Nat Hardwick ordered to pay $40M in restitution

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Nat Hardwick

Nathan E. Hardwick IV

This blog discussed Nat Hardwick, a name familiar to many South Carolina real estate lawyers, last fall when he was convicted of embezzling more than $25 million from his former companies, including his former law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider. He was discussed again in February when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His co-conspirator and controller, Asha Maurya, was sentenced to seven years after she cooperated with the government. On May 9, Hardwick and Maurya were ordered to pay $40 million in restitution.

Nathan E. Hardwick IV, 53, described himself as the face of Morris Hardwick Schneider, an Atlanta residential real estate and foreclosure firm that grew into sixteen states, including South Carolina. The firm once had more than 800 employees and boasted of offices in Charleston, Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville.

On October 12, Hardwick was convicted in federal court in Atlanta of 21 counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and one count of making false statements to a federally insured financial institution. In federal court, sentencing is typically delayed, and the convicted person is released and allowed to get his affairs in order. In this case, however, Hardwick had been released pending trial on bond. After his conviction, he was described by the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted him as a flight risk and was handcuffed and taken to jail immediately.

This story hits close to home. My company was one of the victims of the crimes and one of the parties awarded restitution because it funded the firm’s escrow accounts when the losses were discovered.

The prosecutor described an extravagant lifestyle that Hardwick enjoyed at the expense of others. The case was said to be particularly troubling because the illegal activity was orchestrated by a lawyer who swore an oath to uphold the law and represent his clients with integrity. The U.S. Attorney said he hoped the case sent the message that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office will not tolerate this type of white-collar crime.

According to the evidence, from January 2011 through August 2014, Hardwick stole more than $26 million from his law firm’s accounts, including its trust accounts, to pay his personal debts and expenses. The firm’s audited financial statements showed that the firm’s net income from 2011 through 2013 was approximately $10 million. During that time, according to the evidence, Hardwick took more than $20 million from firm accounts.

Asha Maurya, who managed the firm’s accounting operations, reached an agreement last May with the U.S. Attorney’s office and pled guilty. She was expected to testify at the trial, but was unexpectedly not called as a witness. Her lawyer argued at the restitution hearing that she should be liable for only $900,000, the amount she admitted taking from the firm for her own benefit. She had agreed to pay restitution in that amount as a part of her plea bargain.

During the trial, Hardwick did take the stand in his defense and attempted to blame Maurya with the theft. He said that he trusted her to his detriment, that he was entitled to the funds, and that he was unaware that the funds were wired from trust accounts. Hardwick testified for more than a day and explained that he believed Maurya followed proper law firm procedures.

On the stand, Hardwick, described as the consummate salesman, said that he gave his cellphone number to almost everyone. He said he returned calls and messages within a few hours and instructed his employees to do the same. He apparently believed himself to be a master in marketing and customer service and prided himself in focusing on the firm’s expansion strategy. He hoped to expand to all fifty states and make money through a public stock offering.

With his ill-gotten gains, Hardwick bought expensive property, made a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island, spent $635,000 to take his golfing friends to attend the British Open in 2014, paid off bookies, alimony obligations, and sent more than $5.9 million to various casinos, all according to trial evidence. Hardwick’s activities lead to the loss of his law license and the bankruptcy of his firm.

Hardwick’s former partners, Mark Wittstadt and his brother, Gerald Wittstadt, were each awarded $6 million in restitution, and Art Morris, a retired member of the firm, was awarded $5 million.  All claim damage to their reputations in addition to substantial monetary losses.

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Let’s collectively start a trend in South Carolina: Shifting home closings away from the end of the month

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I’m going on the record with a strong second to my friend, Gary Pickren’s blog!

end of month calenda NOPE.

Gary Pickren, an excellent residential real estate attorney with an outstanding law firm, Blair|Cato|Pickren|Casterline, here in Columbia posted a blog on May 12 entitled “Save Yourself a Huge Headache!!!!” You can read Gary’s blog in its entirety here.

Gary was apparently reacting to a crazy month-end for his office in April. He reported 25 closings on Tuesday, April 30 as opposed to 3 or 4 on Wednesday, May 1. And the closings that occurred on May 1 were a result of late loan packages from lenders. He was asking his real estate agents to save themselves headaches by scheduling closings throughout the month.

