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.

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Happy New Year!

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Let’s make 2019 a great year!

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2018 has been a difficult year for our work family here in Columbia. Almost every person in our office suffered a personal loss or a difficult illness of a family member during the year. We have supported each other to the extent a work family can provide support, and we have collectively decided to turn the corner and to make 2019 our year. We invite you to join us in that resolution.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” My guess is that he used the qualifier “most” because he recognized that outside forces might lead to unhappiness for some people, but I couldn’t agree more with our 16th president that happiness is usually a matter of choice.

Here in the Bible Belt South, some may believe that faith leads to happiness, but experience suggests that people of faith don’t always choose happiness. Experience also suggests that affluence does not create happiness. In fact, it seems that the opposite may be true in many instances.

I write this blog* for South Carolina real estate lawyers and their staff members, and my goal is to keep us all up to date on real estate issues that may affect our practices.

Abe Lincoln Happiness

Early in my career, I decided to focus on real estate law because I chose happiness. I found real estate law to be a happier choice than litigation, especially the domestic litigation I tried for about five minutes. If the economy is good, then everyone should be satisfied at the end of the closing process. The seller should walk away with funds. The buyer should have a new piece of real estate to inhabit, rent or develop. The lender should have a nice income stream. And the players in the marketplace should be paid fairly for their services in connection with the closing.

Those of us who weathered the economic downturn that began in 2007 are well aware that practicing real estate law does not lead to similar happiness when the economy is terrible. Kudos to all of us who survived and came out the other side of that particularly unhappy season. And here’s to hoping we don’t experience a similar downturn any time soon.

Another realization I made early in my career is that to make money, lawyers have to work very hard, often at a speed and pressure that do not benefit their health and happiness. And if lawyers have to work under those circumstances, then their staff members do as well.

So how do we choose happiness in a pressure-filled real estate practice that is dependent on the economy?

I offer Jon Gordon’s “20 Tips for a Positive New Year” as a suggestion. Jon Gordon is a motivational business speaker I enjoy following. Many of his tips for a positive 2019 focus on choosing to be happy. (But I particularly like his tip #8, “Get More Sleep” as I type this piece at 5:30 a.m.) You can download this excellent advice in poster format to keep at your desk or post in your workroom.

I am going to try to follow Abraham Lincoln’s and Jon Gordon’s advice in 2019. And I invite you to join me!

*Thanks to the readers of this blog! I began writing weekly very late in 2014. Readership has increased from just under 2,000 in 2014 to just over 31,000 in 2018. I’d like to take the opportunity of a new year to thank Martha McConnell and Jennifer Rubin, excellent lawyers in our office, who help me with ideas, redirect my thinking, keep me out of trouble and proofread my work. And I’d like to thank Cris Hudson, IT guru extraordinaire in our office, who handles technical issues. It is definitely a team effort, and I am blessed with a great team! My friend and fellow lawyer, Bill Booth, has also supplied me with a steady stream of ideas. Thanks Bill! If you have ideas for me, please contact me through this blog or at claire.manning@ctt.com.

We hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

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And if the holidays make you blue, please ask for help!

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Our office pledges to give our agents all the CLE they need free of charge, that is, if they are South Carolina practitioners and only practice real estate law. Don’t ask us for litigation education…we don’t know anything about litigation! We have an impressive calendar of webinars and “brunch and learns”, and we have one grand “annual seminar” where all of our agents are invited to one place to network, to be wined and dined by us, and to learn the latest and greatest issues affecting the practice of real estate law.

We typically hold this seminar in October or November, well before year-end. For 2018, we planned our grand finale in Myrtle Beach in early October, the Monday after the horrible flood that affected our coast and Pee Dee area.

The hotel kept telling us that Myrtle Beach was fine!  Our speakers flying in from other states would have no problem with air or ground transportation. Our agents, however, coming from all over South Carolina, would have been hard pressed to get to Myrtle Beach from the South because Georgetown was flooded or from the West or North, where the Pee Dee was almost entirely unpassable.

So, we punted!  We convinced the hotel to let us reschedule and had a great cocktail party on Sunday, December 16 and an all-day seminar on Monday, December 17. We were thrilled when our agents responded and attended one week prior to Christmas vacation. And we thoroughly enjoyed celebrating with the lawyers and their staff members who work with us all year long.

We were able to hug our agents and wish for them the best during the holiday season in person, which was great fun for us!

Why am I going on and on about seminars and lawyers and holidays?  I have been impressed this year with the fact that some people, and especially some lawyers, don’t enjoy this time of year, and I wanted to encourage everyone, especially, every lawyer, who needs help to get help now.

You may have read a recent heartbreaking news story in American Lawyer where a lawyer’s widow blamed “biglaw” for her husband’s suicide. She admitted that her husband had a deep, hereditary mental health disorder and lacked essential coping mechanisms. But she said she believed his high-pressure job and culture where it is shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect, created a perfect storm.

