Dear History, please stop repeating yourself!

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster in two years for South Carolina

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster to pummel our beloved state since this blog was launched in 2014. After the 1,000 year flood in October of 2015, Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016. Rebuilding is not complete from either catastrophe.

On my way to work this morning, I passed the remains of several businesses that were destroyed when Gills Creek flooded in 2015. Thankfully, I heard recently that Richland County is about to purchase those properties to turn them into green spaces. Other areas in and around Columbia are still in the rebuilding process or have been completely abandoned. Many homeowners have made their homes bigger, stronger and certainly taller. Others have given up and moved away.

Enter Irma. A friend joked on Facebook that we’re lucky here in South Carolina Irma passed us by. You would never know it passed us by from the many feet of water we’re seeing in pictures of Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, Georgetown, Garden City and surrounding areas. And the pictures and video coming from Florida and the Caribbean, not to mention the pictures and video coming from the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas and Louisiana, all show unspeakable damage.

Our company’s home office is located in Jacksonville where surrounding streets are under water. Employees with power are trying to work remotely. Others are out of commission.

A wise man in our building here in Columbia said to me this morning that these disasters bring out the best and the worst in folks. There are looters, but there are many more heroes who have rescued their neighbors in boats. There are neighborhoods without power who are gathering in their streets for impromptu block parties. Chainsaws are chopping downed trees. Supplies and helping hands are being donated. Celebrities and charities are raising millions. I’d like to believe that we’re seeing much more good than bad in people.

Our hearts are breaking for those who have lost so much. Rebuilding will take time, resources and patience. Many have lost everything and are without insurance coverage. Millions are without power and water. Many are in shock.

Dirt lawyers are in an exceptional position to support clients who may not be familiar with the assistance available to them. We have all learned a lot in the last few years. I challenge each of us to continue to educate ourselves and to be available to offer the valuable advice our neighbors and others will need in the days ahead. Local, state and federal governments seem better prepared this time around and seem to be working better to coordinate efforts. Here is a link to the South Carolina Bar’s Key Assistance Numbers. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger and more resilient now than we were for the last disaster.

Let’s once again rise to the occasion, real estate lawyers, and provide the best advice available for our clients and friends who will need it as they sort out, clean up and rebuild.

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Another Win for MERS.

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South Carolina Supreme Court tosses case against it brought by five Counties

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County administrators in five South Carolina counties were told they have no statutory cause of action against MERS in a case our Supreme Court dismissed on March 30.* Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper Counties brought suits against MERS and numerous banking institutions claiming their fraudulent practice of recordings disrupted the integrity of the public records.

The Supreme Court consolidated the five suits and assigned them to Business Court Judge Lawton McIntosh. MERS and the banking institutions filed a joint motion to dismiss, arguing the suit was barred by SC Code §30-9-30. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, indicating dismissal is improper for a novel question of law. The Supreme Court granted cert and dismissed the actions.

MERS is a member-based organization made up of lenders, investors, mortgage banks and others. When a MERS lender takes a promissory note and mortgage, MERS is shown on the face of the mortgage as the nominee for the lender. The mortgage is recorded in the county where the real estate is located, and the loan is registered in the MERS system.

This system allows lenders to retain priority with MERS as nominee. MERS provides convenient framework through which its members can transfer notes and mortgages without having to record each assignment. As a result, the public records may not accurately reflect the true owners of mortgages.

The lawsuits claimed fraud, misrepresentation, unfair trade practices, conversion, and trespass to chattels. It sought a declaratory judgment stating MERS and the lenders had caused damage to the public index system by recording false documents. It requested injunctive relief barring further recordings showing MERS as nominee and requiring corrections to the public records. The prayer demanded direct and consequential damages to remediate deficiencies in the records, as well as compensatory and punitive damages in the event the errors could not be fixed.

The crux of the matter was surely the loss of income for the assignment fees, although that thought is never mentioned in the published opinion.

Sale of a house. Object over whiteThe statute, §30-9-30, allows a recorder to refuse to accept or to remove any document believed to be materially false or fraudulent or a sham legal process. MERS and the lenders argued the statute does not provide the counties authority to bring the lawsuit, and the counties argued that the statute allows them to bring the suit by implication. They suggest that the statute provides, by implication, the power to commence litigation to remediate the public records and to seek guidance from the Court. The Supreme Court declined to imply language into deliberate legislative silence.

The Supreme Court held that the lower court erred in declining to dismiss the suit on the ground that this is a novel issue of law despite the fact that earlier cases had held to the contrary. The Court stated that where the case involves simple statutory construction, the trial court should not deny a meritorious motion simply because the question is one of first impression.

According to the Court, the statute already provides a remedy to government officials by allowing them to remove or reject any fraudulent records. Will the counties attempt to utilize this remedy?  Only time will tell.

*Kubic v. MERSCORP Holdings, Inc. (Appellate Case 2015-001366, March 30, 2016)