Brad Pitt foundation sued for faulty post-Katrina construction

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Charitable intent to replace Ninth Ward housing results in extensive legal battles

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South Carolinians are no strangers to the extensive destruction caused by hurricanes and floods. Our friends in Conway, Nichols and surrounding areas are in the process of cleaning up from the most recent disaster that hit our state in October. And we look on with empathy as our friends in other parts of the world face similar disasters. I lived in Panama City, Florida during my middle and high school years, and the destruction my friends there are facing at this very moment as a result of Hurricane Michael is unimaginable.

It does not go unnoticed when a celebrity attempts to make a difference in the face of natural disasters. The Make it Right Foundation is a non-profit founded by actor Brad Pitt in 2007 to build environmental friendly homes in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The homes were intended to be storm-safe, certifiably green, energy efficient and affordable. The original goal was to build 150 homes in the area hit hardest by Katrina. The homes were available at prices around $150,000 to residents who received resettlement financing, government grants and donations from the foundation. Brad Pitt was apparently proud of the construction, calling the area an oasis of color and solar panels.

More than ten years and $26 million later, construction has stopped 40 houses shy of the goal because of alleged faulty construction including leaky roofs, faulty HVAC systems, sagging porches and rotting and mildewing wood. Residents have reported headaches and illnesses. A New Orleans attorney has brought a class action lawsuit against the foundation, alleging that the construction is substandard and the homes are deteriorating at a rapid pace.

Related claims have been filed by the foundation against the makers of an experimental wood product called TimberSIL which didn’t fare well in the hot and humid south Louisiana environment as well as architects who may be responsible for failure to property waterproof the structures. Insufficiently sloping roofs may be partially to blame.

The original suit was brought in Orleans Parish Civil District Court but has been removed recently to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Despite the good intentions of Brad Pitt and his foundation, it appears the lawsuits related to these Ninth Ward homes may linger for years.

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A scary Halloween story to keep real estate attorneys up at night!

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This South Carolina man’s criminal conviction will stop you in your tracks!

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BOO!

A South Carolina man made a name for himself this year in Washington, DC, and not in a good way. Robert McCloud, a 39-year old former resident of Warrenville, in Aiken County, was sentenced in federal court in Washington, DC, to 18 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release including six months of home confinement. He also forfeited almost $60,000 and will be required to pay restitution in an amount to be determined later. Finally, he will be required to perform 150 hours of community service.

The charges were based on wire fraud statutes and involved real estate transactions. McCloud pled guilty in June in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. His sentence was imposed October 19.

McCloud and co-conspirators identified residential properties that appeared to be vacant and abandoned. They prepared and recorded fake deeds into fictitious names and later fraudulently sold the properties, using fake drivers’ licenses, to legitimate purchasers. McCloud and his co-conspirators involved unsuspecting title and escrow companies in the subsequent closings.

In his guilty plea in June, McCloud admitted to participating in two of these fraudulent transactions in 2015, which generated a total of around $580,000.  Of that total, law enforcement officials were able to seize almost $370,000 in administrative forfeiture proceedings. In both cases, the properties were unencumbered. The true owners of both properties are elderly owners and have been involved in difficult proceedings to have the properties re-titled in their names.

The harm caused to the true owners and the legitimate buyers was covered by title insurance, and the restitution represents funds owing to the title insurance companies. Dirt lawyers, when you need an example of why your clients should be protected by title insurance, you can use this story! And I have many others if you need them.

Can an alley be the basis of an appurtenant easement in SC?

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The Court of Appeals says it can

Charleston houses

Two valuable downtown Charleston residential lots were the subject of an easement case decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals on September 19.* Much to the dismay of the owners of 45 Lagare Street, the Court held that an appurtenant easement exists in the form of an alley that runs along a boundary of 45 Lagare Street for the benefit of 47 Lagare Street.

