Family squabble leads to promissory estoppel claim

Standard

SC Court of Appeals doesn’t buy it

The facts of a recent Court of Appeals* case involve a dispute between brothers who immigrated from India. Sam Patel moved first, in 1979, and settled in Chicago. Sam’s extended family followed and lived with Sam and his wife. In 1989, Sam moved to Lynchburg, South Carolina, after he purchased a store on Willow Grove Road.

Sam’s family, along with his parents and his younger brother, Kim, followed. The family worked in and lived on the store property. The business grew, and the brothers acquired a store in Sumter. Kim Patel operated the store in Sumter, while Sam Patel continued to operate the store in Lynchburg. Over the years, Sam helped Kim financially.

grocery store country

By 2010, Sam owned three parcels in Lynchburg and operated a liquor store, a grill and a gas station. Sam, himself, faced financial difficulties at this time, and his properties were foreclosed on by First Citizens. At Sam’s request, Kim purchased the properties through the foreclosure in the name of a limited liability company. Sam continued to run businesses on the properties and placed his businesses in the name of another limited liability company.

Sam’s LLC obtained the operating, lottery and alcohol licenses for the properties and made improvements. But Kim’s LLC expended funds for gasoline purchases and property taxes. There was never a lease or written agreement between the brothers or their entities concerning rent and expenses. And when Sam failed to pay rent, Kim’s LLC brought a suit for ejectment and damages. Sam and his LLC counterclaimed, alleging Kim had promised to convey the title to him.

At trial, the brothers gave conflicting accounts of their verbal arrangement. Kim testified that he told Sam he could continue to operate the businesses for six or seven months rent-free so Sam could get back on his feet. After that time frame, Kim expected his brother to pay rent, taxes, insurance and maintenance. Sam testified that Kim purchased the properties in order to convey them back to Sam. Sam intended to repay Kim over three to five years and have title returned to him after repayment.

The special referee’s order stated that Sam owned an equitable interest in the properties and had a right to repurchase them, but that Sam owed Kim approximately $42,000 for expenses.

The Court of Appeals held that Sam’s claim of an equitable interest based on promissory estoppel failed, stating that promissory estoppel is a flexible doctrine that aims to achieve equitable results, but it, like all creatures of equity, has limitations. The court said promissory estoppel is a quasi-contract remedy with four elements:  (1) a promise unambiguous in its terms; (2) reasonable reliance upon the promise; (3) the reliance is expected and foreseeable by the party who makes the promise; and (4) the party to whom the promise is made must sustain injury in reliance on the promise. The court held that Sam’s claim failed on the first two elements.

The testimony of Sam and Kim at trial made it clear, according to the Court, that there was no meeting of the minds as to the terms of the alleged contract. In other words, there was no unambiguous promise to be enforced. And Sam’s reliance was held to be unreasonable in light of the ambiguities of the alleged promise.

The case was remanded to the special referee to conduct the eviction proceeding and to determine rent and expenses between the parties.

 

A&P Enterprises, LLC. v. SP Grocery of Lynchburg, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5545 (March 28, 2018).

Advertisements

HOA foreclosures are being challenged on multiple levels in SC

Standard

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.

gavel house

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)

Constitutionality of CFPB upheld

Standard

cfpb-logoThe D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in a case decided last week. This decision reverses the October 11, 2016 holding of a three-judge panel which ruled unanimously that the structure of the CFPB allowed its director to wield too much power.

The highly publicized case began when PHH Corp. was ordered by former CFPB Director Richard Cordray to pay $109 million in restitution resulting from illegal kickbacks to mortgage insurers pursuant to Section 8 of RESPA. An administrative law judge had ordered a $6 million penalty at the trial level, but former Director Cordray apparently wanted to set an example and ordered the “ill-gotten gains” to be disgorged. The trial court had limited the violations to loans that closed on or after July 21, 2008. Director Cordray applied the fines retroactively.

PHH brought suit, arguing that the CFPB is unconstitutional because the Director has the sole authority to issue final decisions, rendering the CFPB’s structure to be in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The petition stated, “Never before has so much power been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from the President’s control and Congress’s power of the purse.” The petition argued that the Director is only removable for cause, distancing him from the power of the President, and that the agency is distanced from Congress’s power to refuse funding by allowing for funding directly from the Federal Reserve.

The lower Court agreed, writing, “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency.” The lower Court removed the restriction that the Director can only be removed for cause, giving the President the power to remove the Director at will. The lower Court also reversed former Director Cordray’s retroactive applicability of fines.

The Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the CFPB, preserving the single-director leadership and the independence of the agency. The ruling indicates the President can only fire the Director for cause and allows the current five-year terms to remain in place. Five-year terms will, of course, mean that directors of the agency may remain in place after the termination of the term of the president who appointed him or her.

The CFPB is largely the brain child of the Democratic Party, and Acting Director Mulvaney has taken steps to rein in its power since he was appointed by President Trump. The Court of Appeals ruling was mostly decided on ideological lines. One Republican appointee joined the Democratic appointed judges in upholding the CFPB’s structure.

The Court did rule in favor of PHH by rejecting the large penalty imposed by former Director Cordray. The decision requires that the penalty be reviewed again by the CFPB.

Development of precarious beach properties…

Standard

Exciting for developers; problematic for environmentalists

A quick search the Internet for stories on “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a gorgeous but extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast. This link contains a picture.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in July of 2016 included a field trip to view this property, from a distance at least. (And let me put in a plug for the same seminar to be held in July of 2018. Stay tuned! It will be great!)

Real estate development is my bread and butter, but one quick look told me that property should not be developed. A fellow field tripper, however, pointed out that the south end of Pawleys Island, which has been developed for many years, is just as precarious.

pawleys-island-sc

Image by www.whereverimayroamblog.com

An entity that fights these cases in our state is the South Carolina Environmental Law Project located in Pawleys Island. A recent case* fought by this entity was decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals on September 27. This case involves a 4.62 acre tract of beachfront property on Kiawah Island, not far from Captain Sam’s Spit.

Here are greatly simplified facts in a very complicated case: the developer and the community association entered into a development agreement in 1994. That agreement covered many issues, one of which was the proposed conveyance from the developer to the community association of a ten-mile strip of beachfront property, basically, the entire length of the island. A deed consummated that conveyance in 1995. All of the property conveyed was undevelopable because of the State’s jurisdictional lines.

I didn’t learn the following fact from the case, but I learned it from one of the lawyers who was kind enough to speak with me. When the jurisdictional lines were redrawn by the State, the 4.62 acre tract became developable. The developer then took the position that the 1994 development agreement and the 1995 deed resulted from a mutual mistake, and that the parties never intended to include that tract.

The Master-in-Equity and Court of Appeals did not see it that way. Both found that the agreement and deed were unambiguous and that parole evidence of the intent of the parties was not allowable.

Simple enough, right? As the football prognosticator, Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friends.” If the litigation history of Captain Sam’s Spit is a barometer, litigation may continue for years over the 4.62 acre tract. Captain Sam’s Spit has been argued in the South Carolina Supreme Court four times. I understand one of the justices used the term “weary” to describe the reaction of the court to the most recent round in the battle.

Count on a petition for rehearing and an appeal in this case, at least. I’ll keep you posted!

*Kiawah Resort Associates, L.P. v. Kiawah Island Community Association, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5517 (September 27, 2016)

County May Owe Duty to Lot Owners in Failed Subdivision

Standard

Infrastructure regulations were not followed

scales - blue backgroundOn January 6, the S.C. Court of Appeals reversed the Georgetown County Circuit Court’s directed verdict and remanded a case involving failed West Stewart Subdivision.* The developer, Harmony Holdings, LLC, went belly up in 2007, leaving the lot owners without roads and utilities after the County failed to follow its own regulations that provided a safety net for such catastrophes.

The plaintiff owned two lots in the subdivision, and filed a negligence action, arguing that Georgetown County had a “tort-like” duty to lot owners under the plain language of its development regulations. The County denied that it owed a duty to lot owners.

The County attorney explained the administrative issues at trial. He testified that in South Carolina, a developer is generally not allowed to sell lots that do not have infrastructure (roads, water and sewer). County regulations, however, allow the County to accept cash, bonds, financial guarantees or letters of credit to ensure money is available to complete infrastructure in case a developer fails.

Under the regulations in question, the County had discretion to accept a letter of credit equal to 125% of the cost estimate to complete the infrastructure. In this case, the developer posted a letter of credit on May 23, 2006 in the amount of $1,301,705 based on a cost estimate of $1,040,000.

Also under the regulations, the County had the power to approve reductions in the letter of credit upon receipt of an engineer’s certification that a certain amount of the work had been completed and sufficient funds were available for the remaining work. Other technical procedures were also required. The County allowed for a reduction in the letter of credit on July 20, 2006, October 9, 2006 and November 8, 2006, reducing the letter of credit to $553,370. In December of 2006, the County was advised that the estimated cost to complete the infrastructure was $1,153,205, which was higher than the original estimate. Despite this information, the letter of credit was reduced again on March 9, 2007 to $156,704.

