“Beachfront” homeowners don’t always consider accretion to be a blessing

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Sullivan’s Island litigants lose appeal on maritime forest maintenance

On August 1, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed Master-In-Equity Mikell Scarborough’s award of summary judgment in favor of the Town of Sullivan’s Island in a case where homeowners sought maintenance of the maritime forest that separates their homes from the ocean.*

Many coastal communities would love to face the gradual accretion of more oceanfront property. But, in this case, the additional property became a maritime forest that, according to the adjacent homeowners, breeds snakes, rats, raccoons, bugs, spiders and other unwanted varmints and dangerous animals and also poses danger from fires and criminal activity.

The case cites University of South Carolina Law School Professor Josh Eagle’s explanation of accretion and erosion:  “Sand grains do not magically vanish from or appear on a beach; rather they are going to or coming from somewhere else along the coast.”** The Court stated that while most land use cases along our coast involve erosion, or loss of beachfront sediment, this case involves accretion, or the addition of sediment to the beach front.

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The unique Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse

These litigants have been involved in more than a six-year battle over what they call a “maritime jungle”. A major component of the landowner’s objection is that their properties are taxed as if they are ocean-front properties, but the value of their properties have plummeted more than a million dollars because of lack of ocean views and breezes and lack of access to the beach.

The property that separates these landowners from the ocean was conveyed by the Town to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust in 1991. Simultaneous, the Trust conveyed the land back to the town, subject to restrictions intended to preserve and conserve the natural area. The restrictions require that the property be maintained in its natural state but give the Town the authority to trim and control the growth of vegetation for the purposes of mosquito control and scenic enhancement. The Town also passed ordinances restricting the use of the property against the destruction of vegetation (except trimming, cutting and pruning).

When the 1991 deeds were executed, the ocean adjacent land was covered in sea oats and wildflowers, and the litigants’ homes had unobstructed ocean views and access to ocean breezes. The Town’s brief argued that the problem dates back to Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, which destroyed all the trees on the land. Over time, natural shrubs and trees replaced the bare, hurricane-ravaged land. At the same time, sand built up, making the houses farther from the ocean.

In the summer of 2010, the landowners applied to the Town for a permit to trim and prune the ocean adjacent property, but the Town denied the permit. This litigation followed. On appeal, the landowners argued that the deed restrictions require the Town to preserve the ocean adjacent property exactly as it existed in 1991. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the deed was unambiguous and evidenced the intent that the Town would maintain the land’s natural character. The landowners’ interpretation would require the Town to continuously remove all vegetation from the beach that was not present in 1991, but the Court refused to read the deed to require such drastic management of the property.

Elizabeth Hagood, the Executive Director of the Lowcountry Open Land Trust stated in an affidavit that the Trust periodically and regularly visited the ocean adjacent land, reviewing the existing field conditions, comparing the field conditions to the deed restrictions, and finding nothing violated the deed restrictions.

As to the nuisance arguments, the Court held that those arguments sound in contract rather than tort, and nothing in the contract (the deed or the ordinances) requires the Town to clear the land.

*Bluestein v. Town of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5581 (August 1, 2018)

**Josh Eagle, Coastal Law 6 (2011)

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Drafting survivorship deeds continues to be a concern

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Pay attention to tricky South Carolina law!

This blog has addressed the issue of drafting survivorship deeds previously. This issue comes back up today because the South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Practices Section’s listserv discussed this issue, in part, last week.

The thread began with a question about whether a tenancy in common with a right of survivorship is a recognized estate in South Carolina. I believe that the concern arose from some drafting liberties taken by attorneys with these deeds. In my opinion, to create a survivorship deed in South Carolina, the drafter should follow the case or the statute exactly. And it is my opinion that if the drafter follows the case or statute exactly, then a valid survivorship estate is created, and that estate will avoid probate for the property in question at the first death.