Closings at the end of the month are not a new phenomenon. As far back as I can remember (and that’s a long way back), real estate agents have scheduled closings at the end of the month. Why? Because interim interest has to be paid for only one day, reducing the funds the buyer has to bring to the closing.

Does closing at the end of the month save the buyer money? No! Interest will be paid from the date of the closing regardless. The only difference is the amount of the interim interest, the funds brought to the closing table. If interest is not brought to the closing, it is paid with the first payment.

I sent Gary’s blog around to my office members and got some unexpected strong reactions!

TAnderson

Troyce Anderson, who was formerly a closing paralegal in Greenville, said scheduling closings throughout the month would probably reduce claims because law firms would be able to close with less stress and avoid common mistakes.

 

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Melissa Christensen, who was formerly a closing paralegal in the Myrtle Beach area, said her daughter, Savannah, was born on May 30, and the family always has to schedule birthday parties in early June.

 

SSigwart 2018

Speaking of birth issues, Sara Sigwart, who was formerly a closing paralegal in Hilton Head and Charleston, said that one of her fellow closing paralegals successfully searched for a doctor who would schedule a delivery of her child on the 20th of the month so she could celebrate birthdays with her child on the actual birth date.  Sara’s other reply to Gary’s blog was “PREACH!”

 

DSeay

 

Denise Seay, who was formerly a real estate paralegal in Hilton Head said, “Oh good grief-we used to say Realtors only knew one day in the month!”

 

If our office staff reacted this strongly, imagine how strongly your paralegals, who are currently in the closing trenches, would react. Think about how much easier it would be to manage your office and everyone’s schedules! Your holidays and vacations would even be more manageable.

Gary’s blog calls the end of the month in a residential closing office “organized chaos”.  It might also be termed a huge “traffic jam” for lenders, real estate agents, closing attorneys, paralegals, abstractors, and even buyers and sellers. Let’s follow Gary’s advice and spread closings throughout the month!

You don’t have to be the “bad guy” by using your own words to pass this thought on to real estate agents. Send them this blog!

Court of Appeals affirms Circuit Court in “nefarious conduct” Awendaw annexation case

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In December of last year, this blog discussed a South Carolina Supreme Court case in which the Court called the Town of Awendaw’s annexation attempt “nefarious conduct”.* The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision that the annexation attempt was void ab initio.**

The Town of Awendaw’s annexation of a ten-foot wide, 1.25 mile-long parcel of land within beautiful Francis Marion National Forest was challenged by two individuals and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

The sole question before the Supreme Court last year was whether the challengers had standing to contest the annexation in a case where the “100 percent method” of annexation is used, meaning all property owners petition the municipality to have their property annexed.

The case involved three parcels of land serving as links in a chain necessary to satisfy the contiguity requirement of annexation. The first link is the ten-foot strip managed by the United States Forest Service. The second link is owned by the Mt. Nebo AME Church, and the third link is approximately 360 acres of unimproved real estate surrounded by the National Forest on three sides and owned by Defendant EBC, LLC.

In the fall of 2003, the Town sought to annex the ten-foot strip which required a petition signed by the Forest Service. Town representatives sent the Forest Service four letters seeking approval. Through verbal discussions, the Town learned the Forest Service was opposed to annexations because of their impact on the Service’s ability to conduct controlled fire burns. Additionally, the Forest Service indicated any petition would have to come from Washington, D.C., officials, a process that might take several years.

The Town annexed the property anyway in 2004, relying on a 1994 letter from a Forest Service representative, stating it had “no objection” to annexing several strips of property in the same vicinity. However, the Town had previously stated that it realized this letter was unclear.

In 2009, EBC, LLC requested that Awendaw annex its property, and the Town passed an ordinance annexing that property and simultaneously rezoning it as a “planned development” to permit residential and commercial development. In annexing the EBC property, the Town relied on the ten-foot National Forest strip as well as the church property. Without either component, there would be no contiguity and annexation would be impossible.

