NC title agent fakes title insurance policies and gets fourteen month sentence

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A North Carolina title agent was sentenced this month for selling fake title insurance policies. Ginger Lynn Cunningham owned Blue Ridge Title Company, a title insurance agency located in Buncombe County, North Carolina.

The title insurance company that had done business with Cunningham had canceled the agency in March of 2016, but Cunningham continued through October of 2017 to represent herself as being a title insurance agent. During this time, she purportedly sold falsified title insurance policies, retaining 100% of the premium.

The court records reflect that at least 973 counterfeit title insurance policies were sold to the tune of around $400,000 in bogus premiums. Cunningham pleaded guilty to wire fraud on October 28, 2019.

Cunningham was sentenced to fourteen months in prison and three years of court supervision. She was also ordered to pay restitution.

I would love to say this is a novel case and that these facts don’t make my skin crawl, but former attorney, Brian Davis, was disbarred in South Carolina in 2015 for the same activity.*

By way of background, the vast majority of real estate lawyers in South Carolina are also licensed as title insurance company agents.  In other parts of the country, lenders receive title insurance documents directly from title companies’ direct operations.  In South Carolina, title companies run agency operations, supporting their networks of agents, almost all of whom are South Carolina licensed attorneys.

Lenders require closing protection letters for closings involving agents.  Stated simply, these letters inform lenders that the insurer may be responsible in the event a closing is handled improperly by the closing attorney.

Title insurance company agents also produce title insurance policies and commitments, following the guidelines of their insurance underwriters, and using software programs designed to support the production of these documents.

Some closing attorneys are not agents but instead act as approved attorneys for title insurance companies. Approved attorneys can obtain closing protection letters from their title companies, but they are not able to issue their own title insurance documents. Instead, they certify title to a title insurance company or to a title company’s agent.

If an attorney cannot provide lenders with closing protection letters, that attorney generally cannot close mortgage loans in South Carolina.

In 2007, Mr. Davis was canceled as an agent by his title insurance company**.  After that cancellation, he was able to legitimately obtain title insurance commitments and policies through an agent. In 2011, however, Mr. Davis was canceled as an approved attorney.  He didn’t let that fact stop him though. He began to fraudulently produce title insurance documents, making it appear that the title insurance company was issuing closing protection letters, commitments and policies for his closings.  He also collected funds designated as title insurance premiums, but he never paid those premiums to the title insurance company.  He continued to handle closings using fraudulent title insurance documents until his actions were discovered and he was suspended from the practice of law by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2013. In 2015, Mr. Davis was disbarred.

I supposed I should close by saying don’t do this!  Please!

 

* In the Matter of Davis, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27480 (January 21, 2015)

** In the interest of full disclosure, I work for that company.

Court of Appeals decides same-sex common law marriage case

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pride flag gay marriage

In a same-sex common law marriage case, our Court of Appeals recently weighed in on the applicability in South Carolina of Obergefell v. Hodges*, the 2015 United States Supreme Court case that held same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry and that state laws challenged in that case were invalid to the extent they exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.

In an appeal from the family court’s dismissal of Cathy Swicegood’s complaint alleging the existence of a common-law marriage with her same-sex partner, Polly Thompson, Swicegood argued the family court erred by dismissing the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction**.

The family court case was filed in 2014. While Swicegood’s appeal was pending, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Obergefell.

The case sought an order recognizing the existence of a common-law marriage, a decree of separate support and maintenance, alimony, equitable division of marital property and related relief. Swicegood alleged she and Thompson cohabited as sole domestic partners for over thirteen years, until December 10, 2013, agreed to be married and held themselves out as a married couple. She also alleged the couple exchanged and wore wedding rings, co-owned property as joint tenants with the right of survivorship and included each other as devisees in their wills. She also alleged they shared a joint bank account and that Thompson listed her as a “domestic partner/qualified beneficiary” on Thompson’s health insurance and as a beneficiary on her retirement account.

Thompson moved to dismiss the action, alleging the family court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Swicegood’s complaint because the parties were not married and lacked the capacity to marry.

Swicegood submitted the affidavits of two individuals who each attested they witnessed a wedding ceremony between Swicegood and Thompson in Las Vegas on February 12, 2011.

Thompson submitted a memorandum and several exhibits in support of her motion to dismiss. She argued that in August 2012 and September 2013, she and Swicegood signed affidavits of domestic partnership in which they acknowledged they had “a close personal relationship in lieu of a lawful marriage,” were “unmarried” and “not married to anyone.”

Thompson contended these documents indicated the parties did not hold themselves out as a married couple. In her affidavit, Thompson attested Swicegood knew they were not married. She stated she and Swicegood participated in a “commitment ceremony” in Las Vegas “on a lark,” but they knew it was not a wedding and that they could not legally marry in Nevada. Thompson attested she gave Swicegood several rings during their relationship, but she intended none of these to signify they were married. She stated she was not and never had been married to Swicegood: “We both knew that if we wanted to get married, we could go to a state that allowed same-sex marriage. It was not our intent to enter into marriage, and we did not”.

