Court of Appeals sets a timing rule on ATI exemption

Standard

The new rule favors the taxpayer

A case* from the South Carolina Court of Appeals on August 26 concerns South Carolina Code Section 12-17-3135 which allows a 25% property tax exemption when there is an “Assessable Transfer of Interest” of real estate. The issue was one of timing, whether a property owner must claim this exemption during the first year of eligibility.

The Administrative Law Judge had consolidated two cases. In both cases, the property owner had purchased property during the closing months of 2012. Neither taxpayer claimed the ATI Exemption in 2013, but both claimed it in January of 2014. The Dorchester County Assessor denied the requests, but the ALJ decided the exemptions had been timely claimed.

The statutory language in question provides that the county assessor must be notified before January 31 for the tax year for which the owner first claims eligibility. The taxpayers argued that the plain meaning of this language allows them to choose when to claim the exemption. The Assessor argued that the exemption must be claimed by January 31 of the year following the transfers.

The Court looked at taxation of real property as a whole and held that the legislature intended that all purchasers would have a meaningful opportunity to claim the exemption. Under the Assessor’s interpretation, there would be a much less meaningful opportunity for taxpayers who purchase property later in the calendar year.

The Court also stated that the ATI Exemption is not allowed to override the appraised value set in the statutorily required five-year reassessment scheme, so there would be a built-in time limit for claiming the exemption.

 

*Fairfield Waverly, LLC v. Dorchester County Assessor, Opinion 5769 (August 26, 2020)

Court of Appeals decides same-sex common law marriage case

Standard

pride flag gay marriage

In a same-sex common law marriage case, our Court of Appeals recently weighed in on the applicability in South Carolina of Obergefell v. Hodges*, the 2015 United States Supreme Court case that held same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry and that state laws challenged in that case were invalid to the extent they exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.

In an appeal from the family court’s dismissal of Cathy Swicegood’s complaint alleging the existence of a common-law marriage with her same-sex partner, Polly Thompson, Swicegood argued the family court erred by dismissing the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction**.

The family court case was filed in 2014. While Swicegood’s appeal was pending, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Obergefell.

The case sought an order recognizing the existence of a common-law marriage, a decree of separate support and maintenance, alimony, equitable division of marital property and related relief. Swicegood alleged she and Thompson cohabited as sole domestic partners for over thirteen years, until December 10, 2013, agreed to be married and held themselves out as a married couple. She also alleged the couple exchanged and wore wedding rings, co-owned property as joint tenants with the right of survivorship and included each other as devisees in their wills. She also alleged they shared a joint bank account and that Thompson listed her as a “domestic partner/qualified beneficiary” on Thompson’s health insurance and as a beneficiary on her retirement account.

Thompson moved to dismiss the action, alleging the family court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Swicegood’s complaint because the parties were not married and lacked the capacity to marry.

Swicegood submitted the affidavits of two individuals who each attested they witnessed a wedding ceremony between Swicegood and Thompson in Las Vegas on February 12, 2011.

Thompson submitted a memorandum and several exhibits in support of her motion to dismiss. She argued that in August 2012 and September 2013, she and Swicegood signed affidavits of domestic partnership in which they acknowledged they had “a close personal relationship in lieu of a lawful marriage,” were “unmarried” and “not married to anyone.”

Thompson contended these documents indicated the parties did not hold themselves out as a married couple. In her affidavit, Thompson attested Swicegood knew they were not married. She stated she and Swicegood participated in a “commitment ceremony” in Las Vegas “on a lark,” but they knew it was not a wedding and that they could not legally marry in Nevada. Thompson attested she gave Swicegood several rings during their relationship, but she intended none of these to signify they were married. She stated she was not and never had been married to Swicegood: “We both knew that if we wanted to get married, we could go to a state that allowed same-sex marriage. It was not our intent to enter into marriage, and we did not”.

The family court dismissed Swicegood’s complaint, concluding it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the issues because a common-law marriage was not legally possible pursuant to section 20-1-15 of the South Carolina Code (2014), which was still in force at the time. That statute read: “A marriage between persons of the same sex is void ab initio and against the public policy of this State.”

The Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion remanding the case to the family court with instructions to “consider the implications of Obergefell on its subject matter jurisdiction.” The family court again concluded it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, finding that although Obergefell applied to common-law marriages, it could not retroactively create a common-law marriage between the parties.

The court concluded Obergefell could not “logically be read to exclude common-law marriages,” and so long as South Carolina continued to recognize the validity of common-law marriages for opposite-sex couples, it had “a constitutionally mandated duty to recognize the validity of common-law marriages for same-sex couples.” The court did not expressly resolve the question of whether Obergefell applied retroactively, but it concluded the couple could not have formed a common-law marriage because section 20-1-15 was in place throughout the couple’s thirteen-year period of cohabitation, and they believed they lacked the legal right to be a married couple.

The Court of Appeals applied Obergefell retroactively, but held that retroactive application of the decision did not require them to ignore the fact a state statute operated as an impediment to the formation of a common-law marriage between same-sex couples when it was still in force. Our state law concerning impediments to marriage was held to be “a pre-existing, separate, independent rule of state law, having nothing to do with retroactivity,” which formed an “independent legal basis” for the family court’s dismissal of Swicegood’s complaint.

 

*135 United States Supreme Court 2584 (2015).

**Swicegood v. Thompson, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5725 (July 1, 2020)

SC Supreme Court disbars two lawyers

Standard

red card - suit

On June 24, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued two disciplinary opinions that both resulted in disbarment. Both involved interesting fact patterns, and I invite you to read  them as cautionary tales.

In the Matter of Brooks* involved a lawyer who was sworn in on February 19, 2019. Her application had been based on the Uniform Bar Exam score from Wyoming. One day after her admission, the Office of Bar Admissions learned that the lawyer had knowingly provided false or misleading information in her application.

She failed to disclose information about 2005 and 2014 arrests for driving under the influence (DUI), a resulting license suspension, use of cocaine and marijuana during her release as well as issues with Character and Fitness Boards in bar applications in other jurisdictions.

Bottom line: do not lie or omit facts on bar applications if you seek to practice in other jurisdictions. And advise potential South Carolina lawyers in your life to tell the truth and the whole truth on their applications.

The other case** is interesting only because of an underlying criminal conviction. The lawyer stole about $440,000 from trust accounts and was sentenced to probation. Never having worked in the criminal law arena, this sentence sounds unreasonably lenient to me. The disbarment makes complete sense though.

Bottom line: do not ever touch client funds for your own use!  Don’t borrow client funds, planning to replace them. Remove from your thought processes the idea that client funds are available to you for any reason other than to protect them for your clients.

 

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27983 (June 24, 2020).

**In The Matter of Collins, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27984 (June 24, 2020).

The Episcopal Church property saga continues

Standard

We have a new circuit court order

This is my third blog about the controversy surrounding the properties of various Episcopal churches in South Carolina. I previously said I am thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempt to decipher these issues.

charleston episcopal churches

St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Episcopal Churches, Downtown Charleston, SC 

In August of 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a 77-page opinion in this litigation. We now have a new circuit court order, and I am confident we will hear more at a later date.

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. The South Carolina Supreme Court seemed to indicate that the 29 breakaway churches had to return their properties to the national church under the “Dennis Canon”. But the Supreme Court left open the possibility that the lower court might clarify the position, and clarify Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson did.

He wrote that state law, not church law, requires the transfer of real property by deed. He said that no parish expressly acceded to the Dennis Canon. He said, “This is a property case. A decision on property ownership is usually governed by the title to real estate—the deed. In this case, all the plaintiff parishes hold title to their property in fee simple absolute.”

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. Future appeals are almost guaranteed. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when 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.

The South Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling upheld 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. The new circuit court order begs to differ.

I continue to be thankful that I am 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.

SC lawyers connected to Hardwick receive admonitions

Standard

Nat HardwickIn additional fallout from the Nat Hardwick fiasco in Atlanta, the South Carolina Supreme Court has anonymously admonished two bar members for failing to restrict access to South Carolina-based trust accounts containing client funds and failing to ensure proper monthly reconciliations of those accounts*.

This blog has discussed Nat Hardwick, a name familiar to many South Carolina real estate lawyers three times. He was convicted in 2018 of embezzling more than $25 million from his former companies, including his former law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider. In February of 2019, 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. In May of 2019 Hardwick and Maura were ordered to pay $40 million in restitution.

