HOA foreclosures are being challenged on multiple levels in SC

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The HOA won in a recent Court of Appeals case

In January, I blogged about a Federal class action lawsuit filed in Charleston seeking to invalidate non-condo foreclosures by owners’ associations. You can read that blog here but the short version is that the suit challenges foreclosures on the grounds that these non-profit corporations don’t have the power to create liens for unpaid assessments prior to obtaining judicial judgments. Condominium associations established through the Horizontal Property Regime Act have statutory authority to create liens, but the power of non-condo projects is created by restrictive covenants. We’ll have to wait and see how that suit turns out, but if the plaintiffs there are successful, foreclosure practice will change drastically in South Carolina.

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Our Court of Appeals decided a case* on April 4th that could have made drastic changes in another way. In fact, Richland County’s Master-in-Equity, Joseph Strickland, stated in his order that “the practice of homeowners’ association foreclosures would effectively be eradicated if (the Plaintiffs’) position came to bear.”

This appeal was handled by the law office of my friend, Brian Boger, a Columbia lawyer and well-known champion of consumers’ rights. The appeal argued that the $3,036 successful bid “shocked the conscience” and violated equitable principles. The parties agreed that the home was valued at $128,000. There was a mortgage balance of $66,004, leaving equity of $61,996. The Hales did not argue that there were irregularities in foreclosure process, but instead argued that the low bid should have encouraged the Master to use his gavel to “do equity”.

Comparing the successful bid to their equity using the “Equity Method”, the Hales argued that the bid amounted to 4.8% of the fair market value of the property. The HOA argued, using the “Debt Method”, that the bid must be added to the senior mortgage balance to judge its sufficiency because the successful bidder would have to pay the senior mortgage to have good title. In this case, using the Debt Method, the bid amounted to 54.94% of the fair market value. The Court of Appeals agreed that the Debt Method was the proper method for considering a senior encumbrance in a foreclosure.

The Court found no South Carolina cases that expressly weighed the two methods of judging a bid, but pointed to prior cases that considered the amount of a senior mortgage in the determination and found a 3.15% bid sufficient. One reason the Court of Appeals prefers the Debt Method is that it will result in “fewer set asides”.  In other words, the Court of Appeals is not interested in upsetting the foreclosure practice applecart at this point.

Justice Lockemy dissented, stating that he thought it improper to give a judicial sale buyer credit for assuming a debt it is not legally required to pay. He said the Court’s decision could create a perverse circumstance where a judicial sale bidder purchases property for a de minimis amount simply to capitalize on rental revenue until the senior lienholder forecloses. The majority called this argument a solution in search of a problem because there was no evidence that the successful bidder in this case was engaged in such a scheme and because the successful bidder must satisfy the mortgage to obtain clear title.

Foreclosure practice in South Carolina remains the same…for now.

* Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5549 (April 4, 2018)

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Federal class action seeks to invalidate non-condo HOA foreclosures

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Is there authority for these foreclosures under SC law…or not?

On January 9, a lawsuit was filed in the Federal Court in Charleston seeking to certify a class of plaintiffs who have faced foreclosure in situations where the Horizontal Property Regime Act was not involved. In other words, the properties are not condominiums and are not subject to the statutory scheme that establishes lien and foreclosure rights in owners’ associations. The power to foreclose these properties is supported only by restrictive covenants, that is, only by contract.

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The complaint refers to a good faith estimate that one-third of all South Carolinians own property subject to restrictive covenants establishing owners’ associations, and those associations manage more than $100 billion in assets. Many of the properties are separate lots of land in contrast to “slices of air” in condominium projects.

The defendants in this class action suit include five homeowners’ associations in various counties in South Carolina, four law firms who represent the associations in their foreclosure actions, and five management companies who manage the business of the associations in various counties in South Carolina. All are said to be representative of the associations, law firms and management companies who do business across the state.

The class intends to exclude all associations governed by the Horizontal Property Regime Act. It also excludes employees, owners, officers, partners and management of the law firm and management defendants. The law firm and management defendants are alleged to be agents of the owners’ associations.

The main issue in the suit is whether non-condominium associations have the right to file liens and prosecute foreclosures for unpaid property assessments under South Carolina law. Underlying issues include whether the defendants have violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, whether they have interfered with the plaintiffs’ contracts with their mortgage holders, and whether they have the power to lawfully evict homeowners for unpaid assessments.

The owners’ associations are typically established as non-profit corporations, and the suit questions whether non-profit corporations have the power to create liens for unpaid dues or assessments prior to obtaining judicial judgments.

The suit accuses the defendants of seeking to use the equitable remedy of foreclosure in actions that seek monetary damages for contractual breaches. The inability to use equitable remedies to collect money damages is well established in South Carolina law, according to the complaint. The complaint further states that the remedy of foreclosure is used to frighten the plaintiffs to settle their claims to avoid losing their homes.

The law firm defendants were accused of violating Professional Conduct Rule 3.3 by making deceitful arguments to courts. The law firms were also accused of demanding fees that are not proportionate to the hours devoted to the files in violation of Rule 1.5.

Threatening communications and pressure tactics are allegedly used to settle claims, typically without the advice of counsel because the amounts in controversy are often so small that the homeowners are unable to obtain legal counsel on a cost-effective basis. Typically, according to the complaint, holders of first mortgages are not named in the HOA foreclosures. The homeowners continue to be obligated to make their mortgage payments despite being evicted from their homes by their owners’ associations.

The first cause of action is violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act on the theory that there is no right to use pre-suit liens or the equitable remedy of foreclosure by owners’ associations to collect damages in the form of past due assessments. The use of unjustified liens and foreclosures is alleged to constitute false, deceptive or misleading representations to collect debts.

The second cause of actions seeks a declaratory judgment that the activities of the defendants are unlawful. One point raised in this cause of action is that the homeowners are denied their statutory homestead exemption rights by the defendants’ actions.

The third cause of action is for intentional interference with the contractual relationship with the homeowners’ mortgage companies. The mortgage holders have a right to be named in actions that attempt to impair their interests in the subject properties, according to the complaint.

The complaint seeks actual, compensatory and consequential damages, in addition to punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. I can’t wait to see what happens with this one!