And our church held a “Blue Christmas” service in early December. This service brought home to me the sad point that many people are unusually sad during the holidays.

This story and this service encouraged me to read statistics on lawyer suicide, and I learned that there is apparently an epidemic. In a period of 18 months in South Carolina, six lawyers committed suicide. We, as lawyers, are supposed to be problem solvers. We are supposed to be strong. We are not supposed to have problems. But lawyers do have these problems. I read one statistic that indicated lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

In order to pass our “character and fitness” check to become lawyers and in order to keep our licenses for the long haul, we tend to hide our mental health problems. Having problems and hiding the problems can create perfect storms in our own lives.

I encourage any lawyer who is particularly unhappy this time of year to call South Carolina Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers toll free helpline at (866) 545-9590 or contact any Lawyers Helping Lawyers member directly.

And I refer everyone to Stuart Mauney’s excellent article, “The Lawyers’ Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse”, which is located on the Bar’s website. This article outlines the problem and the symptoms and explains how important asking for help can be. This article is valuable to all of us because if we don’t suffer ourselves, we probably know someone who does. I am going to keep a copy of it at my desk for future reference.

I wish for all of you very happy holidays and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019!

Lawyers: be careful with client documents

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You and your staff can’t “fix” them

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A recent disciplinary case from the South Carolina Supreme Court involved a document problem in a child custody case, but the case reminded me of an area that can create difficulties for real estate lawyers. The case, In re Robinson*, resulted in a definite suspension of nine months for a lawyer who submitted a sworn affidavit to a family court purportedly signed by the client and notarized by the lawyer. After the attorney-client relationship was dissolved, the client informed the court that the affidavit was forged. The client indicated that she had no knowledge of the affidavit when it was filed but contents of the affidavit were true.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. A deadline approached. An affidavit was needed. The client was unavailable. The lawyer decided “no harm no foul” and “fixed” the document problem with an affidavit that spoke the truth but that was not signed by the client.

How does this case translate to real estate? Closing attorneys and their staff members are often tempted to correct errors in executed documents by replacing pages or typing or writing directly on them, both before and after recording. Some practitioners assume that if they can locate the original document after recording, they can simply “fix” it and re-record it. This assumption is incorrect. The documents belong to the parties to the transaction. Lawyers and their staff members cannot revise and re-record documents without party participation.

Changes in documents should be accompanied, at the very least, by the initials of the signatories. Perhaps more often, new documents should be signed, witnessed, notarized and re-recorded. Substantial changes may require more formal corrective measures, such as a deed back from the grantee and a corrective deed from the grantor.

Closing attorneys and their staff members sometimes attempt to correct documents with the participation of only the seller or borrower when actual correction of the problem may require the participation of the buyer or lender. For example, a developer’s deed mistakenly refers to Lot 1, when the closing involved Lot 2. It is not sufficient to correct this problem by having the seller sign a corrective deed using the legal description for Lot 2. The buyer should reconvey Lot 1 to the seller, and the seller should then convey Lot 2 to the buyer. Similarly, if Lot 1 was mortgaged in this closing, the lender should release Lot 1, and Lot 2 should be substituted by way of a corrective mortgage or mortgage modification.

Like the lawyer in the disciplinary case, real estate lawyers and their staff members may believe the adage “no harm no foul” comes into play when a mistake is found in a document. To stay out of the Advance Sheets, resist the impulse to “fix” client documents acting alone. And train your staff to resist similar impulses.

 

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27824 (July 11, 2018)

Did your 2019 Bar dues give you sticker shock?

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The United States Supreme Court signals possible First Amendment violation

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The United States Supreme Court may be considering upending the system bar associations in about thirty states use to support themselves, mandatory bar dues paid to private associations.  David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times reported on December 3 that the more conservative high court may have an appetite to address this issue. You can read the article here.

Bar associations in most states regulate the legal profession by licensing and disciplining lawyers. The LA Times article reports: “In a brief order on Monday, the court overturned a ruling last year by the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that had upheld mandatory bar dues in North Dakota and sent the case back ‘for further consideration in light of Janus.’”

Janus v. AFSCME is a 5-4 case from June where the Supreme Court struck down California law that required teachers and other public employees to pay fees to support unions.

The current case, Fleck v. Wetch, began when Arnold Fleck, a North Dakota lawyer, sued his state bar association after he learned it had contributed $50,000 to support a state ballot measure. When the 8th Circuit rejected his constitutional argument, the Goldwater Institute assisted him in filing an appeal.

The article quotes Justice Alito as calling it a “bedrock principle” that “no person in this country may be impelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

The lawsuit challenges private associations, not state agencies that regulate lawyers. We will always pay bar dues. We just may not pay them to a private bar association.

Deadline approaching for new HOA recording requirement

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“Governing documents” should be recorded by January 10

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The South Carolina Homeowners Association Act, an amendment to Title 27 of the South Carolina Code which included new §27-30-130, was signed into law by Governor Henry McMaster and became effective on May 17.