Nathan E. Hardwick IV, 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.

This story hits close to home. My company was one of the victims of the crimes and one of the parties awarded restitution because it funded the firm’s escrow accounts when the losses were discovered.

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. Her lawyer argued at the restitution hearing that she should be liable for only $900,000, the amount she admitted taking from the firm for her own benefit. She had agreed to pay restitution in that amount as a part of her plea bargain.

During the trial, 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.

Hardwick’s former partners, Mark Wittstadt and his brother, Gerald Wittstadt, were each awarded $6 million in restitution, and Art Morris, a retired member of the firm, was awarded $5 million.  All claim damage to their reputations in addition to substantial monetary losses.

These two South Carolina disciplinary cases began in May of 2014 when SunTrust Bank reported it paid three wires that were presented against insufficient funds on one of the firm’s South Carolina IOLTA accounts, leaving the account overdrawn by more than $65,000. Approximately a month later, the bank reported the same account was overdrawn by more than $18,000. The ODC began its investigation about the same time the law firm and my company began investigating the problems in Atlanta.

In South Carolina, the misappropriations occurred primarily through online transfers between firm trust accounts. More than $9 million in transfers in and out of the South Carolina trust accounts occurred during 2014 alone. As a result of the investigations and the subsequent funding of the shortage by my company, no South Carolinians lost funds.

*In re Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar, SC Supreme Court case 27937 (May 27, 2020) and In re Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar, SC Supreme Court case 27974 (May 27, 2020).

Homeowners’ Association information at your fingertips

Standard

The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs announced on May 12 the availability of its website containing a wealth of information about homeowners’ associations. Check out the website here.

The site includes frequently asked questions about homeowners’ associations as well as an outline of South Carolina law, contact information of individuals who may be able to help and other resources.

If you represent homeowners’ associations, you probably have this information at your fingertips, but if you are a dirt lawyer who infrequently gets asked questions like, “Can my homeowners’ association impose a fine or file a lien if my renter….

  • Drives a motorcycle into the neighborhood;
  • Hangs towels to dry on the deck;
  • Parks an RV in the driveway;
  • Let’s too many kids use the pool?”

Or, “can I withhold the payment of assessments to my homeowners’ association because it refuses to enforce the prohibition against the chickens my neighbor maintains?”

Or, “I want to paint my front door fuchsia. There are a variety of crazy colors in the neighborhood, but the homeowners’ association guidelines say only a set of approved colors can be used on the exterior of residences. Can they enforce that rule?”

Have you heard questions like this? I certainly have.

Use this website to be able to communicate the answers to your clients in a succinct way, without a lot of legal research.

Court of Appeals case lets us talk dirt

Standard

oyster shell walkway small

In the midst of COVID-19, it’s a pleasure to return to a simple discussion of South Carolina dirt law. A case decided by our Court of Appeals last week* surrounds the rights of a condominium project’s owner’s association and a successor developer.

The Edgewater on Broad Creek is a luxury condominium project in Hilton Head developed beginning in 2002. The developer, Broad Creek Edgewater, L.P. planned to develop the project on 23.65 acres in multiple phases. Phase 1, located on 7.64 acres of the property, consisted of a building containing 23 units and a clubhouse. The developer recorded a master deed in Beaufort County on December 31, 2002. In the master deed, the developer reserved the right to incorporate the remaining 16.01 acres into future phases.

The developer failed in the great recession. Its creditors placed Broad Creek Edgewater, L.P. into involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy in May of 2007. The bankruptcy court approved a sale of the additional property to Bear Properties, LLC on May 28, 2008. In addition to the property, the successor developer was given all of the developer’s reserved rights by a quitclaim deed and a bill of sale. Later, Bear Properties assigned all its rights and interests to Appian Visions, LLC, which subsequently assigned its rights and interests to Ephesian Ventures, LLC, the appellant in this case.

While the parties are involved in other litigation, this case involves the attempted construction of a pool and tabby walk by the owner’s association on Phase 1. In March of 2010, the association sought a development permit from the Town of Hilton Head to construct a swimming pool. Following a hearing, the permit was granted and the association began construction. Later, the association began constructing a tabby walk leading from the residential building to the swimming pool. Construction was halted when the Town notified the association that an additional permit was required for the tabby walk.

