SC Supreme Court’s footnote impacts easement law

Standard

In a March 17 case*, the South Carolina Supreme Court made a thought-provoking comment on easement law through a footnote.

As with most real estate cases involving neighbors, the facts in this case are interesting. (I should probably admit the facts may only be interesting to dirt lawyers.) Paul and Susan McLaughlin bought Lot 22 in Seabrook Island and spent the next six years meeting and negotiating to build on the lot because of the existence of a pipe and an easement they were told had been abandoned.

The backstory involves a draining pipe and easement running through the backyards of seven lots. The easement and pipe were originally owned by Seabrook Island Property Owners Association (SIPOA). Over the years, the pipe degraded and became porous such that, aside from carrying away stormwater from the road, as intended, it also drained standing water from the lots. Nearly 20 years later, SIPOA installed a new draining system for the road, rendering the old one obsolete. At a property owner’s request, SIPOA abandoned the easement, but left the porous pipe in place.

After six excruciating years, the McLaughlins received home design and location approval from SIPOA, including the right to build on a former “no-build area” occupied by the abandoned easement. They removed the pipe and built their new home.

Neighbors Richard and Eugenia Ralph owned Lot 23 and sued claiming their backyard flooding became even worse as a result of the pipe removal. The jury awarded the Ralphs $1,000 in “nominal” damages. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages alone, and the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury’s verdict.

I won’t dwell on the remainder of the opinion, which deals mostly with litigation issues, but I wanted to point dirt lawyers specifically to footnote 5.

The Ralphs claimed some sort of ownership right in the abandoned easement, which the Supreme Court did not feel the need to address. But the Supreme Court did express concern over the Court of Appeals discussion of a seminal easement case in South Carolina, Blue Ridge Realty Co. v. Williamson**.

Blue Ridge is the case we rely upon for the right of property owners who buy lots with reference to a plat to use the roads shown on that plat. Without that case, many properties would have access issues.

The Supreme Court voiced concern over the alteration of a quote from the Blue Ridge case by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals quoted the case: “It is generally held that when the owner of land has it subdivided and platted into lots and (easements,) and sells and conveys the lots with referenced to the plat, he hereby dedicates said (easements) to the use of such lot owners (and) their successors in title…”

Blue Ridge actually said, “It is generally held that when the owner of land has it subdivided and platted into lots and streets and sells and conveys the lots with reference to the plat, he thereby dedicates said streets to the use of such lot owners, their successors in title, and the public. (Emphasis added by the Supreme Court in the current case.)

The Supreme Court said the scenarios presented by the current case and the Blue Ridge case were fundamentally different. Blue Ridge involved the claim of a property owner to use a public street shown on a recorded plat. In the current case, lot owners whose property contains an easement intended for the benefit of the HOA claims an ownership interest because the easement inadvertently benefits the property owner as well.

In Blue Ridge, the property owner and its successors in title were the intended beneficiaries.  Here, the opposite is true. The owners of Lots 22 – 28 were never intended to benefit directly from the easement. The fact that they did so, according to the Supreme Court, was a pure accident, caused by the unexpected degradation of the pipe. In short, Blue Ridge does not stand for the proposition for which it was cited by the Court of Appeals, according to the Supreme Court.

This distinction might be significant in many of the title scenarios real estate practitioners face routinely.

Interesting indeed! I also find it interesting that the Supreme Court refers to the Blue Ridge case, as we dirt lawyers refer to it, as the Williamson case, but that’s a blog for another day.

*Ralph v. McLaughlin, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28015, March 17, 2021.

**247 S.C. 112, 145 S.E.2d 922 (1965).

Protracted litigation leads to noteworthy federal title insurance case

Standard

Early in my legal career, I searched a title prior to contentious litigation surrounding a commercial tract in Horry County. I was eight months pregnant with my son at the time. Title examiners as old as I am will remember we used to pull huge books down from high shelves to search titles in South Carolina. I remember this project so well not because of the difficult work in my puffy condition, but because of the time it took to resolve the litigation. When we finally received the final order, my son was in the second grade.

That timing may not hold a candle to the case decided last year in The United States District Court for South Carolina surrounding a tract in Dorchester County. Dudek v. Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company* is the culmination (I hope) of what the court calls a “long- standing and enduring legal battle” over an eight-acre tract that was divided into two parcels of six and two acres, respectively.

Summarizing the almost undisputed facts as briefly as possible, plaintiffs Stephen Dudek and Doreen Cross entered into a contract to purchase the six-acre tract in 2012. A third party, Molly Morphew, entered into a back-up contract with the sellers to purchase the property in the event the plaintiffs’ purchase fell through. Both parties ultimately sued the seller for specific performance, and the plaintiffs in this case prevailed.