The family court dismissed Swicegood’s complaint, concluding it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the issues because a common-law marriage was not legally possible pursuant to section 20-1-15 of the South Carolina Code (2014), which was still in force at the time. That statute read: “A marriage between persons of the same sex is void ab initio and against the public policy of this State.”

The Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion remanding the case to the family court with instructions to “consider the implications of Obergefell on its subject matter jurisdiction.” The family court again concluded it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, finding that although Obergefell applied to common-law marriages, it could not retroactively create a common-law marriage between the parties.

The court concluded Obergefell could not “logically be read to exclude common-law marriages,” and so long as South Carolina continued to recognize the validity of common-law marriages for opposite-sex couples, it had “a constitutionally mandated duty to recognize the validity of common-law marriages for same-sex couples.” The court did not expressly resolve the question of whether Obergefell applied retroactively, but it concluded the couple could not have formed a common-law marriage because section 20-1-15 was in place throughout the couple’s thirteen-year period of cohabitation, and they believed they lacked the legal right to be a married couple.

The Court of Appeals applied Obergefell retroactively, but held that retroactive application of the decision did not require them to ignore the fact a state statute operated as an impediment to the formation of a common-law marriage between same-sex couples when it was still in force. Our state law concerning impediments to marriage was held to be “a pre-existing, separate, independent rule of state law, having nothing to do with retroactivity,” which formed an “independent legal basis” for the family court’s dismissal of Swicegood’s complaint.

 

*135 United States Supreme Court 2584 (2015).

**Swicegood v. Thompson, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5725 (July 1, 2020)

South Carolina is one of three states without remote online notarization

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This HousingWire article really caught my attention this morning. South Carolina is one of only three states without an online notarization option.

Efforts have been in progress to pass Remote Online Notarization (RON) legislation here for a couple of years, but the Council of the Bar’s Real Estate Section opposed the legislation on the theory that RON would challenge the control South Carolina licensed lawyers currently enjoy. Many other lawyers disagree with that position, but the legislation stalled.

Other states have used a variety of permanent and temporary solutions to allow for remote online notarization during the COVID-19 crisis. But, at this moment, California, Oregon and South Carolina are the only states with no solution.

What’s your opinion, South Carolina real estate lawyers? Would RON be a good solution to facilitate closings in South Carolina or would it erode your control? The legislation is likely going to be discussed in the next legislative session. Your opinion matters!

CFPB issues a factsheet on title insurance disclosures

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Also updates disclosure FAQs

cfpb-logoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has recently issued two documents that may help closing attorneys.

The first document is a factsheet on TRID title insurance disclosures. This document addresses differences between state disclosures and TRID disclosures for simultaneous issue rates. It also addresses the situation where the seller pays for title insurance.

The second document is an updated list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosures. The additions address seller paid costs, total payments on the closing disclosure, accounting for negative prepaid interest and whether a lender may require the consumer to sign and return the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure.

U. S. Supreme Court rules CFPB structure is unconstitutional

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CFPB building

The Supreme Court issued an order on Monday, June 29 holding that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is unconstitutional. But the agency has not been abolished.

In a 5-4 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court held that the agency run by a single director who can be fired by the President only for cause violates the separation of powers doctrine. The agency can be saved simply by striking the for-cause termination provision of the Dodd Frank Act.

There will be no immediate effect because the agency is currently being run by an acting director who has not been confirmed by the Senate. For this reason, the director can be fired by the President without case.

In the case, a California law firm alleged that an investigative demand issued by the CFPB is invalid on the grounds that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional.

SC Supreme Court disbars two lawyers

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On June 24, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued two disciplinary opinions that both resulted in disbarment. Both involved interesting fact patterns, and I invite you to read  them as cautionary tales.

In the Matter of Brooks* involved a lawyer who was sworn in on February 19, 2019. Her application had been based on the Uniform Bar Exam score from Wyoming. One day after her admission, the Office of Bar Admissions learned that the lawyer had knowingly provided false or misleading information in her application.

She failed to disclose information about 2005 and 2014 arrests for driving under the influence (DUI), a resulting license suspension, use of cocaine and marijuana during her release as well as issues with Character and Fitness Boards in bar applications in other jurisdictions.

Bottom line: do not lie or omit facts on bar applications if you seek to practice in other jurisdictions. And advise potential South Carolina lawyers in your life to tell the truth and the whole truth on their applications.

The other case** is interesting only because of an underlying criminal conviction. The lawyer stole about $440,000 from trust accounts and was sentenced to probation. Never having worked in the criminal law arena, this sentence sounds unreasonably lenient to me. The disbarment makes complete sense though.

Bottom line: do not ever touch client funds for your own use!  Don’t borrow client funds, planning to replace them. Remove from your thought processes the idea that client funds are available to you for any reason other than to protect them for your clients.

 

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27983 (June 24, 2020).