Ephesian administratively opposed the permit to construct the tabby walk, alleging the master deed required its approval for any construction. The Town rescinded approval for the development permits, stating that it planned to hold the matters in abeyance until the covenant issue was resolved. In 2011, the association brought suit in circuit court seeking a declaratory judgment as to Ephesian’s reserved rights in Phase 1. The association sought an order that it had a right to construct a swimming pool and other amenities on Phase 1, subject only to the land use requirements of the Town, free of any interference by Ephesian.

Although the developer argued that other language created an ambiguity,  language focused on by the Master in Equity and Court of Appeals reads:

“The Declarant expressly reserves the right to improve the aforementioned property by clearing, tree pruning, constructing additional parking and common facilities, including, but not necessarily limited to recreational facilities, draining facilities, lagoons, and the like, pertaining to The Edgewater on Broad Creek Horizontal Property Regime.”

The Master in Equity found, and the Court of Appeals agreed, viewing the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the successor developer, as is required in considering summary judgment, that the successor developer maintains the right to construct additional amenities in Phase 1, but that this right is not exclusive.

The Court held that the master deed was unambiguous in its reservation of a non-exclusive right in the developer. Litigation between the parties is likely to continue, so we may be able to discuss further developments later.

Talking dirt law is so refreshing!

 

*The Edgewater on Broad Creek Owners Association, Inc. v. Ephesian Ventures, LLC, Opinion 5724, South Carolina Court of Appeals (May 6, 2020).

 

Are RON closings now allowed in South Carolina?

Standard

After a tease from our Supreme Court on Friday, the answer is still “no”

For about 15 minutes on Friday afternoon, May 1, those of us involved in real estate transactions in South Carolina got excited. An Order* from the South Carolina Supreme Court hit our in-boxes. The order was entitled “RE: Participation in Closings of Real Estate Transactions”. We collectively thought South Carolina may have moved into the 21st Century with an authorization for Remote Online Notarization (RON) closings.

Then we read the order.

You can read it here.

By way of preamble, the Court said, “we find that the public health emergency created by COVID-19 requires changes in the usual operation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in terms of the normal functioning of real estate transactions.”

Then the order stated that until August 1, lawyers may “participate in and supervise the closing of a real estate transaction by way of a video conference.”

Fair enough, but I think most South Carolina transactional lawyers believed they could already ethically handle closings via video conference.

Most lawyers definitely believed they can ethically handle “mail away closings.” Were we wrong? Ethics Advisory Opinion 05-16 states that an attorney may ethically conduct real estate closings by mail as long as it is done in a way that: (1) ensures that the attorney is providing competent representation to the client; (2) all aspects of the closing remain under the supervision of an attorney; and (3) the attorney complies with the duty to communicate with the client so as to maintain the attorney-client relationship and be in a position to explain and answer any questions about the documents sent to the client for signature.

To meet this test, according to the EAO, clients must have reasonable means to be in contact with the attorney, by telephone, facsimile, or electronic transmission. The EAO further states that there is no legal requirement that a client attend the closing, but that it must be the client’s decision not to attend the closing.

Ethics Advisory Opinions are, of course, not binding on the South Carolina Supreme Court. But if we rely on the EAO and handle mail-away closings, why can we not also handle closings via video conference, as long as we comply with all of our ethical obligations to properly represent our clients? Technology has changed since 2005!

Setting that issue aside, let’s look at the real problem. The primary obstacle to any closing that is not conducted strictly in the presence of the lawyer is the proper notarization of the recordable documents. According to South Carolina Code §26-1-5, the notary must be in the physical presence of the signatory. For this reason, clients and their lawyers must employ notaries in the client’s location when the client and the lawyer are not in the same location.

Did the May 1 Supreme Court order fix the notary problem at least temporarily? Lawyers who have spent the last four days debating this question via listserv and Facebook have decided that it does not. But did the Court try to help? Maybe.