Dudek and Cross purchased the property in 2017 and obtained a title insurance policy from Commonwealth. The litigation with Morphew continued with two subsequent suits, the first alleging fraud and abuse of process in the purchase, and the second seeking to enforce a contract provision setting up a water and sewer easement in favor of the two-acre tract, which by this time had been purchased by Morphew. Dudek and Cross filed a title insurance claim on the easement issue, and Commonwealth denied the claim relying on an exception for easements and the exclusion for risks created by or known to the insured prior the policy date.

I’m eliminating a lot of facts and procedural nuances that title insurance nerds like me will find fascinating, so pull the case for the long story.

The Court held Commonwealth had no duty to defend the insured property owners, relying on the fact that they knew about the easement before they closed. Simple enough, right?

The more convoluted and interesting discussion revolves around the treatment of the policy of the easement issue.  The covered risk in question in the policy was that “someone has an easement on the Land”. The policy contained two exceptions, however, one for unrecorded easements and one for recorded easements. The court stated that the policy simultaneously extended and eliminated coverage for easements, rendering the policy provision meaningless and illusory.

Title insurance agents routinely add specific exceptions to title insurance policies to limit coverage. This case cautions against adding exceptions that operate to prevent all coverage from a covered risk. We will all need to be careful about this holding as time progresses.

*466 F. Supp. 3d 610 (D.S.C. 2020)

Department of Revenue issues common law marriage ruling

Standard

On February 1, South Carolina’s Department of Revenue issued SC Revenue Ruling 21-3 concerning common law marriage. You can read the ruling in its entirety here.

I love the topic of common law marriage because it because it reminds me of the movie “The Big Chill”. “The Big Chill” is one of my husband’s favorite movies, in fact, it’s up there with “Brave Heart” 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.

Effective July 24, 2019, 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 two 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 lawsuit, 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.

The Revenue Ruling acknowledged the abolishment of common law marriage and stated that any couple living in South Carolina in a common law marriage established prior to July 24, 2019 is married for federal and state income tax purposes and must file their returns using the filing status “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately”. They cannot file using the filing status “single”.

On or after July 24, 2019, according to the Revenue Ruling, unmarried South Carolina couples must obtain a marriage license to use the filing status “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately”.

If a couple entered into a valid common law marriage in another state, , South Carolina continues to recognize the couple as married when they establish their domicile in South Carolina, according to the Revenue Ruling.

Dirt lawyers recognize that common law marriage can make a huge difference in title and probate matters, so this Revenue Ruling is a good reminder for us.

* 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).

Court of Appeals decides Hilton Head easement case

Standard

Real estate cases involving property in Hilton Head Island are almost always interesting, and this one* is no exception. I’m sure my friend, Dick Unger, will be discussing it fully in his upcoming revised treatise on easements for the South Carolina Bar. In the meantime, here’s enough of a description to get this case on your radar.

The case involves a welcome center, a gas station and a shopping complex on Palmetto Bay Road near Sea Pines Circle. Enmark owns the gas station which is adjacent to the welcome center. The shopping complex is located behind the gas station and adjacent to the welcome center. The roadway in question covers a portion of the welcome center property and connects the station to the parking lot on the shopping center property.

The roadway initially forked around a small vegetative island located on the shopping center property and had two connections to the parking lot. The shopping center removed the island and placed a trash dumpster in its place. (That doesn’t sound like something that would have been well received in Hilton Head!) The station’s customers use the roadway as an alternative entrance and exit for the station, and the general public uses it to bypass Sea Pines Circle and access the shopping center.

The case outlines the chains of title for the welcome center and gas station properties. When a dispute about the roadway arose, the property owners entered into a tolling agreement in mid-2013, in which they agreed the owner of the welcome center would file a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment to determine each party’s rights as to the roadway.

The welcome center owner then involved the Town of Hilton Head, which wrote a letter stating the roadway violated Hilton Head’s Land Management Ordinances. The town ordered the road to be removed and replaced with a vegetative buffer.  The gas station owner informed the Hilton Head official about the existence of the tolling agreement and of the importance of the roadway to its business and the public. The town stated that its letter was premature and subsequently decided the roadway was grandfathered into the Land Management Ordinances.

The welcome center owner filed a complaint in August of 2013 seeking an order that the gas station owner had neither an express nor a prescriptive easement. The Master-In-Equity found the existence of a prescriptive easement, and this appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals first eliminated the involvement of the town as a determinative factor in its decision, holding that the 2013 letter was not a final decision.

