Borrower sues mortgage lender for violation of attorney preference statute

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Court of Appeals holds lender’s foreclosure action is not a compulsory counterclaim

South Carolina’s Court of Appeals ruled on a noteworthy foreclosure case* in August.

The facts are interesting. In 1998, the borrowers signed a fixed-rate note in the amount of $60,400 at a 9.99% interest rate secured by a mortgage on property in Gaston. The note contained a balloon provision requiring payment in full on July 1, 2013.

On June 27, 2013, days before the note matured, the borrowers brought an action against the lender alleging a violation of South Carolina Code §37-10-102, the Attorney Preference Statute. The complaint alleged that no attorney supervised the closing, that the loan was unconscionable, and that the borrowers were entitled to damages, attorney’s fees and penalties as provided in the Consumer Protection Code. In addition, the complaint asserted a claim under the Unfair Trade Practices Act. All the allegations were premised on the same alleged violation of the Attorney Preference Statute.

The borrowers immediately defaulted on the note, and the lender filed an answer asserting no counterclaims. At trial, the jury found for the lender. About a year later, the borrowers sent a letter by certified mail to the lender requesting that it satisfy the mortgage. The letter included a $40 check to pay the recording fee for the mortgage satisfaction. The lender refused to satisfy the mortgage and returned the check.

The lender brought the present action for foreclosure in October of 2016. The borrowers asserted defenses of res judicata, laches, unclean hands, waiver, and setoff, but admitted no payments had been made on the loan after July 1, 2013. The borrowers then sought a declaratory judgment that the lender held no mortgage on the property, or, alternatively, that the mortgage was unenforceable. They alleged that the lender was liable for failing to satisfy the mortgage and for noncompliance with the Attorney Preference Statute. The lender denied the allegations and argued that the claims under the Attorney Preference Statute were time-barred.

Both parties sought partial summary judgments before the master-in-equity. The master granter the borrower’s motion and denied the lender’s motion. He ruled that the mortgage was satisfied and instructed the lender to file a satisfaction.

On appeal, the lender argued the master erred by finding its foreclosure action was a compulsory counterclaim in the 2013 action. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the two claims arose out of separate transactions. The Attorney Preference claim arose from the closing, while the foreclosure arose from the borrower’s default, according to the Court. The Court reversed the master’s award of partial summary judgment to the borrower and remanded the case for further proceedings. Because of its decision on this issue, the Court determined that it did not need to address the remaining issues.

*Deutsche Bank National Trust Company v. Estate of Houck, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5844, August 11, 2021.

We have a new attorney preference case

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…and dirt lawyers are not going to like it

The South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled recently in favor of Quicken Loans, Inc. in a foreclosure case where the defendants argued the lender was not entitled to foreclose because it had violated the attorney preference statute during the application process.* My friend and classmate, Special Referee James Martin Harvey, Jr., had granted partial summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and Quicken appealed.

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Quicken telephonically takes information for loan applications from borrowers, according to the recited facts. Quicken’s system prompts Quicken’s banker to ask the borrower: “Will the borrower select legal counsel to represent them in this transaction.” If the borrower responds “no”, the attorney preference form is populated to read, “I/We will not use the services of legal counsel.”  No list of acceptable closing attorneys is provided to borrowers who answer “no” to this question, and the file is sent to Quicken’s affiliate company, Title Source, Inc., which acts as settlement agent in the transaction and subcontracts with attorneys to perform the settlement services.

If the borrower answers “yes”, Quicken’s system populates the attorney preference form to read, “Please contact lender with preference.” The system does not allow an attorney’s name to be entered at this stage of the application process.

The borrowers in this case declined legal representation during the initial telephonic application process.

The Court of Appeals indicated the form used by Quicken is identical to the form promulgated by the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs (DOCA) except that Quicken’s form is prepopulated with responses. Like the DOCA form, Quicken’s form states, “I/We have been informed by the lender that I (we) have a right to select legal counsel to represent me (us) in all matters in this transaction relating to the closing of the loan.” Unlike the DOCA form, however, Part 1(a) of the Quicken form is prepopulated to read, “I/We will not use the services of legal counsel.”

Under Part 1(b) the Quicken form, like the DOCA form, initially states, “Having been informed of this right, and having no preference, I asked for assistance from the lender and was referred to a list of acceptable attorneys. From that list I select…” Unlike the DOCA form, which provides blank lines to fill in an attorney’s name and the borrower’s signature, the Quicken form is prepopulated with the response, “Not Applicable.”

Quicken produced the affidavit of closing attorney Carlton D. Robinson, who said it was his practice to explain the legal effect of the attorney preference to borrowers and that he would not have closed if the borrowers had expressed any dissatisfaction with having him act as closing attorney.

The Attorney Preference Statute (S.C. Code §37-10-102(a) provides that when the primary purpose of a loan secured by real estate is for personal, family or household purpose, the creditor must ascertain prior to closing the preference of the borrower as to the legal counsel employed to represent the borrower in the closing. The purpose of this statute is to protect consumers.

DOCA filed an Amicus Brief arguing that Quicken had violated the statute. The Court of Appeals held that Quicken complied with the statute because an agent of Quicken asked the borrowers if they would be using preferred legal counsel and only populated the form after the borrowers responded that they did not have counsel of preference. Quicken sent the form to the borrowers, who signed and returned it without asking further questions.

Will the Supreme Court agree with the Court of Appeals given the opportunity? My guess that the current Justices will agree. My guess would have been different before the retirement of Chief Justice Jean Toal. Will the legislature tighten the language of the statute? That is always a possibility, but we have heard nothing on that front to date. I hate to be the bearer of such bad news for South Carolina real estate practitioners.

*Quicken Loans, Inc. v. Wilson, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5613, January 9, 2019.