The act states that in order to continue to be enforceable, a homeowners association’s governing documents must be recorded in the county where the property is located by January 10, 2019 for associations in place on the effective date of the legislation. For new associations or for amendments to governing documents, recording must take place by January 10 of the year following the adoption or amendment of the documents.

The requirement to record Master Deeds is, of course, not new to South Carolina practitioners. We have recorded Master Deeds and their required attachments since the creation of Horizontal Property Regimes became possible in South Carolina. The new requirement applies to rules, regulations and bylaws of associations, including amendments to rules, regulations and bylaws. Practitioners have not routinely recorded these documents. It is interesting that recording rules, regulations and bylaws will not be subject to the requirement of witnesses and acknowledgements of §30-5-30.

A memorandum from the Register of Deeds of Horry County states that these documents will be accepted electronically and across the counter. Documents recorded across the counter must contain an original wet signature plus the printed name and title of the signatory. Horry County will also require contact information (address, email address or telephone number) of the person recording the document, the Homeowners Association’s name and the physical address or legal description of the property. Horry County also highly recommends, but does not require, the book and page number of the recorded Master Deed. This additional information may be included in a cover sheet.

The law also creates a new duty to disclose whether real property being sold is part of a homeowners association and a duty to disclose the condition of floors, foundations, plumbing, electrical and other components of the property. Real estate practitioners may be called upon to assist with these newly-created disclosures.

Another requirement of the legislation includes a 48-hour notice for meetings that are intended to increase budgets by more than ten percent. A requirement for access to community documents by owners was also added. This requirement was previously in place for associations that are created as non-profit corporations. The new law makes it clear that all homeowners associations must provide similar access to documents for owners. The law also gives magistrate’s courts concurrent jurisdiction for monetary disputes of up to $7,500 involving homeowners association disputes.

SC Court reverses itself on “active energy” judgment issue

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South Carolina dirt lawyers seldom breathe a sigh of relief when our Supreme Court decides a real estate case. But the November 21 opinion in Gordon v. Lancaster* was greeted with a collective “thank goodness”!  We were living with a less-than-exact term for the viability of a judgment, and we didn’t like it.

The question in this case was whether a creditor may execute on a judgment more than ten years after enrollment when the ten-year statutory period for execution** expires during the course of litigation. The Court overturned its 2010 decision in Linda Mc Co. v. Shore***, which held that, despite the passage of more than ten years, the judgment continued to have “active energy” because the judgment creditor had filed for supplemental proceedings.

In the current case, a judgment was enrolled in 2002 against Rudolph Drews, the now-deceased uncle of the Petitioner Donald Lancaster, in connection with a civil action for violating securities laws in an investment scheme for a new business venture in Charleston. Frank Gordon, the creditor, filed a petition for supplemental proceedings in 2006. During the hearing, Gordon’s counsel became suspicious that Drews’ wife and Lancaster were attempting to shield Drews’ assets from creditors. The hearing was continued when Drews failed to produce tax and financial documents.

Drews died in 2007. Gordon sought to continue supplemental proceedings, but there were delays in the estate administration. In 2010, suspicions were confirmed about hiding assets when Lancaster was deposed. Soon after, one day before her scheduled deposition, Drews’ wife died. Gordon filed this action, asserting Lancaster assisted Drews is hiding assets in violation of the Statute of Elizabeth. In 2011, Drews’ estate confessed judgment in the approximate amount of $300,000, and his wife’s estate settled with Gordon for $60,000.

During a bench trial in 2013, Lancaster moved for a directed verdict based on Gordon’s prior concession that the suit was based on the earlier judgment, which was obviously older than ten years. The trial court and the Court of Appeals disagreed, relying on the holding in Linda Mc: If a party takes action to enforce a judgment within the ten-year statutory period of active energy, the resulting order will be effective even if issued after the ten-year period has expired.

The Court noted that Linda Mc represented a departure from its historic approach and created confusion in what was formerly a well-settled area of the law. (To that I would like to very politely reply “duh”.) The Court overruled itself and returned to the bright-line ten-year rule.

In a footnote, the Court stated that it is overruling Linda Mc prospectively. The same footnote referred to Justice Pleicones’ dissent in Linda Mc, which predicted confusion in a previously settled area of the law.

Justice Few concurred in the result but disagreed with overruling Linda Mc, which he said created a narrow exception to the bright-line ten-year rule for the issuance of an execution on a judgment. There was a discussion in the opinion and the concurring opinion about dictum vs. holding, but, thankfully, nothing concrete came out of that. Justice James concurred in part and dissented in part, agreeing that Linda Mc should be overruled, but believing that Gordon should have received relief because of the prospective nature of the decision.

Pennsatucky AmenAs a title insurance lawyer and title examiner from way back, I am happy to see us return to a common sense, bright-line approach to the ten-year rule. Can I get an “Amen”?

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27847, November 21, 2018.

** South Carolina Code Section 15-39-30.

*** 390 S.C. 543, 703 S.E.2d 499 (2010).