The Court next outlined the elements of a prescriptive easement: (1) continued and uninterrupted use or enjoyment of the right for a period of twenty years; (2) the identity of the thing enjoyed; and (3) the use or enjoyment which is either adverse or under claim of right.

Citing an earlier case, the Court of Appeals said our Supreme Court had clarified the third element, holding “adverse” and “claim of right” are in effect the same thing. The Supreme Court had simplified the elements stating the claimant must identify the thing enjoyed and show his use has been open, notorious, continuous, uninterrupted, and contrary to the burdened property owner’s rights for a period of twenty years.

The welcome center owner argued that the identity of the thing enjoyed was not established because the roadway is an “easement to nowhere”, not terminating on a public road. The Court held that termination on a public road was not required.

Continuous use was established through tacking the periods of use by prior owners in the gas station’s chain of title. The welcome center argued the use was interrupted by three threatening letters (dated 1994, 2008 and 2012, respectively), plus the placement by the shopping center of the garbage bin. The Court held that the letters were too late to interrupt the required twenty-year period, and the placement of the garbage bin was irrelevant because it was not placed by the owner of the burdened estate.

The owner of the welcome center raised multiple arguments as to the lack of adverse use, but it conceded in its post-trial brief that the existence of the easement would not be presumed “only if the use of the (roadway) during the entire prescriptive period was uninterrupted”, an issue upon which the Court had previously ruled.

I give you this case as an interesting discussion of prescriptive easement law in South Carolina and wait with you to hear Dick Unger’s words of wisdom!

 

*Carolina Center Building Corp. v. Enmark Stations, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5804 (February 10, 2021).

One-day error invalidates mechanic’s lien

Standard

South Carolina’s Court of Appeals has made it crystal clear that our mechanics’ lien statutes must be strictly construed. In a case* refiled December 2, the Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s award of summary judgment because the lien was filed 91 days after the last work was performed, not 90 days, as the statute requires.

The case involved a kitchen remodel job in Columbia. The contractor was a kitchen designer who was paid not by the hour, but by the difference in the wholesale and retail cost of the products she purchased and installed. In this case, she was hired because she was the only dealer for Crystal Cabinets in the Columbia area.

The homeowner’s quote was slightly less than $50,000 plus about $3,000 for cabinet installation, payable in three installments. The homeowners paid two-thirds of the contract price but refused to pay the final installment because they were dissatisfied with the cabinets. The parties and the manufacturer were unable to come to terms. The contractor’s last work, according to its own pleadings, was performed on August 18, 2015, and the mechanic’s lien was served on November 17, 2015, a difference of 91 days. The Circuit Court granted the homeowner’s motion for summary judgment and awarded attorney’s fees, based on the one-day discrepancy.

On appeal, the contractor argued that the work actually extended beyond August 18, but the Court of Appeals held the contractor was bound by the pleadings. The contractor then argued that an amendment to the pleadings could easily cure the “slight discrepancy” between the date alleged in the lien and the actual date of the last work, but the Court held that this issue could not properly be raised on appeal. The contractor should have requested leave of the lower court to amend its pleadings.

The bottom line is that counting correctly is crucial in mechanics’ lien litigation! Be careful out there, lawyers!

* The Kitchen Planners, LLC v. Friedman, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5738, Refiled December 2, 2020.

Rollback tax law in SC changes effective January 1, 2021

Standard

South Carolina real estate lawyers who represent developers or clients who sell land to developers deal with the issue of rollback taxes routinely. But lawyers who don’t deal with this issue on a regular basis should be aware of it to avoid stepping into what can amount to a very expensive trap.

Rollback taxes are assessed when the use of property that has been taxed as agricultural rate changes. Under prior law, rollback taxes were accessed for a five-year period. South Carolina Code Section 12-43-220 was amended in this year’s shortened legislative session to reduce the lookback period to three years. The amendment is effective January 1, 2021. In the year the use of the property changes, the difference between the tax paid under the agricultural use classification and the amount that would have been paid (typically under a commercial designation) is charged at full fair market value.

How expensive can the difference be? Agricultural use valuation is based upon crop yield and was frozen in 1991. For coastal and many other counties the difference between the agricultural use fair market value and the commercial fair market value can be enormous. In addition, many, but not all, agricultural use properties are taxed at a four percent assessment ratio versus the commercial designation’s six percent assessment ratio, and the millage is different.  This alone can contribute to a large rollback tax. Rollback taxes can easily amount to thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars.

When agricultural property is sold, the rollback tax issue comes into play. There is no norm in South Carolina as to who pays the rollback taxes. If the parties and their lawyers are aware of the issue, payment of the additional tax should be covered by contract. I’ve seen the issue arise for the first time at closing, however, and the typical tax proration contract provisions just don’t do the job to cover this issue. The buyer will argue that the decision to change the use of the property was not the buyer’s concern, and the seller will argue that the buyer had the advantage of the lower tax rate. Negotiations can get heated quickly.