Let’s take a look at the case and the statute.

dee house

More than a decade has elapsed since our Supreme Court surprised dirt lawyers with Smith v. Cutler,* the case that told us there were already in place two survivorship forms of ownership in South Carolina. We apparently missed that day in law school! These two forms of ownership are joint tenancy (which we knew and loved) and tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship (which slipped by us somehow). This is a mini-history lesson about how we got to this state of the law and a reminder for dirt lawyers to carefully draft deeds.

Under the common law in South Carolina, tenancy in common is the favored form of ownership. A deed to George Clooney and Amal Clooney (whether George and Amal are married or not) will result in a tenancy in common. At the death of George or Amal, the deceased’s fifty percent interest in the property will pass by will or intestacy laws. Joint tenancy was not favored in South Carolina, and there was no tenancy by the entirety that would have saved the property from probate (and creditors) for a married couple.

A rather convoluted 1953 case** interpreted a deed that intended to create a tenancy by the entirety as creating a shared interest in property between husband and wife referred to as a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of ownership. This is the case that the Smith v. Cutler Court referred to as creating the form of ownership we missed.

It’s not technically true that all of us missed this form of ownership. Some practitioners did use the language from the 1953 case to create a survivorship form of ownership. The magic language is “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney 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.”  Other practitioners routinely used the common law language: “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.”

Conveying title from a person to himself and another person establishing survivorship was not possible in South Carolina prior to 1996 because the old common law requirement of unities of title could not be met. To create a survivorship form of ownership, the property owner conveyed to a straw party, who would then convey to the husband and wife, complying with the unities of title requirement and establishing survivorship.

A 1996 statutory amendment to §62-2-804 rectified this problem by providing that a deed can create a right of survivorship where one party conveys to himself and another person. The straw party is no longer needed. This statute was given retroactive effect.

In 2000, our legislature added §27-7-40, which provides that a joint tenancy may be created, “in addition to any other method which may exist by law” by the familiar words “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common”.  The statute addresses methods for severing joint tenancies which typically results in a tenancy in common. For example, unless the family court decides otherwise, a divorce severs a joint tenancy held by husband and wife, vesting title in them as tenants in common.  A deed from a joint tenant to another severs the joint tenancy. A conveyance of the interest of a joint tenant by a court severs the joint tenancy.

Following the enactment of §27-7-40, most practitioners used the language set out in the statute to create a joint tenancy, “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.” Five years later, Smith v. Cutler required us to examine our drafting practices with fresh eyes. The court held that a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship is capable of being defeated by the unilateral act of one tenant, but a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not capable of being severed by a unilateral act and is also not subject to partition.

Real estate lawyers in the resort areas in our state are often asked to draft survivorship deeds because couples from other states are accustomed to tenancy by the entirety. Until Smith v. Cutler, most practitioners did not believe different estates were created by the different language commonly in use. We believed joint tenancy was created in both cases.

Now, clients should be advised about the different estates and should choose the form of ownership they prefer. I’ve discussed this issue with many lawyers who advise married couples to create the indestructible form of ownership under the case. Others who seek survivorship are often advised to create joint tenancy under the statute.  I see many deeds from the midlands and upstate that use the traditional tenancy in common form of ownership. I’ve heard estate planners prefer tenancy in common so the distribution at death can be directed by will. Lawyers who draft deeds for consumers need to be aware of and need to address the various forms of ownership with their clients.

One final thought on the survivorship issue in South Carolina. Do we now have a form of ownership that protects property from creditors of one of the owners? If a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not subject to partition, then it may not be reachable by the creditors of one of the owners. Let me know if you see a case that makes such a determination. It would be an interesting development.

If anyone on the listserv has different opinions from those stated here, I would love to hear them. The real estate bar in South Carolina would love to hear them, too!

