in fact, it’s up there with “Braveheart” and “Casablanca”. Several years ago, we celebrated a milestone birthday by inviting two couples who were friends from law school to the mountains for a “Big Chill Weekend” of eating great food, playing great music* and reminiscing about the old days. We did agree to eliminate drugs and spouse swapping from the Big Chill agenda.

Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court abolished common law marriage in South Carolina.** This rule will be prospective only. Parties may no longer enter into a valid marriage in South Carolina without a license.

Hang on. I will explain how the movie and common law marriage in South Carolina connect for those too young to remember the news. (And the connection has nothing to do with our Big Chill weekend.)

When the movie was being filmed in the winter of 1982-83 in Beaufort, actor William Hurt was living with Sandra Jennings, a former dancer in the New York City Ballet. Ms. Jennings became pregnant with Mr. Hurt’s son, Alexander Devon Hurt, who was born in 1983. The couple lived together in New York and on the road from 1981 – 1984.

When the couple split, Ms. Jennings brought suit in New York claiming a share of Mr. Hurt’s substantial assets, based on the theory that they had established a common law marriage during the few months they lived in South Carolina. She sought a divorce. Child support was not an issue because Mr. Hurt was paying $65,000 per year to support the couple’s son. Common law marriages hadn’t been recognized in New York since 1933, so the claim was based on South Carolina law and the short time the couple lived together in Beaufort.

Ms. Jennings was not successful in the law suit, but litigation is very expensive and the story got lots of mileage in South Carolina. The standing line was that actors had to be careful in this state! Maybe the cast can finally return for a sequel.

The Supreme Court stated that the time has come to join the overwhelming national trend, despite our legislature’s failure, to abolish common law marriage. The court said, “The paternalistic motivations underlying common-law marriage no longer outweigh the offenses to public policy the doctrine engenders.”  I know some other outdated ideas I’d like to see abolished in South Carolina.

* Favorite lines from the movie which demonstrate, in part, why it’s a favorite: Michael:  “Harold, don’t you have any other music, you know, from this century?” Harold: “There is no other music, not in my house.”  There is no other music in the Manning house either.

Favorite movie trivia: The dead guy, the corpse being dressed for his funeral in the opening scenes, was played by none other than Kevin Costner. There were plans to have flash-back scenes to the characters’ college antics, but those scenes were later eliminated.

** Stone v. Thompson, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27908 (July 24, 2019).