In November of 2009, the petitioners filed a complaint against the Town and EBC alleging, among other things, that the Town lacked authority to annex the ten-foot strip of National Forest property because the Forest Service never submitted an annexation petition. The Town and EBC moved for partial summary judgment contending the petitioners lacked standing and that the statute of limitations had run.

At trial, a surveyor testified that the 1994 Forest Service letter referred to a different strip of land. The Town’s administrator responded that the Town had used the 1994 letter at least seven times, and that he believed the letter incorporated the property in question. The petitioners testified they were concerned about potential harm caused by developing the property, including damage to unique species of animals. They testified that they were also concerned that the proposed development would threaten the Forest Service’s ability to conduct the controlled burns necessary to maintain the health of the forest.

The trial court found that the petitioners had standing and concluded that the annexations were void because the Town never received the required petition from the Forest Service. The Court of Appeals concluded that the petitioners lacked standing.

In analyzing the standing issue, the South Carolina Supreme Court discussed its prior cases that held “non-statutory parties” (meaning, non-property owners of the annexed properties) lacked standing to challenge a purportedly unauthorized annexation. Those cases, however, were premised on good faith attempts by annexing bodies, according to the Court.

The Supreme Court did not believe the General Assembly intended in establishing the statutory framework for annexation to preclude standing where there is a credible allegation that the annexing body engaged in “deceitful conduct”. The Court held that a party that can demonstrate the annexing body engaged in “nefarious conduct” has standing to challenge the annexation.

The Court also discussed the public importance exception to the standing rule. This exception states that standing may be found when an issue is of such public importance as to require its resolution for future guidance. The Court stated that the petitioners had satisfied the “future guidance” prong of the public importance exception because the Town had used the 1994 letter numerous times and fully intended to use it again.

The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals to address the Towns’ remaining arguments. The Court of Appeals, apparently noting the Supreme Court’s strong language and robust opinions, reversed course and affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the annexation was void.

 

*Vicary v. Town of Awendaw, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 27855 (December 19, 2018).

**South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5645 (May 1, 2019).

SC Supreme Court “debars” two lawyers for UPL violations

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Mortgage modification practices get out-of-state lawyers in trouble

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On April 24th, two out-of-state lawyers were debarred by the South Carolina Supreme Court.* If the word “debar” isn’t familiar to you, don’t feel alone. Miriam-Webster indicates the definition of the word, used in a legal sense is, “to bar from having or doing something.” Our Supreme Court uses the word to mean to preclude a lawyer from another state from practicing law or seeking any form of admission to practice law in South Carolina, including pro hac vici admission, without first obtaining an order of the Supreme Court.

What did these two lawyers do to cause the wrath of our Court? They were both involved in mortgage modification schemes in multiple states. Naderi was licensed in California and provided legal services operation as the Pacific National Law Center (PNLC).

Ochoa was previously licensed in Florida but was disbarred in 2018 for misconduct involving lack of competence, failure to keep clients’ property safe, and conduct involving dishonest, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. He operated a solo practice and entered into an agreement with a non-attorney owned company (NVA) to market his legal services on the internet. Through NVA’s advertisements, he specifically targeted South Carolina residents seeking to negotiate modifications of their home loans.

Let’s look at just one example of the activities of these lawyers from the Naderi case. The Court refers to this scenario as “The J. H. Matter.” In December of 2013, Naderi was hired by J.H. a South Carolina resident, homeowner and veteran, to assist him in negotiating a modification of his home loan. Individuals from PNLC assured J.H. that the firm could get his loan modified and decrease his mortgage payments by securing both a balance reduction and a lower interest rate. J.H. was promised that the firm would work diligently and return his telephone calls within 48 hours.

J.H. signed several forms provided by PNLC staff members, including an “Attorney Client Retainer Agreement” and a “Third Party Authorization and Release Form”. The release form permitted the lender to discuss the loan with PNLC. Naderi was specifically named as the individual permitted to discuss the loan on behalf of J.H., but, interestingly, the form listed Naderi’s title as “Paralegal”.

The retainer agreement provided that, in exchange for $2,995, PNLC would provide “legal services” including “representation…for negotiation and resolution of disputes with current lender(s) regarding the subject real property and mortgage loan(s).” But litigation services were excluded from the scope of representation.

