You learn something new every day!

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Question gives insight into IRS collection procedures against JTROS properties

In August of last year, an excellent South Carolina real estate lawyer raised this issue with Underwriting Counsel in our office:

The property owners are Sally Seller and Samuel Seller, as joint tenants with right of survivorship. Sally Seller died January 7, 2017. A federal tax lien was filed against Sally Single, Mrs. Seller’s maiden name, March 3, 2014. Mr. and Mrs. Seller were married in April 20, 2015. Please confirm that we should either pay off this lien at closing or obtain a release from the IRS.

Title insurance underwriting is all about pre-closing risk prevention and risk management, and I always joke that underwriting is more of an art than a science. This is true, in part, because few issues in the law are black and white. Most lawyers will confirm that a fair amount of gray area exists in most legal questions. But I digress.

The truth is that when a trusted, intelligent real estate lawyer calls her friendly South Carolina title insurance underwriter and says, in effect, “I should deal with this title problem at closing, shouldn’t I?”… that is an easy answer! Unless the Underwriter knows of a magic solution to eliminate the title issue, the friendly title insurance Underwriter will almost always respond, “Yes, please take care of that issue at closing.”  That’s exactly what our Underwriter did in this case last August.

Around Halloween, a follow-up question was raised:

The sellers’ attorney has been working on obtaining a satisfaction for the IRS lien, but the IRS has told him that the lien will not be released or satisfied because the taxpayer is deceased. IRS Agent Arnold Adams (IRS ID#10000797284)* referred me to Notice 2003-60. The IRS agent further said it will not file a release of lien for the convenience of title insurance companies and mortgage lenders**, but that the tax lien upon the death of a joint tenant is extinguished and not collectable on the basis of U.S. vs. Craft*** and its application.

The IRS notice linked above is entitled “Collection Issues Related to Entireties Property”. Every South Carolina dirt lawyer knows that we do not have a tenancy by the entirety form of ownership in South Carolina. If we don’t have that form of ownership, then does this IRS Notice have any application in South Carolina?

Married couples in South Carolina can own properties as tenants in common, joint tenants with right of survivorship or joint tenants with an indestructible right of survivorship under Smith v. Cutler.****

Several years ago, my friend and fellow South Carolina dirt lawyer, Paul Dillingham, called me to twist my arm to write an article with him for the Bar’s South Carolina Lawyer magazine, linked here, about a couple of deed drafting traps that were troubling him. In that article, we questioned whether Smith v. Cutler had created, in effect, a tenancy by the entirety form of ownership. That case dealt with property owned by couple pursuant to a deed with this language:

“for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple”

The case held that property owned pursuant to the quoted language cannot be partitioned. If the property cannot be partitioned by the creditor of one owner, then the IRS Notice would have application in South Carolina. Apparently the IRS agent who was questioned for this closing believes the notice does apply in the Palmetto State, but please note that the question before the IRS agent didn’t deal with the Smith v. Cutler form of ownership. It dealt with a standard joint tenancy with the right of survivorship.

Did the IRS Agent give our South Carolina good advice? Would all IRS agents give the same advice? Can we ignore this IRS lien for the purposes of closing? What do you think?

This is fictitious name and number. Don’t try to contact this IRS agent!

** That wasn’t very friendly!

*** 545 U.S. 274 (2002)

**** 366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)

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Federal class action seeks to invalidate non-condo HOA foreclosures

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Is there authority for these foreclosures under SC law…or not?

On January 9, a lawsuit was filed in the Federal Court in Charleston seeking to certify a class of plaintiffs who have faced foreclosure in situations where the Horizontal Property Regime Act was not involved. In other words, the properties are not condominiums and are not subject to the statutory scheme that establishes lien and foreclosure rights in owners’ associations. The power to foreclose these properties is supported only by restrictive covenants, that is, only by contract.

subdivision

The complaint refers to a good faith estimate that one-third of all South Carolinians own property subject to restrictive covenants establishing owners’ associations, and those associations manage more than $100 billion in assets. Many of the properties are separate lots of land in contrast to “slices of air” in condominium projects.

The defendants in this class action suit include five homeowners’ associations in various counties in South Carolina, four law firms who represent the associations in their foreclosure actions, and five management companies who manage the business of the associations in various counties in South Carolina. All are said to be representative of the associations, law firms and management companies who do business across the state.

The class intends to exclude all associations governed by the Horizontal Property Regime Act. It also excludes employees, owners, officers, partners and management of the law firm and management defendants. The law firm and management defendants are alleged to be agents of the owners’ associations.

The main issue in the suit is whether non-condominium associations have the right to file liens and prosecute foreclosures for unpaid property assessments under South Carolina law. Underlying issues include whether the defendants have violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, whether they have interfered with the plaintiffs’ contracts with their mortgage holders, and whether they have the power to lawfully evict homeowners for unpaid assessments.

The owners’ associations are typically established as non-profit corporations, and the suit questions whether non-profit corporations have the power to create liens for unpaid dues or assessments prior to obtaining judicial judgments.