When agricultural property is sold, the purchaser is required to sign an affidavit within thirty days of the sale stating under penalties or perjury that the property continues to qualify as agricultural. If that affidavit is not filed, the assessor will automatically apply rollback taxes. Note that if the issue is not handled at closing, the purchaser will have the ultimate responsibility, and you do not want to be the lawyer who failed to notify your purchaser client of this trap.

Fee-in-lieu completely eliminates rollback taxes and this should be a consideration for any large commercial project. A minimum investment of $2.5 million is required for a fee-in-lieu but many urban counties will not approve a fee-in-lieu for the statutory minimum. As always, contact a tax expert for assistance with these sticky matters.

SC Court of Appeals rejects “replacement mortgage” doctrine

Standard

Our Court of Appeals issued an opinion* on November 25 addressing and rejecting a novel foreclosure theory in South Carolina. Let’s look at the facts.

Jimmy and Laura Bailey owned a residence located at 247 Morninglow Drive in Winnsboro. They obtained a $256,500 mortgage loan from Quicken Mortgage in 2009. Later that year, the Baileys obtained an equity line of credit from ArrowPointe in the amount of $99,000. Next, the Baileys obtained a loan from Quicken in the amount of $296,000. The proceeds of this loan were used to pay off the first Quicken mortgage, which was satisfied of record.

At the time of the second Quicken loan, Quicken did not have actual knowledge of the ArrowPointe mortgage, but that mortgage was recorded. The Baileys signed an owner’s affidavit stating there were no outstanding mortgages.

The Baileys defaulted on the ArrowPointe line of credit, and ArrowPointe filed the subject foreclosure action. U.S. Bank (a successor to Quicken) and ArrowPointe filed competing motions for summary judgment, both claiming priority. U.S. Bank first asserted an equitable subrogation argument but abandoned that argument before the hearing and argued the replacement mortgage doctrine instead.

The special referee denied U.S. Bank’s motion, concluding that the replacement mortgage doctrine is not the law of South Carolina and that ArrowPointe’s mortgage had priority. U.S Bank appealed.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by stating that South Carolina is a race-notice state, that is, the recording statute determines the priority of mortgages, and a mortgage is valid from the date of recording without notice. A subsequent creditor who records first, without notice, is protected by the recording statute.

One exception to the race-notice statute, the Court stated, is the doctrine of equitable subrogation. That doctrine allows a subsequent creditor to obtain priority if it meets the following elements: (1) the lender claiming subrogation has paid the prior debt; (2) that lender was not a volunteer but had direct interest in the discharge of the prior debt; (3) that lender was secondarily liable for the prior debt or for the discharge of the lien; (4) no injustice will be done by allowing the equity; and (5) that lender must not have actual notice of the prior mortgage.

The doctrine of replacement mortgage is also an exception to the race-notice statute, the Court stated. This theory, according to the Restatement (Third) of Property (Mortgages), is described as follows: (a) If a senior mortgage is released of record and, as a part of the same transaction, is replaced with a new mortgage, the latter mortgage retains the priority of the predecessor, except (1) to the extent that any change in the terms of the mortgage or the obligation it secures is materially prejudicial to the holder of a junior interest, or (2) to the extent that one who is protected by the recording act acquires an interest in the real estate at a time that the senior mortgage is not of record.

Courts have adopted three different approaches to equitable subrogation: (1) the majority position holds that a party with actual knowledge of an intervening lien cannot seek equitable subrogation; (2) the minority position holds that a party with actual or constructive knowledge of an intervening lien cannot seek equitable subrogation; and (3) the Restatement approach states that actual or constructive knowledge of an intervening lien is irrelevant and does not bar equitable subrogation.

The Court indicated it is cognizant of a trend toward adopting some form of replacement mortgage doctrine in other states and of our Supreme Court’s dicta in Matrix Financial Services Corp. v. Frazer.** In Matrix, our Supreme Court stated that a lender that refinances its own debt is not entitled to equitable subrogation but specifically did not decide whether a lender that refinances its own debt could succeed under the theory of replacement mortgage.

The Court held that ArrowPoint has priority under our race-notice statute because U.S. Bank had constructive notice of ArrowPointe’s mortgage.

Changing our rule is a matter for the legislature, according to the Court of Appeals. My guess is that our Supreme Court may have the opportunity to weigh in on this issue.

* ArrowPoint Federal Credit Union v. Bailey, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5784 (November 25, 2020).

** 394 S.C. 134, 714 S.E.2d 532 (2011).

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).