 

 

 

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

**Davis v. Davis, 223 S.C. 182, 75 S.E.2d 45 (1953)

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)

Day of the Dead: Director Cordray didn’t get his Halloween wish

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President Trump signed the legislation repealing the CFPB arbitration rule

As we discussed in this blog last week, the United States Senate recently voted to dispose of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule that allowed consumers the right to bring class action lawsuits to resolve financial disputes. Under that rule, banks and credit card companies could not use mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in the fine print of credit card and checking account agreements.

Day of the DeadThe vote was 51-50 with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote. The vote in the Senate followed a previous vote with the same result in the House of Representatives, leaving only the stroke of President Trump’s pen to finalize the repeal.

After the Senate’s vote, CPBP director Richard Cordray released a statement stating the action was “a giant setback for every consumer in the country.” “Wall Street won”, he said, “and ordinary people lost.”  Interestingly, Director Cordray wrote a letter directly to President Trump on October 30 pleading with him to save the arbitration rule.

The letter said, “This rule is all about protecting people who simply want to be able to take action together to right the wrongs done to them.” It also appealed to President Trump’s support of veterans and lower income Americans by saying, “I think you really don’t like to see American families, including veterans and service members, get cheated out of their hard-earned money and be left helpless to fight back.”

The letter obviously had no effect. President Trump signed the law on November 1 to the delight of banking and business groups. Director Cordray said, “In signing this resolution, the President signed away consumers’ right to their day in court.”  The Trump administration, however, is clearly in favor of dismantling regulatory efforts it believes may put a damper on the free market in any way.

History repeats itself

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Fraudulent mortgage satisfaction schemes are back

We have heard recently that a group is engaging in a scheme to fraudulent satisfy mortgages (or deeds of trust) in California and Florida. We all know that trends in California and Florida eventually make it to South Carolina, so I wanted to make sure South Carolina dirt lawyers are aware of this scheme. This is not a new scheme, but we thought it had died down until we got this news last month.

Here are some good rules of thumb to assist you in avoiding losses and protect clients in this area:

  • Have your title examiners provide you with copies of mortgage satisfactions and releases. Two sets of eyes reviewing the documents should help with spotting issues.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases within a year of your closings. The normal schemes involve satisfying mortgages in order to collect funds at subsequent closings.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases that are not connected with a sale or refinance. Contact the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Don’t accept a satisfaction or release directly from a seller, buyer or third party without contacting the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Many of the fraudulent documents are being executed by an unauthorized party on behalf of MERS. Compare MERS satisfactions with others you have seen in connection with your closings.
  • Check spellings and compare signatures against those of genuine instruments.
  • Be wary of hand-written documents, unorthodox documents, cross-outs, insertions and multiple fonts.

The perpetrators of this fraud are sophisticated and will change aspects of the scheme as needed, so remain vigilant and discuss any suspected fraudulent documents with your title insurance underwriter.

It’s suitable to be a Lincoln Lawyer in SC

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…at least when it comes to using a PO Box address in lawyer advertising

lincoln lawyer

Ethics Advisory Opinion 17-07 fielded a question from a solo practitioner with a virtual law office. He practices wherever his smart phone and laptop are, which, at any given moment, may be his home, a coffee shop, a park, his car or his vacation spot. His practice generates very little paper, and he keeps that paper at his home. He meets with clients at their places of business or at third-party meeting spaces. He uses a post office box address for all business mail.

He does not actively advertise his practice beyond a single online directory listing, but he is considering increasing his web presence for advertising purposes, and he doesn’t want to disclose his home address. His question was whether the use of a post office box address in advertising materials satisfies the requirement in Rule 7.2 that advertising communications must include the office address of at least one lawyer responsible for its content.

The Ethics Advisory Committee looked North for authority and cited an opinion from North Carolina* which stated: “…(R)equiring a street address in all legal advertising has proved problematic, particularly as the number of lawyers working from home offices or operation in virtual law practices has increased. The requirement is no longer practical or necessary to avoid misleading the public or to insure that a lawyer responsible for the advertisement can be located by the State Bar.”