The agreement also provided that the fees were not conditioned on the outcome of the case and restricted J.H.’s ability to cancel the agreement and seek a refund after five days. Disputes arising after five days were to be handled by the guidelines and standards adopted by the California Bar.

In January, February and March of 2014, J.H. made payments totaling $2,995 via counter deposits into PNLC’s bank account. PNLC staff members told J.H. not to worry, that the law firm would secure the loan modification, and his lender would not take his home. Shortly after making his last payment, J.H. began experiencing difficulties reaching anyone at PNLC. PNLC never obtained a loan modification or offered J.H. any other solutions.

J.H. received notice of a foreclosure hearing, but he was unable to reach anyone at PNLC. J.H. appeared by himself and eventually hired another lawyer to file bankruptcy.

J.H. testified that he was unaware of any contact PNLC made with his lender. He believed he had been scammed and thought the wrongdoer should be in jail or disbarred.

Other matters were similarly described in both cases. It sounds as if the services were to collect fees only, and not to, in fact, perform legal work. The fact that these schemes cause delays when homeowners are in trouble with their loans make them particularly egregious. Dirt lawyers who are legitimately licensed by the South Carolina Supreme Court should be aware of these schemes and should be in a position to advise clients to avoid them with a vengeance!

 

* In the Matter of Naderi, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27881 (April 24, 2019); In the Matter of Ochoa, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27881, (April 24, 2019).

Dirt Lawyers: beware of these assessor antics

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and be aware of a tool for fighting back!

tiny detectives

The South Carolina Bar maintains a great listserv for members of the Real Estate Practices Section through which lawyers can ask questions and share information via email. I recommend that South Carolina real estate practitioners join the section and the list. Both provide opportunities for staying in touch with fellow practitioners and keeping up with news and trends.

Recently, the list contained this entry from a wonderful practitioner in Myrtle Beach whose name I’m withholding from this blog:

“Good morning Listmates,

Is every County going through the same audit of principal residence discounts for their taxpayers? Or is it just in Horry County? I have run into multiple back-charged properties and even ran into one where it was back-charged between when we did the title search and when we recorded the Deed. (And, yes, the Assessor refused to abate the new bills for the new owner.)

So what we have now is that on any given day the assessor can back charge multiple years’ worth of taxes (and you know how big the discount is, so these bills aren’t tiny!) regardless of whether or not we have searched the title, whether the property is in foreclosure, or even whether or not the property owner is dead. (Yes – my situation involved a deceased person in foreclosure – who do I go after for that tax bill payment??)

Add to this that our title abstractors who update the title work prior to recording are looking for judgments, liens, Deeds, Mortgages….but they are not looking for new tax bills, because tax bills come out in the Fall, right? Not anymore.

I imagine the buyers who get stuck with these bills could make a title insurance claim, but ultimately that will come back to the attorney because we “missed it” and then the E&O premiums go up and the client is lost to us because we look incompetent.

I guess the moral of this story is to instruct your abstractors to check for taxes before recording any Deeds. If you have a seller on the hook at least you can get the taxes paid at the closing. (Or if you have a deceased foreclosed party, at least you’ll know before the next tax year…)”

Horry County is, of course, a vacation haven. Many, many homeowners use Horry County properties as second homes and investment properties. Primary resident discounts amount to the difference in a 6% and a 4% mileage rate, so, as the astute lawyer suggested in her e-mail to fellow real estate practitioners, the differences are “not tiny”. Thus, all the coastal counties are vigilant about policing the discounts for primary residents.

(I know a guy who lives in an interior county in North Carolina and owns a second home in the Outer Banks. He votes where his beach house is located and has his mail delivered there, resulting in multiple trips to retrieve the mail. I don’t know exactly how the North Carolina statute on the primary residence discount reads, but I don’t recommend this tactic without the advice of a tax expert.)

Luckily for us in South Carolina, the Palmetto Land Title Association worked on this problem several years ago. Teri Callen of our office was Legislative Chair of PLTA at a time when the Association lobbied to “fix” the situation outlined above.

The Association, through intense lobbying efforts, was able to obtain a statutory amendment to the effect that a tax bill is final and that a “surprise” change in the 4% eligibility would only result in a personal liability so as not to affect title to the real property.