**In The Matter of Collins, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27984 (June 24, 2020).

The Episcopal Church property saga continues

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We have a new circuit court order

This is my third blog about the controversy surrounding the properties of various Episcopal churches in South Carolina. I previously said I am thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempt to decipher these issues.

charleston episcopal churches

St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Episcopal Churches, Downtown Charleston, SC 

In August of 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a 77-page opinion in this litigation. We now have a new circuit court order, and I am confident we will hear more at a later date.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains. The South Carolina Supreme Court seemed to indicate that the 29 breakaway churches had to return their properties to the national church under the “Dennis Canon”. But the Supreme Court left open the possibility that the lower court might clarify the position, and clarify Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson did.

He wrote that state law, not church law, requires the transfer of real property by deed. He said that no parish expressly acceded to the Dennis Canon. He said, “This is a property case. A decision on property ownership is usually governed by the title to real estate—the deed. In this case, all the plaintiff parishes hold title to their property in fee simple absolute.”

News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant. Future appeals are almost guaranteed. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

The South Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling upheld the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. The new circuit court order begs to differ.

I continue to be thankful that I am a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

Is it ethical to buy a competitor’s name as a search engine “keyword”?

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Most South Carolina dirt lawyers don’t do much direct advertising, but some make use of Internet keyword advertising. For that reason, I wanted to make sure you noticed the recently issued Ethics Advisory Opinion 20-01, which you can read here.

South Carolina’s Ethics Advisory Committee was asked the following question:  “May a lawyer bid on and use the names of other lawyers and law firms as a part of a competitive keyword advertising strategy?” In other words, it is ethical for a lawyer to pay an internet search engine to insert his or her ads when a searcher types a competitor’s name into the search engine?

In some search engines, the resulting advertisements appear on the right side of the page. In other search engines, they may appear marked as an “ad” or “sponsored” above the organic search results.

The Committee pointed out that competitive keyword advertising is different from search engine optimization (SEO). SEO is the process of increasing the visibility of a web page by users of a search engine and is directed at optimizing unpaid placement organic results. This opinion addresses only keyword advertising.

The Committee followed the lead of New Jersey, Texas and Wisconsin and opined that a lawyer may purchase an internet competitive advertising keyword that is the name of another lawyer or law firm in order to display a “sponsored” website advertisement.

The Committee stressed that lawyers should be mindful to comply with all advertising rules and should use care to ensure that no derogatory or uncivil message is conveyed. The Committee also pointed out that surreptitious redirection from a competitor’s website to a lawyer’s own website via hyperlink is prohibited under our Rules.

What do you think?

Homeowners’ Association information at your fingertips

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The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs announced on May 12 the availability of its website containing a wealth of information about homeowners’ associations. Check out the website here.

The site includes frequently asked questions about homeowners’ associations as well as an outline of South Carolina law, contact information of individuals who may be able to help and other resources.

If you represent homeowners’ associations, you probably have this information at your fingertips, but if you are a dirt lawyer who infrequently gets asked questions like, “Can my homeowners’ association impose a fine or file a lien if my renter….

  • Drives a motorcycle into the neighborhood;
  • Hangs towels to dry on the deck;
  • Parks an RV in the driveway;
  • Let’s too many kids use the pool?”

Or, “can I withhold the payment of assessments to my homeowners’ association because it refuses to enforce the prohibition against the chickens my neighbor maintains?”

Or, “I want to paint my front door fuchsia. There are a variety of crazy colors in the neighborhood, but the homeowners’ association guidelines say only a set of approved colors can be used on the exterior of residences. Can they enforce that rule?”

Have you heard questions like this? I certainly have.

Use this website to be able to communicate the answers to your clients in a succinct way, without a lot of legal research.

iBuyers are jumping back into the water: does that mean the market is safe?

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In March, the disruptive iBuyers announced that they were no longer buying homes in the midst of the pandemic. They said they were unable to pinpoint house values to the extent to make them comfortable in proceeding with their market model. And they said they were unable to insure the health and safety of their employees, partners and customers.

Some economists projected these companies would completely go out of business after losing such substantial momentum in the midst of the various shelter-in-place orders.

But now, just weeks later, the iBuyers say they’re back!

Offerpad, Redfin, Zillow, Opendoor and others have announced plans to resume operations after verifying health safety procedures. More of the processes will be handled remotely, and, as we are all doing, there will be more sanitizing, mask and glove wearing, and hand washing. They will likely offer digital methods for appraisals and for home viewing by potential buyers. Some will offer self-service listings.

One of the companies has discussed a safe, on-demand, and fully digital experience to buy and sell homes. They believe the experience is needed now more than ever.

As this blog has discussed previously, although these market disrupters have made it to markets in Georgia and North Carolina, we have not seen them announce operations in The Palmetto State. But my colleague, Martha McConnell, said she saw a Redfin “for sale” sign in her neighborhood in southeast Columbia last week.

So the iBuyers may be closer to us than we think!