The Order goes on to say, “necessary persons to a real estate transaction may, under the direction of the supervising attorney, similarly participate in the real estate closing by way of a video conference, provided any necessary person so consents; further, the supervising attorney shall ensure that the attestation of a recordable instrument is accomplished, which may be satisfied by use of real-time audio-visual communication technology, provided the identity of the necessary person is confirmed and a notary attests the signature of any necessary person.” (Emphasis added.)

Giving the Court the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the Justices did not attempt to fix the notary problem but, instead, believed they must address the professional responsibility aspects of the closing process to allow the legislature and governor address the statutory notary issue.

I think I am going to go with that interpretation. Otherwise the Order is useless.

And, I have another concern. Anyone of us who has read and struggled with the facts in the notorious Quicken** case knows that the Court by implication blessed dividing the various aspects of the closing that must be handled by an attorney among many attorneys. But the final sentence of this Order reads, “This order does not suspend any other provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and nothing in this order is intended to relieve an attorney of his or her obligation to assume the full professional and direct responsibility for the entire transaction.” (Emphasis added.)

I am so confused!

 

*Order 2020-05-01-01, South Carolina Supreme Court.

**Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc., 420 S.C. 452, 803 S.E.2d707 (2017).

Can non-citizens receive the owner-occupied tax ratio?

Standard

Interesting question discussed on SC Bar’s Real Estate Law Listservundefined

The South Carolina Bar maintains a great listserv for members of the Real Estate Practices Section through which lawyers can ask questions and share information via email. I recommend that South Carolina real estate practitioners join the section and the list. Both provide opportunities for staying in touch with fellow practitioners and keeping up with news and trends.

Last week, a practitioner from the Fort Mill area was advised that the county would not allow the 4% owner-occupied assessment ratio for his clients who had Hispanic names but who presented South Carolina driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations as evidence of their permanent addresses. He asked other practitioners how to appeal.

Several lawyers, mostly from the Charleston area, responded that they were well aware of this issue. Apparently, Charleston County takes a hardline approach on the issue and requires that persons who are not United States citizens be resident aliens/permanent residents to obtain the 4% ratio.

My friend and excellent Charleston real estate practitioner, Beth Settle, pointed us to this Attorney General’s opinion on the topic.

The opinion is dated June 21, 2019 and is addressed to Jerry N. Govan, Jr., a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Mr. Govan’s question noted that some county offices are requiring individuals to present proof of U.S. citizenship as a requisite of receiving the special ratio and asked whether South Carolina law, specifically §12-37-10 et seq., requires proof of citizenship. The legislator then asked whether counties are authorized to use investigative methods to determine citizenship.

The opinion agreed with the questioner that South Carolina law provides no “bright line” rule to determine whether a non-citizen is or is not a domiciliary for the purposes of the special ratio and pointed to court decisions from multiple jurisdictions with varying results on this issue. Some courts have held that illegal aliens cannot form the requisite intent to achieve domicile in the United States. Other courts have indicated the determination must be made on a case-by-case basis. Some aliens, according to an opinion from Alaska, are allowed in the country only if they do not intend to abandon their foreign residence. Those restricted aliens would jeopardize their legal presence in the United States if they seek to establish domicile here. Others are not so restricted and may be able to form the intent to remain here without jeopardizing their legal alien status.

No decisions from South Carolina appellate courts have addressed this issue, but the Administrative Law Court considered the question* and concluded that establishing domicile is ultimately a question of fact and largely one of intent. A distinction was drawn between “actual residence” and “legal residence”, and the court stated that an individual remaining in the United Stated without documentation cannot form the requisite intent to make property in South Carolina the domicile for the purposes of the discount.

The burden of proof on this issue falls on the taxpayer. The Attorney General’s opinion concluded that in order to receive the four-percent special assessment ratio, the property in question must be the legal residence of the taxpayer. The determination must be made on a case-by-case basis after investigation by the county officials and ultimately the courts. Generally speaking, the opinion continued, those aliens who are here illegally are deemed unable to establish domicile in the United States. Where the alien is in the United States as a result of DACA, that person cannot qualify. And a tourist without a permanent visa cannot be a permanent resident.

*Richland County Assessor v. Herrera, 2018 WL 5114185 (18-ALJ-17-0006-cc)(October 9, 2018).

South Carolina lawyers: We have a new UPL case

Standard

scales of justice small

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).