Master-in-Equity Mikell Scarborough had granted summary judgment in favor of the owner of 47 Lagare Street, finding an easement appurtenant burdened 45 Lagare Street, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In 1911, the properties were considered a single lot known as 47 Lagare Street owned by W.G. Hinson. That year, Hinson divided the property, creating 45 Lagare Street, and conveying that lot to his niece. The 1911 deed established an easement for the benefit of the 47 Lagare Street, which Hinson retained. This language established the easement:

Also, the full and free use and enjoyment as an easement to run with the land of the right of ingress, egress, and regress, in, over, through, and upon the alley-way eight (8) feet wide as a drive way or carriage way, situation, lying, and being immediately to the south of (47 Lagare), and being the southern boundary of said (47 Legare).

Title to both lots passed to third parties, and in 1971, a new survey was drawn,** and the owners of both properties provided verbatim descriptions of the original easement and covenanted that the no buildings or obstructions would be erected on the easement area. The documents stated that the covenants would run with the land.

The most recent deed of the benefited property recited the existence of the easement, but the most recent deed of the burdened property did not. In 2004, the owner of the benefited property added a chain-link fence and masonry wall along the border with the burdened property.

During the trial, the Appellants argued that the easement had been abandoned and stated that the only time it was used was to allow for the Respondent’s landscapers to walk down the driveway to use the gate. Respondent testified that the easement area is also used by her family members, guests, tradesmen and other permittees to access the rear of 47 Legare for large-scale appliances, equipment, and machinery and to provide access to the only suitable area for off-street parking. She also claimed that she uses the easement to access the back of her property in a golf cart.

The first issue on appeal became whether a terminus existed on 47 Legare, a requirement for an appurtenant easement. Two Supreme Court cases were discussed, Whaley v. Stevens, 21 S.C.221 (1884), which held that the terminus requirement in South Carolina only requires the dominant estate to be contiguous or adjacent to the easement. A later case, Steele v. Williams, 204 S.C. 124 (1944) held that an alleyway was an easement in gross rather than an appurtenant easement because it lacked a terminus.

The Court of Appeals found Whaley controls although no South Carolina case has explicitly defined the terminus requirement. The Court held that the terminus issue is a fact-specific inquiry and that, intuitively, the dominant estate must have access to the purported easement.

In addition, the Court stated, an appurtenant easement might be found if the purported easement (1) at least touches the dominant estate and (2) in cases where the easement is an adjacent boundary between—or runs parallel—to the dominant and servient estates, such as the case at hand, the easement does not extend beyond the dominant estate’s boundary. (At most, the easement ends at the lot line of the dominant estate.) In Steele, the alley extended beyond the appellant’s property.

The intent of the parties was held to be determinative, and the Court held that the 1911 common owner, Hinson, clearly intended that the driveway would be an easement appurtenant.

The Court next discussed the appurtenant easement requirement of necessity. 47 Legare Street obviously has direct public access on Lagare Street, but the Court held that the easement was necessary to reach the rear of the property by large-scale equipment and tools and to provide for off-street parking.

We will wait to see whether our Supreme Court has the opportunity to weigh in on this issue.

 

* Williams v. Tamsberg, S.C. Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5596 (September 19, 2018)

** Plat of Number 47 Legare Street and Easement surveyed by Cummings & McCrady, Inc., dated February 1971, is attached.

Check out Bloomberg Businessweek’s article about Greenville

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You only have to walk in downtown Greenville to see the phenomenal transformation this lovely city has made over the last two decades. The riverfront, waterfall and pedestrian bridge provide a scenic backdrop for excellent dining and cultural experiences.

My family enjoys season tickets for the Broadway series at the Peace Center which gives us a chance to enjoy top-notch shows and to check out the always-evolving restaurant scene. When we took two five-year old grandchildren to see The Lion King, we had a wonderful time enjoying the children’s fountains and mice-searching game on Main Street.

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But the city planners were not only planning for culture. They were planning for business! Bloomberg Businessweek published a flattering article about the progress of businesses in Greenville on June 21. You can read it here.

The article points to decades of political commitment to creating a community that appeals to college graduates and highly skilled workers. State-of-the-art manufacturing plants have been built in the area by Michelin ad BMW. Our company has excellent attorney agents in large and small law firms who work on Main Street and surrounding areas. They report to us that they love their Greenville home.