The Committee also noted that the Bar accepts post office addresses as lawyers’ addresses and the Supreme Court accepts post office addresses in its Attorney Information System (AIS) as a part of the “official contact information”.

The Committee stated that use of a post office address qualifies as an “office address” for the purposes of Rule 7.2(d) provided the post office address is on file at the lawyer’s current mailing address in the lawyer’s listing in the AIS.

Interestingly, though, the Committee noted that Rule 7.2(h) also imposes a geographic location disclosure requirement, which was not addressed by this opinion.  Here is the text of that portion of the Rule:

“(h) All advertisements shall disclose the geographic location, by city or town, of the office in which the lawyer or lawyers who will actually perform the services advertised principally practice law. If the office location is outside a city or town, the county in which the office is located must be disclosed. A lawyer referral service shall disclose the geographic area in which the lawyer practices when a referral is made.”

This Lincoln Lawyer may have to come back to obtain an answer to that issue!

*2012 N.C. Formal Eth. Adv. Op. 6 at 2.

Despicable Acts: Absentee property owners can be targets of fraud

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Despicable acts

And real estate lawyers may be the best minions to prevent these crimes!

Imagine this scenario: Lucy Wilde’s family owns a farm in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina. Since the sudden death of Lucy’s husband, Felonius Gru in 2007, no one has farmed the property. The fields are sitting fallow awaiting the opening of the estate and the division of the property among and Felonius’ heirs, including Lucy. The relatives have all fled small-town living to join the Anti-Villain League, so no one is available to literally mind the farm, and no one is in a hurry to settle the estate.

Enter Balthazar Bratt, a fraudster from Miami who sees the vacant property, searches the public records and learns the property is owned by the late Felonius Gru. Bratt also learns the property is ripe for development because it is located near the prime corridor between Charleston and Columbia, and very near Interstate access.

How can Bratt take advantage of this scenario while the Anti-Villain League employed family members are not paying attention? Absentee owners of real property are often the targets of criminals who pose as true owners offering the property for sale or as collateral for a new loan. These fraudsters may sell or refinance the property and abscond with the sale proceeds or strip any equity in the property with a new loan. The true owner has no idea the property is the subject of a real estate transaction.

In our fictional account, if Bratt was able to ascertain through the public records that Felonius Gru was deceased, a good title examiner should be able to use the same sleuthing methods.  If rural Orangeburg County is not your stomping grounds, as we say in the South, you might hire a title examiner who does have experience in the locale. In small towns in South Carolina, people know each other!

Another tip to fight criminals like Bratt is to compare the mailing address provided by the seller or borrower to the tax bill. While this step may not help in an estate situation, it may very well reveal an absentee owner located in a different address than the one provided by the fraudster.  If the address is different from the address provided to you or the lender, send a letter to the address shown on the tax bill. Your letter might simply suggest that you are happy to be of service to the buyer in the transaction and that if the seller is unaware of the situation, he should have his attorney contact you. That letter should get the attention of an absentee and clueless property owner.

Another tip is to compare signatures of the seller or borrower against documents in the public records. While we are not expected to be handwriting experts, we can spot obvious forgeries. I remember a war story from long ago where one person signed in seven spots in a deed, for the five owners and the two witnesses. The alert closing attorney called an immediate halt to the potentially disastrous real estate transaction!

A well-known and well-used technique that often works is to obtain and carefully review picture identifications for everyone who signs documents in your office. Also, do not accept an assignment of proceeds. Make sure proceeds are paid to the seller or borrower of record only.

And finally, give yourself and your staff members permission to carefully and slowly consider every aspect of your closings. Staff members should be encouraged to be cautious and suspicious and to discuss their concerns with each other or with an attorney in the office.  If the closing attorney needs a sounding board, she should call her friendly title insurance company lawyer.  I can’t count the number of times someone has called me, explained a situation, and before I could even respond, said, “oh, that’s a problem, isn’t it?”

minions

Sometimes just explaining the situation out loud to another person makes the problems crystal clear!

Be careful out there!