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)

SC Supreme Court Warns Closing Attorneys

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Don’t be used as a “rubber stamp” or “rent” your name and status as an attorney!

businessman nametag for rentIn a disciplinary case filed on April 20,* the South Carolina Supreme Court publicly reprimanded an attorney for failing to properly supervise the disbursement aspect of a residential refinance closing. In a three-two decision, the Court pointedly seized the opportunity to warn residential closing lawyers.

The disciplined attorney worked as an independent contractor for Carolina Attorney Network, a management service located in Lexington, that provides its services to, among other entities, Vantage Point Title, Inc.  Vantage Point Title was described as a non-lawyer owned title company based in Florida. The attorney testified that 99.9% of his business comes from Carolina Attorney Network and that he had no direct contact with Vantage Point Title.

The attorney had previously been suspended for thirty days by the Court for failing to properly maintain his trust account. He stated in oral arguments in the current case that the suspension caused him to lose his ability to perform closings in the normal manner because he lost his status as an agent for a title insurance company. As a result, he said he was forced to handle closings through the management service.

The attorney testified that he didn’t recall the closing at issue, but he described the process. He said he receives closing documents via e-mail and reviews the title opinions. He verifies that a South Carolina licensed attorney completed the title opinions. He also reviews the closing instructions and the closing statements. He does not review the title commitments nor verify the loan payoff amounts. He conducts the closings and returns the closing packages with authorizations to disburse. Vantage Point disburses the funds, records the documents and issues the title insurance policies. Vantage Point then sends the lawyer disbursement logs showing how closing funds are disbursed. The lawyer reviews the disbursement logs to ensure they have a zero balance. He or an employee of Carolina Attorney Network reviews the online records of the ROD to verify that the mortgages are properly recorded.

The loan at issue had been “net funded” and the disbursement log did not “zero out”. The log showed a credit of approximately $100,000, and a disbursement of approximately $800. The Court stated that the disbursement log was inaccurate, and that the lawyer did not even know at the time of closing that the loan had been net funded.

The HUD-1 Settlement Statement in the closing at issue showed Vantage Point received approximately $800 for “title services and lender’s title insurance”, but attorney’s fees were not reflected. In fact, Vantage Point paid Carolina Attorney Network $250, and Carolina Attorney Network paid the attorney $150.

Vantage Point maintains a national trust account for all fifty states, but at some point, it opened “for unknown reasons”, according to the Court, a SC IOLTA account. Two checks were written on the IOLTA account for the closing at issue. When those two checks were returned for insufficient funds, the investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel was triggered. Ultimately, all checks cleared, and no one sustained harm.

Doe v. Richardson is the controlling case. In this 2006 seminal case, the S.C. Supreme Court held that disbursement of funds in a residential refinance is an integral step in the closing and constitutes the practice of law. Richardson further held that although the attorney must supervise disbursements in residential closings, the funds do not have to pass through the supervising attorney’s trust account.

The Court stated the current case presents a situation where the lawyer conducted his duty to supervise disbursement in name only. He “rented” his name and status as an attorney to attempt to satisfy the attorney supervision requirement. There is no question, according to the Court, that the lawyer’s cursory review of the disbursement log did not satisfy the duty to supervise disbursement. The Court stated in furtherance of its concern that attorneys are being used as “rubber stamps” to satisfy the attorney supervision requirement in low cost real estate closings, and it took the opportunity in this case to expand upon Richardson.

The Court clarified that an attorney’s duty to oversee the disbursement of loan proceeds in residential closings is nondelegable. To fulfil this duty, the attorney must ensure: (a) that he or she has control over the disbursement of loan proceeds; or (b) at a minimum, that he or she receives detailed verification that the disbursement was correct.

The Court stated that, in practice, an attorney may find that utilizing his or her trust account and personally disbursing funds provides the most effective means to fulfil this duty. The Court stood by the Richardson holding, however, that residential closing funds are not required to pass through the supervising attorney’s trust account. It held that the attorney’s verification of proper disbursement, via sufficient documentation or information received from the appropriate banking institution, in addition to the disbursement log, is acceptable to fulfil this duty.

In essence, according to the Court, the lawyer was used as a “rubber stamp” for a non-lawyer, out-of-state organization with no office in South Carolina, whose involvement was not disclosed to the clients. The Court stated that it has insisted on lawyer-directed real estate closings in order to protect the public. The lawyer’s method of handling his client’s business was stated to provide no real protection and was held to be a “gross abandonment” of his supervisory authority.

Former Chief Justice Toal wrote the opinion for the Court. Justices Kittredge and Moore concurred. Current Chief Justice Pleicones dissented in a separate opinion in which Justice Hearn concurred.

The dissent characterized the case as a situation that through an error by a title company, the ODC became aware of a single closing where the attorney failed to explain the nature of a “net funding” transaction to clients who suffered no harm. Nothing in this single instance justifies a public reprimand, according to the dissent, nor justifies a modification of Richardson, adopting a non-delegable duty to oversee loan disbursements through “detailed verification” or through the receipt of “sufficient documentation or information” in addition to the disbursement log.

The dissent said that the majority neither explains what this means nor how more oversight could have prevented the title company from issuing checks drawn on the wrong account. In a footnote, the dissent accused the majority of imposing a “new, vague requirement on residential real estate closings”.

The real question becomes….what in the world will the next case on this topic hold?

*In the Matter of Breckenridge, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion No. 27625, April 20, 2016.

Paralegal Certification Program Established in SC

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The new program should not disrupt current employment of paralegals.

The South Carolina Supreme Court, acting on the request of the Chief Justice Toal’s Commission on the Profession, adopted a voluntary program for paralegal certification on November 12.

The stated purpose of the program is to assist in the delivery of legal services to the public by identifying individuals who are qualified by education, training and experience and who have demonstrated knowledge, skill and proficiency to perform substantive legal work under the supervision of licensed attorneys.

certified - stampThe program is voluntary in that the Court’s directive makes it clear that no person will be required to be certified as a paralegal to be employed by a lawyer as a paralegal. Thankfully, this program should not disrupt any South Carolina lawyer’s current employment of paralegals.  Dirt lawyers are already in a transition period because of the new CFPB rules. Adding a mandatory paralegal certification may have pushed some of us over the proverbial edge!

At the time of an application to be a “South Carolina Certified Paralegal”, the individual must be designated as a Certified Legal Assistant (CLA)/Certified Paralegal (CP) or PACE-Registered Paralegal (RP).  The designation is valid for a one-year period. To qualify for renewal, an applicant must obtain twelve hours of approved continuing paralegal education (CPE), at least one hour of which shall be devoted to the areas of professional responsibility or professionalism.  Any CLE program approved for lawyers in South Carolina will be acceptable for CPE, but other programs may be approved as well.

The Court’s order establishes a Board of Paralegal Certification which will, among its other duties, prepare and publish applications and other forms to facilitate this program. Regulations for the program may be established by the Court or the board.