Most buyers are protected because they are bona fide purchasers for value without notice. (The lawyer’s problem, above, with the deceased property owner in foreclosure might not see the benefit of the statute.) The amendment went into effect in 2016, and counties will typically withdraw their surprise tax bills when they are provided with the statutory language.

Section 12-43-220(c)(2)(vii) of the South Carolina code now reads:

“(A) if a person signs the certification, obtains the four percent assessment ratio, and is thereafter found not eligible, or thereafter loses eligibility and fails to notify the assessor within six months, a penalty is imposed equal to one hundred percent of the tax paid, plus interest on that amount at the rate of one-half of one percent a month, but in no case less than thirty dollars nor more than the current year’s taxes. This penalty and any interest are considered ad valorem taxes due of the property for the purposes of collection and enforcement.

(B) If property had undergone an assessable transfer of interest as provided pursuant to Section 12-37-3150 and the transferee is a bona fide purchaser for value without notice, penalties assessed pursuant to subsection (vii)(A) and the additional property taxes and late payment penalties are solely the personal liability of the transferor and do not constitute a lien on and are not enforceable against the property in the hands of the transferee…”

Thanks to Teri Callen and Palmetto Land Title Association for this statutory “fix”! If you are faced with the problem outlined in the email above, provide your assessor’s office with the statute and remind them that the Code does not allow a “re-do” of tax bills that affect third party purchasers.

Also, consider joining Palmetto Land Title Association. It fights for us!

Tax lien legislation signed by Governor McMaster

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Tax liens will no longer be filed locally when the system is implemented

tax-lien.jpgSouth Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed tax lien legislation on March 28 that may change the way titles are examined.

The legislation, an amendment to South Carolina Code §12-54-122, is intended to allow the Department of Revenue (DOR) to implement a statewide system of filing and indexing tax liens centrally, that is, “accessible to the public over the internet or through other means”. Once the new system in in place, the clerks of court and registers of deeds will be relieved of their statutory obligation to maintain newly filed tax liens.

The stated effective date of the legislation is July 1, 2019, but nothing in the legislation sets a deadline for the DOR to act, and, in fact, the statute indicates the DOR “may” implement a statewide system.

The new law states that it is not to be construed as extending the effectiveness of a tax lien beyond ten years from the filing date, as set out in South Carolina Code §12-54-120.

When the new system is implemented, the law requires a notice to be posted in each county where liens are generally filed providing instructions on how to access the DOR’s tax lien database.

Interested in buying a pristine SC island near Charleston?

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The price is $15 million; and the buyer may not be able to develop it

The Charleston Post and Courier reported on March 9 that Long Island, a large, private island between James Island and Folly Beach off the coast of South Carolina is for sale. You can read the article here and the listing here.

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Long Island, SC. (Photo credit: The Post and Courier)

According to the article, the current owners would like to find a buyer who would put the land under a conservation easement.  This easement would purportedly fit well with Folly Beach’s recent efforts to stem development in vulnerable areas.

The listing indicates the size of the island is about 4,600 acres, including approximately 147 acres of high land, and touts views of Morris Island Lighthouse and the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge.

Called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts to own a unique slice of coastal paradise, the purchase would include an archaeological site eligible for The National Register of Historic Places featuring Civil War artifacts. On the west end of the island is Star Battery, an earthen fort used by Union Forces during the Civil War. The remains of a causeway that leads to nearby Oak Island and dates back to the Civil War, is said to be dry during low tide.

The listing states that the high land is potentially developable and would be an outdoor paradise for fly fishing, wildlife viewing, kayaking and paddle-boarding.

A 2014 article in Forbes states that the island contains an interior roadway providing access to all parts of the island including the archeological site, but it can only be reached by boat. This article indicates the price was $29 million in 2014. The Post and Courier article says the island is almost entirely undisturbed, with no electricity, water service or roads.

The Post and Courier article states that there was an attempt by a builder to develop this island in 1999 into more than 200 home sites. But the proposal would have required a new bridge, the plan for which was rejected.

A challenge now would be to convince a conservation organization to participate, considering the high price tag. The current owners would like to recoup as much of their investment as they can, while protecting the island, if possible, according to the article. It sounds like quite a challenge!