The suit accuses the defendants of seeking to use the equitable remedy of foreclosure in actions that seek monetary damages for contractual breaches. The inability to use equitable remedies to collect money damages is well established in South Carolina law, according to the complaint. The complaint further states that the remedy of foreclosure is used to frighten the plaintiffs to settle their claims to avoid losing their homes.

The law firm defendants were accused of violating Professional Conduct Rule 3.3 by making deceitful arguments to courts. The law firms were also accused of demanding fees that are not proportionate to the hours devoted to the files in violation of Rule 1.5.

Threatening communications and pressure tactics are allegedly used to settle claims, typically without the advice of counsel because the amounts in controversy are often so small that the homeowners are unable to obtain legal counsel on a cost-effective basis. Typically, according to the complaint, holders of first mortgages are not named in the HOA foreclosures. The homeowners continue to be obligated to make their mortgage payments despite being evicted from their homes by their owners’ associations.

The first cause of action is violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act on the theory that there is no right to use pre-suit liens or the equitable remedy of foreclosure by owners’ associations to collect damages in the form of past due assessments. The use of unjustified liens and foreclosures is alleged to constitute false, deceptive or misleading representations to collect debts.

The second cause of actions seeks a declaratory judgment that the activities of the defendants are unlawful. One point raised in this cause of action is that the homeowners are denied their statutory homestead exemption rights by the defendants’ actions.

The third cause of action is for intentional interference with the contractual relationship with the homeowners’ mortgage companies. The mortgage holders have a right to be named in actions that attempt to impair their interests in the subject properties, according to the complaint.

The complaint seeks actual, compensatory and consequential damages, in addition to punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. I can’t wait to see what happens with this one!

DOR issues new Revenue Ruling on Deed Recording Fees

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The South Carolina Department of Revenue issued Revenue Ruling #17-5 concerning Deed Recording Fees on August 28, 2017. This advisory ruling supersedes Revenue Ruling #15-3.

The new ruling is 39 pages long and covers the topic comprehensively in a question and answer format. This document is an excellent tool for lawyers with unusual transactions and for lawyers and paralegals who are new to the topic. The statutory scheme is set out in full, and the remainder of the document is stated to “summarize longstanding Department opinion concerning the taxability of these transactions.”

One question addressed how the deed recording fee should be paid when the real estate is located in more than one county. The answer cited Code §12-24-50 which requires an affidavit addressing the proportionate value in each county. The answer contained an example:

“For example, ABC Corporation sells realty, approximately 10 acres, to XYZ Corporation for $1,000,000. The realty is located in two counties, with 3 acres in County A and 7 acres in County B, However, because of the location of the 3 acres in County A (e.g., located at a major intersection, of the waterfront, etc.), the value of the 3 acres in County A is $700,000 while the value of the 7 acres in County B is $300,000.

Based on these values, 70% of the value is assigned to County A and both the state and county portions of the deed recording fee are paid in County A based on $700,000 consideration paid. (Total Fee Paid in County A: $2,590 ($1,820 State Fee and $770 County A Fee)). The remaining 30% of the value is assigned to County B and both the state and county portions of the deed recording fee are paid in County B based on $300,000 consideration paid (Total Fee Paid in County B: $1,110 ($780 State Fee and $330 County B Fee)).”

Another interesting* question addressed the method for correcting the mistake of recording a deed in the wrong county. (No one I know personally has ever had that problem.) Here’s the answer:

“Since the deed recording fee is actually a single fee composed of a state portion and a county portion, the entire fee must be paid when any deed is recorded with the county clerk of court or register of deeds.

Therefore, if a deed is recorded in the wrong county (e.g., a deed for realty in Lexington County is incorrectly recorded in Richland County), then the deed should be recorded in the correct county. The entire fee of “one dollar eighty-five cents for each five hundred dollars, or fractional part of five hundred dollars, of the realty’s value as determined by Section §12-24-30” should be paid in the correct county.

After recording the deed in the correct county, the person legally liable for the deed recording fee should then file a claim for the fee paid in the wrong county in accordance with the refund procedures for the deed recording fee established in SC Revenue Procedure #15-1. In addition to the information and documentation required in SC Revenue Procedure #15-1, the person filing the claim for refund should also provide the Department documentation that the deed has been recorded in the correct county. The Department will refund the state portion and order the county to refund the county portion.”**

Transfers to a spouse are exempt regardless of whether consideration is paid. Transfers to a former spouse are not exempt unless the transfers are made pursuant to the terms of a divorce decree or settlement. Query, why would anyone transfer real estate to a former spouse unless required to do so by a divorce decree or settlement?

This detail is provided to make the point of how comprehensive this document is and how helpful it might be in your practice. Take advantage of this guidance, particularly for lawyers and paralegals you need to train.

*You can measure how much of a dirt law nerd you are by how interesting you find this.

