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

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Make one simple change to stay in compliance

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

But one change affects every lawyer with a trust account.

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

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

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

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

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

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SC tax liens will no longer be filed in individual Counties

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Carolina Supreme Court abolishes common law marriage

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Maybe we’ll get a “Big Chill” sequel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Whitener’s “Palmetto Logs”

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Two weeks ago, this blog paid tribute to the late, great Dave Whitener, a giant among real estate legal professionals in South Carolina. As suggested in that blog about Dave’s “Top Ten You Betters”, I also wanted to share with you Dave’s “Palmetto Logs”.

Several years before his death, Dave was asked to address the American Bar Association. The issue was whether a successful defense might be mounted if a federal agency attacked the rights now existing in South Carolina for lawyers, and only lawyers, to close real estate transactions. In that talk, Dave cited ten areas of defense that he called the Palmetto Logs. For non-South Carolinians, the palmetto log has traditionally been a symbol of protection for South Carolinians in time of war. South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”.

Here are Dave’s suggested protections against an attack from outside our state for closings performed by licensed South Carolina attorneys:

Caselaw

  1. State v. Buyers Service, 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court defined the practice of law in a residential real estate closing to include: certification of the title; preparation of the deed and loan closing documents, closing the transaction and overseeing recording.
  2. Doe v. Condon, 351 S.C. 158, 568 S.E.2d 356 (2002). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court reiterated and confirmed that the four protected areas set out in Buyer’s Service would also apply to residential refinances.
  3. Doe v. McMaster, 355 S.C. 306, 585 S.E.2d 773 (2003). In 2003, the South Carolina Supreme Court again reiterated its holding in Buyer’s Service.

Statutes and South Carolina Constitution

  1. C. Code §40-5-310 makes it a felony for an individual to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  2. C. Code §40-5-320 makes it a misdemeanor for a corporation or other entity to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  3. C. Code §37-10-102 gives a borrower the absolute right to choose the closing attorney in a residential loan closing. The statute provides for a $7,500 penalty if the disclosure is not given.
  4. South Carolina’s Constitution gives the S.C. Supreme Court the exclusive right to define the practice of law within South Carolina

Practical Considerations

  1. The low cost attributable to attorneys’ fees for residential closings in South Carolina. Dave believed the low cost would present a major difficulty if a federal agency argues that South Carolina’s practice is anti-competitive or increased prices.
  2. Major job losses would possibly result from the outsourcing of jobs to closing centers outside of South Carolina
  3. Major risks would be raised in turning over the duties now performed by experienced lawyers to unregulated and inexperienced lay persons.

I’m not sure whether Dave would say differently if he were here to analyze this topic for us today. I fear that the retirement of Chief Justice Jean Toal may have resulted in the loss of the South Carolina lawyer’s strongest advocate in the South Carolina Supreme Court. So far, the Palmetto Logs are holding strong, but some more recent cases from our Supreme Court give me some concern on this topic.

In any event, I am continually thankful for Dave Whitener and his influence, mentorship and friendship to South Carolina dirt lawyers!

Here’s a gift, SC dirt lawyers: Your official recording fee list!

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This blog reported on May 29 that South Carolina Governor McMaster signed House Bill 3243 into law on May 16. This legislation, called the Predictable Recording Fee Act (S.C. Code §8-21-310), will streamline document filing in ROD offices by creating predictable fees for many commonly recorded documents such as deeds and mortgages. The new law will take effect on August 1, 2019. You and your staff will no longer have to count pages for documents to be recorded!

You can read the short but effective statute here.

My friend and colleague, Jennifer Rubin, was instrumental in the creation and passage of this legislation. Jennifer drafted the legislation and spearheaded Palmetto Land Title Association’s efforts to get the bill passed. Since the legislation was enacted, Jennifer has worked with members of South Carolina Court Administration, as well as leaders in ROD offices throughout the state, to draft a uniform recording fee schedule.  Attached is the newly created official recording fee list.

This law should simplify and streamline your practice and result in significant time and money savings for you and your clients.

SC Court of Appeals provides lis pendens primer

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Termination on the merits is required for malicious prosecution claim

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A lis pendens is a handy tool for real estate lawyers. When litigation is brought affecting title to real estate, a lis pendens gives notice to third parties that sales, loans and construction draws should, most likely, come to a screeching halt until the issues affecting title are resolved.

Back in the days when I was in private practice, malicious prosecution claims arose relatively routinely when lis pendens were filed in cases where the title to real estate was not in question. That situation is the subject of a Court of Appeals case from early this year.*

The case involved Somerset Point at Lady’s Island, a subdivision in beautiful Beaufort County. The developer, Coosaw, and River City, one of the construction companies building homes in the subdivision, became involved in a dispute about design and construction standards. River City accused Coosaw of failing to enforce the standards with other builders, and Coosaw, in turn, accused River City of failing to comply with the standards.

River City brought suit in 2011 alleging causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and unfair trade practices. Coosaw counterclaimed and crossclaimed against River City for violating the design standards and sought a temporary injunction against continued construction. Coosaw also filed a lis pendens describing one property, Lot 16, in Somerset Point.