The letter of credit expired in May of 2007, and the developer gave the county a check for $140,000. In August of 2007, the developer informed the County that it no longer had the financial means to complete the construction. Then the developer declared bankruptcy.

Repko described his lot as “woods” accessible by a path but inaccessible by a road. He testified that he believes his property is valued at “zero”. He said he pays property taxes on his lot, but the County will not allow him to build because of the absence of basic utilities.

The trial court directed a verdict in favor of the County on the grounds that the regulations do not create a private duty to lot owners. (Other issues were argued that will not be discussed here.) The Court of Appeals agreed with the lot owner that the County owed a special duty to him with respect to the County’s management of the financial guaranty that allowed the developer to sell lots.

inigo montoya memeThe County had relied on a 1993 Hilton Head case.** In that case, the preamble to the development ordinances stated, “The town council finds that the health, safety and welfare of the public is in actual danger….if development is allowed to continue without limitation.” When the development failed, a lot owner sued the Town, claiming it had negligently administered its ordinances. The Supreme Court held that the ordinances did not create a special duty to lot owners because their essential purpose, according to the preamble, was to protect the public from overdevelopment.

The Court of Appeals in the current case held that, unlike the Hilton Head ordinances, the Georgetown County regulations contained no express language declaring their purpose, but reviewing them as a whole, the purpose is to protect lot owners in the event the developer does not complete infrastructure.

I expect we have not seen the end of this case!

* Repko v. County of Georgetown, Opinion 5374, January 6, 2016.

** Brady Development Co. v. Town of Hilton Head Island, 312 S.C. 73, 439 S.E.2d 266 (1993).

SC Supreme Court Decides Family Equitable Mortgage Case

Standard

…and dirt lawyers are gratified to see the deeds called deeds!tug o war

On Oct. 28, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided a family dispute surrounding a transaction between a deceased brother and his sister and held that two deeds to the sister were, in fact, deeds, and did not constitute an equitable mortgage*.

While Justice Kittredge’s dissent suggested the Court established a “categorical rule” that only evidence created contemporaneously with a conveyance can be considered in support of an equitable mortgage, the majority, in a footnote, disagreed with Justice Kittredge’s interpretation and signified subsequent events and writings may assist in determining the intent of the parties at the time of the conveyance.

After two appeals, the facts remain murky.

Kenneth Walker owned and lived on a 200-acre farm in Colleton County. In 1996, he conveyed 26.52 acres to his sister, Catherine Brooks. The stated consideration was $13,250, although Brooks testified she paid nothing. In 2002, Walker conveyed an additional 15.16 acres to Brooks for the stated consideration of $5.00.

According to Brooks, her brother conveyed the property to her because she supported him emotionally and financially. She testified that she paid his debts, paid his electric and telephone bills, bought his groceries, gave him cash for living expenses, helped him receive social security benefits and served as trustee for those benefits.

In 2004, at Walker’s request, Brooks wrote a note stating that Walker intended proceeds from sand removal and soil and waste water discharge onto the property would be paid to Brooks until she received $60,000. Walker and Brooks also generated a ledger that began with an entry of $60,000 and ended with an entry of $27,400.

It is clear that Brooks did not exercise control over the property.

deed - definitionBefore Walker died, his attorney sent a letter to Brooks referring to this note and ledger, and requesting her to tender a deed in exchange for $2,893.87. This amount was inexplicable, according to the Court.  After Walker’s death, his son and personal representative offered to pay Brooks $27,400 in exchange for a deed. Brooks refused, and this dispute arose.

The special referee held that the note and ledger showed that Walker was indebted to Brooks at the time of his death, and the conveyance was intended as security for the debt. He found the existence of an equitable mortgage, and held that the estate was entitled to the property upon payment of $27,400. The Court of Appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court, referring to a C.J.S. article and a prior case, indicated that the existence of an equitable mortgage must be shown by clear and convincing evidence, and that the intent of the parties must be evaluated at the time of the conveyance.  The court referred to the personal representative’s “self-serving testimony” and the fact that Brooks did not exercise control over the property as the only evidence that the parties intended to establish an equitable mortgage at the time the property was conveyed. The existence of the note and ledger were discounted as not being contemporaneous with the deeds.

Justice Kittredge would have reinstated the trial court’s finding of an equitable mortgage, denouncing the Court’s “categorical rule” in the face of these “equitable, fact intensive inquiries.” He found the existence of the note and ledger persuasive that the parties intended that the conveyance was, in legal effect, a mortgage.

Like dirt lawyers everywhere, I like certainty when it comes to deeds and find the Supreme Court’s holding comforting.

 

 

*Walker v. Brooks, Appellate Case No. 2013-001377