SC Dirt lawyers: check your documents

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SC Supreme Court issues opinion that may keep us up at night!

Are the words “developed” and “improved” used interchangeably in your form real estate documents?  You might want to pull your documents to check based on a recent South Carolina Supreme Court case.*

The Supreme Court affirmed a Court of Appeals decision finding property had not been developed into discrete lots entitling them to voting rights under a set of restrictive covenants. While the two courts agreed on that determinative point, the Supreme Court felt the need to clarify the Court of Appeals’ opinion that may be read to “conflate” the terms “developed” and “improved”. (The only word that was unclear to me was “conflate”, which I now know means to combine two or more concepts into one.)

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The Supreme Court cited a 2007 Washington state opinion for the definition of “developed”: conversion of raw land into an area suiting for building, residential or business purposes. Improving land is subject to a higher threshold, according to the Court, and would require such actions as installing utilities or buildings.

Chief Justice Pleicones and Justice Few concurred, and the Chief wrote a separate opinion for the sole purpose of expressing concern that dictating the meanings of the terms “developed” and “improved” may inadvertently alter the meaning of documents or create a conflict with legislative enactments. He used a subsection of a statute dealing with mechanics’ liens as an example.

South Carolina Code Section 29-6-10 (2) contains the following definition of “Improve”:

 “Improve means to build, effect, alter, repair, or demolish any improvement upon, connected with, or on or beneath the surface of any real property, or to excavate, clear, grade, fill or landscape any real property, or to construct driveways and roadways, or to furnish materials, including trees and shrubbery, for any of these purposes, or to perform any labor upon these improvements, and also means and includes any design or other professional or skilled services furnished by architects, engineers, land surveyors and landscape architects.”

That definition is written as broadly as possible to protect the interests of any professional who provides labor or services in connection with developing, I mean improving, real estate.

The underlying Court of Appeals opinion** indicated that platting separate lots on paper without further steps did not rise to the level of the term “develop”, which, according to the Supreme Court, is a lower threshold than the term “improve”, which, according to the statute, includes platting. Do you see the Chief’s concern? I certainly do! Good luck with those documents!

*Hanold v. Watson’s Orchard Property Owners Association, Inc, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27702 (February 15, 2017)

**Hanold v. Watson’s Orchard Property Owner’s Association, 412 S.C. 387, 772 S.E.2d 528 (2016)

SC Court Effectively Extends Statute of Limitations for Legal Malpractice

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Epstein case is overruled

SC Supreme Court LogoA car dealership case against a law firm provided the South Carolina Supreme Court the opportunity to reverse its prior ruling on the point in time the three-year statute of limitations begins to run in a legal malpractice case. Interestingly, retired Chief Justice Toal’s dissent in the earlier case was adopted. The new bright-line rule in South Carolina is that the statute of limitations does not begin to run in a legal malpractice case that is appealed until the appellate court disposes of the action by sending a remittitur to the trial court.

The current case, Stokes-Craven Holding Corp. v. Robinson*, involved a negligence suit against a law firm that was dismissed at summary judgment based on the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations.  The automobile dealership had been sued by a consumer who discovered the vehicle he purchased had sustained extensive undisclosed damage prior to his purchase.  After an adverse jury verdict which was affirmed on appeal, the dealership sued its lawyer, arguing that the lawyer, among other matters, failed to adequately investigate the facts in the case, failed to conduct adequate discovery, and failed to settle the case despite the admission by the dealership that it had “done something wrong”.

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The lower court, following precedent, found that the dealership knew or should have known it had a legal malpractice claim against its trial counsel on the date of the adverse jury verdict.  A 2005 South Carolina Supreme Court case, Epstein v. Brown **, had held just that, despite the fact that the claimant in the earlier case, like the current case, had filed an appeal.

Epstein represented a minority position in the country, according to the current case. A majority of states have adopted the “continuous-representation rule”, which permits the statute of limitations to be tolled during the period an attorney continues to represent the client on the matter out of which the alleged legal malpractice arose.  In Stokes-Craven, our Court continued to reject the continuous-representation rule, finding that rule to be problematic because its application may be unclear under some factual scenarios.  Our Court looked to existing appellate court rules to the effect that an appeal acts as an automatic stay as to the judgment in the lower court. In other words, if the claimant appeals the matter in which the alleged malpractice occurred, any basis for the legal malpractice cause of action is stayed while the appeal is pending.

The Court stated that its new bright-line rule is consistent with the discovery rule which states that an action must be commenced within three years of the time a person knew or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that he or she had a cause of action.  A client either knows or should know that a cause of action arises out of the attorney’s alleged malpractice if an appeal is unsuccessful.

Chief Justice Pleicones dissented, stating he would adhere to the discovery rule adopted in Epstein and reverse the trial court’s order granting summary judgment because there are unresolved genuine issues of material fact making that relief inappropriate.

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27572 (May 24, 2016)

** 363 S.C. 381, 610 S.E.2d 816 (2005)