River City moved to strike the lis pendens on the ground that title to Lot 16 was not at issue. The master-in-equity agreed and struck the notice of lis pendens. On reconsideration, the master stated, in part, that striking the lis pendens would allow River City’s construction lender to resume providing construction draws and would allow River’s City’s project to be completed. Coosaw appealed but ultimately withdrew the appeal after River City’s sale of Lot 16 rendered the issue moot.

In late 2014, River City filed the lawsuit at issue, alleging causes of action for malicious prosecution and abuse of process based on Coosaw’s filing the lis pendens in the 2011 action. River City argued the cause of action for malicious prosecution was proper because the lis pendens had been terminated in its favor.

The Court of Appeals listed the elements of malicious prosecution to include termination of the proceedings in the plaintiff’s favor. River City argued that a lis pendens is an ancillary proceeding, and termination of an ancillary proceeding will support a malicious prosecution claim. The Court of Appeals held, however, that a lis pendens is not an ancillary proceeding but is simply a notice of the proceeding.

Citing earlier cases, the Court reviewed the law of lis pendens:

  • A lis pendens is a statutory doctrine designed to inform prospective purchasers or encumbrancers that a particular piece of property is subject to litigation.
  • A properly filed lis pendens binds subsequent purchasers or encumbrancers to all proceedings evolving from the litigation.
  • Generally, the filing of a lis pendens places a cloud on title which prevents the owner from freely disposing of the property before the litigation is resolved.
  • The lis pendens mechanism is not designed to aid either side in a dispute between private parties. Rather, the lis pendens is designed to protect third parties by alerting them of pending litigation that may affect title.
  • When no real property is implicated, no lis pendens should be filed.
  • A lis pendens is merely a form of pleading that does not provide any substantive right. It is simply a notice.

The Court held that the termination of a lis pendens to support a malicious prosecution cause of action must be a victory on the merits of the litigation, not a termination based solely on technical or procedural considerations. In the case at hand, the underlying merits remained pending after the termination of the lis pendens. The Court held that the subject action is, therefore, premature.

In short, the Court held that a maliciously filed lis pendens can act as the primary basis for a malicious prosecution claim, provided the plaintiff can establish a favorable termination of the lis pendens reflective of the merits of the underlying action.

*Gecy v. Somerset Point at Lady’s Island Homeowners Association, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5622 (January 30, 2019).

Abbeville fraud litigation leads to noteworthy arbitration case

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Supreme Court finds arbitration clause unenforceable against nonsignatories

Abbeville, SC

I found it hard to believe the South Carolina Supreme Court took 21 pages to hold an arbitration provision unenforceable against nonsignatories to the contract, but it did! In an April case involving insurance fraud in Abbeville County, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had relied on an equitable estoppel theory to bind individual insureds to a contract between an insurance agency and the insurance companies*.

The case arose out of numerous lawsuits brought by individual insureds against an insurance agent, Laura Willis, her broker, their agency and six insurance companies for which their offices sold policies. The suits alleged Willis engaged in fraudulent conduct including forging insurance documents and converting cash payments to her own use, resulting in the insureds having no coverage or reduced coverage. Two of the lawsuits were brought by other insurance agents, alleging Willis engaged in illegal business practices that effectively blocked them from the local market, resulting in a substantial loss of clients and revenue.

The other defendants were alleged to have failed to properly investigate, train and supervise Willis, especially after she was fined, publicly reprimanded and place on probation for dishonesty by the South Carolina Insurance Commission in 2011. Alternatively, Willis was alleged to have acted with express or implied permission of the other defendants.

A full year into the litigation, three of the insurance companies filed motions to compel arbitration and dismiss the lawsuits. The arbitration clause in question was contained in a 2010 agency contract signed by the insurance companies and the insurance agency. The theory was that the insureds were third-party beneficiaries to the contract or were equitably estopped from asserting their nonparty status. The Circuit Court denied the motion to compel arbitration, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding equitable estoppel should be applied to enforce arbitration against the nonsignatories because the individuals sought to benefit from other provisions in the agency agreement.

The Supreme Court stated that while arbitration is viewed favorably by the courts, it is predicated on an agreement to arbitrate because parties are waiving their fundamental right to access to the courts. The Court held that whether the provision is enforceable is a state law question, and that South Carolina has recognized several theories that could bind nonsignatories to arbitration agreements under general principles of contract and agency law, including (1) incorporation by reference, (2) assumption, (3) agency, (4) veil piercing/alter ego, and (5) estoppel.

The estoppel argument is based on a direct benefits theory in South Carolina. Under that theory, a nonsignatory may be compelled to arbitrate where the nonsignatory knowingly exploits the benefits of an agreement containing an arbitration clause and receives benefits flowing directly from the agreement.

In this case, according to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs did not allege a claim of breach of the contract, and they were not even aware of the existence of the contract until arbitration was sought a year into the litigation. In the Court’s view, the plaintiffs did not knowingly exploit and receive a direct benefit from the agency agreement. The Agreement was purely for the benefit of its parties, outlining their business relationship.

The Court also stated that equitable estoppel is ultimately a theory designed to prevent injustice, and it should be used sparingly. This litigation will continue!

And I’ve reduced the 21-page case to less than 600 words for your reading pleasure. You’re welcome!

Wilson v. Willis, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27879 (April 10, 2019)