**They didn’t promise to make it easy.

Criminal defense lawyer’s advertising debacle may be instructive for us

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Title insurance companies in South Carolina persistently encourage attorney agents to market their firms. We offer seminars on social media marketing. We invite experts to the table to explain the latest and greatest marketing tactics. I trust all the title companies also explain the professional responsibility rules that relate to marketing and bring in professionals to assist with compliance. The rules are detailed and specific, and any South Carolina lawyer who dips a toe into that arena should get the education needed to stay out of trouble. The South Carolina Supreme Court and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) are serious about the rules.

The criminal defense lawyer who received a public reprimand in last month’s disciplinary case, In the Matter of Lord,* apparently did not take the safe approach.

fingers crossed realtor

To market his legal services, Lord sent direct mail solicitation letters to potential clients who received traffic tickets. One of those clients filed a complaint with the ODC. Lord made several mistakes in those letters. He used the tagline “attorneys at law” in his letterhead although he was a solo practitioner.

He touted “28 years’ experience both as a lawyer and former law enforcement officer” although he had been a lawyer and former law enforcement officer for only 16 years. His telephone number was (844) FIXTICKET, which may have created unjustified expectations or an implication that he can receive results by unethical means. Further, the Court held that the phoneword is also an improper moniker that implies an ability to obtain a certain result.

The letter also referred to the lawyer’s website which claimed he has “unique insight into the South Carolina traffic laws that many other lawyers simply do not have.” Lord admitted that this claim cannot be factually substantiated. Finally, the letter indicated Lord learned of the traffic tickets from “court records”. The court held that this source identification as not sufficiently specific.

The letter also referred to the lawyer’s profile on www.avvo.com (“AVVO”), a legal marketing website. AVVO, according to the Court, creates profiles for attorneys without their consent, knowledge or participation, then invites them to “claim” their profiles and participate in a variety of AVVO marketing activities, including “ratings”, peer endorsements, client testimonials and online contact with prospective clients.  Lord claimed his AVVO profile and used the website to market his legal services, making him responsible for the content.

A prior disciplinary investigation revealed a negative review on AVVO to which respondent replied. In the response, Lord revealed information relating to the representation of the complaining client and said: “Do me a favor. The next time you are arrested, call a public defender and see what happens after you sit in jail for 3 months they might get around to sending you a form letter. Good luck.” He was issued a confidential admonition in 2013 as a result of this exchange. Lord failed to remove the offending post after receiving the admonition.

He was also required to add a “clear and conspicuous” disclosure regarding endorsements, testimonials and reports of past results. He added this disclosure, but the terms “clear and conspicuous” were not defined in the rules until 2014, and Lord failed to revise the disclosure when that rule changed.

The lawyer advertising rules are not always intuitive. But they are always taken seriously by the ODC and the Supreme Court. If dirt lawyers choose to market their services, as the title companies believe they should, they should make every effort to follow the rules. Your title insurance company will help. Ask!

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27741 (November 15, 2017)

Lawyer accolades

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Is it ethical to advertise you’ve won?

If you are a recipient of legal awards and accolades, you’ll be glad to know that we now have an Ethics Advisory Opinion that tells us it is acceptable to let the world know you have won, under certain circumstances.

trophies

Many newspapers, television stations and national publishers compile an annual “best of” list by surveying their customers or conducting evaluations. Some of the entities ask for nominations from their customers or ask for a fee to be paid in order to receive a nomination. Some accept all nominations and votes without the consent of the nominee. Most offer a badge or emblem to be used on firm websites and in other marketing materials to publicize the honor.

The question posed in EAO 17-02 is whether a South Carolina lawyer may accept and advertise a designation or accolade such as “Best Lawyers” or “Super Lawyers” in a legal publication or newspaper readers’ poll, in conformity with the rules for lawyer advertising.

The Ethics Advisory Committee answered that these accolades and designations, including the badges and symbols are ethical when:

  1. The entity or publication has strict, objective standards for inclusion that are verifiable and would be recognized by a reasonable lawyer as establishing a legitimate basis for determining whether the lawyer has the knowledge, skill, experience, or expertise indicated by the listing;
  2. The standards for inclusion are explained in the advertisement or information on how to obtain the standards is provided in the advertisement. Referral to the publication’s website is adequate;
  3. The date of the designation or accolade is included;
  4. An advertisement makes it clear that the designation or accolade is made by a specific publication or entity through the use of a distinctive typeface or italics;
  5. No payment of any kind for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising or purchase of commemorative items, is required of the lawyer, or the lawyer’s firm, for giving the designation, accolade or inclusion in the listing; and
  6. The organization charges the lawyer only reasonable advertising fees to the extent it not only confers the designation or accolade but also provides a medium for promoting or advertising the designation or accolade.

The opinion stated that courts and bars of several jurisdictions nationwide uniformly approved the acceptance of designations or accolades including badges, symbols and other marks in attorneys’ advertising, subject to conditions designed to insure that the use of the accolades or designations is not false or misleading.

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.

power of attorney

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)