Greenville was once a hub for textile and apparel production, but now, in addition to the manufacturing plants, Greenville supports entrepreneurs who are locating their start-up businesses downtown. One co-working space houses about a dozen start-ups, according to the article.

The author correctly points out that Greenville has excelled at creating an appealing and walkable commercial district. While downtown may have been unappealing twenty years ago, now many new inhabitants (the population has grown by 20 percent from 2000 -2016) are able to live downtown and walk to work.  Greenville has been successful, according to this article, in creating what economists call an “innovation cluster”.

Read the article and visit Greenville! I recently blogged that Charleston is exploding, and Greenville may follow suit! And I am fortunate to live in Columbia, also a great city, and within two hours of each of our sister cities, not to mention the beach and the mountains. South Carolina has so much to offer!

Charleston is exploding!

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The locals are expecting a quarter-million neighbors!

Last weekend, about sixty commercial dirt lawyers attended South Carolina Bar’s Dave Whitener Real Estate Intensive Workshop in Kiawah Island. This workshop is held every-other-year and honors the memory of the late, great real estate lawyer and law school professor who planned and moderated it for many years until his untimely death in 2014. I think Dave would have enjoyed the collaboration and education we all enjoyed last weekend*.

And I think he would have been shocked at changes in the Charleston area!

Charleston Ravenel Bridge

Charleston is exploding! Kiawah Island itself is in the throes of a major renovation anticipating its next PGA tournament in 2021. As we left Kiawah Island early Sunday morning, a time we could survey our surroundings with no traffic, we were amazed at the new subdivisions that have sprung up between the beautiful island and I-26 as well as those in the North Charleston area where the Boeing plant is located. The area is changing so fast it’s hard to recognize even for someone who does business in the area and visits it often.

I was not surprised to see this Charleston Post and Courier article entitled “105,000 homes await construction in the Charleston metro area” by David Slade dated July 18. The article begins with the premise that Charleston-area residents are about to welcome 250,000 neighbors—roughly equal to the population growth Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester Counties have experienced since 1990. Wrap your brain around that thought! The anticipated housing, according to this report, is nearly enough to accommodate the combined populations of Charleston and neighboring Mount Pleasant, which are the largest and fourth-largest cities in South Carolina.

Traffic is already horrible in the area. We hear from many lawyer friends and their staff members who fight increasing traffic to get into work each morning. When the I-526 bridge over the Wando River was closed recently for emergency repairs, we heard that some lawyers found it easier to take boats to work rather than to deal with the detour around the bridge. The emergency repairs required for this bridge are an example of the challenged infrastructure in the area.

But, as this article points out, area governments will see added tax revenues from the new growth, which will be needed for the roads and other infrastructure. Mr. Slade points out that residents of John Island, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island and Wadmalaw Island have been waiting for many years for planned improvements to the Maybank Highway and River Road intersection which bottlenecks each day. The islands are beautiful places to live, but getting into Charleston to work can be problematic at best.

Charleston is the number 1 tourist destination in the United States and the number 2 tourist destination in the world. All of us in the real estate business will be looking with interest as this anticipated growth unfolds in the Holy City and its surrounding areas.

 

*Among the speakers this year was Dave’s widow, also a commercial real estate lawyer extraordinaire, Patricia Wharton Whitener, and two of Dave’s best friends, litigator Robert E. Stepp and USC Law Professor S. Alan Medlin. The line-up was excellent, and I encourage other lawyers who practice in the area of commercial real estate to attend this workshop at each offering!

Beware of new deceptive strains of payroll phishing

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This blog has recommended KnowBe4 previously as an impressive source of news on cybersecurity. I have subscribed to the newsletter and receive weekly, timely and scary cybercrime updates in my inbox. I recommend to all lawyers that they spend the time and funds necessary to remain safe and vigilant in the arena of cybersecurity. Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our clients’ funds. In this case, however, it is our operating funds and our employees’ funds that are at risk. Those funds are important, too!

The July 10 newsletter was particularly interesting in that it reports a new strain of payroll phishing that has surfaced recently. The bad actors pose as employees and request a specific pay stub from a payroll administrator or corporate executive. KnowBe4 reports that it has seen hundreds of these phishing attempts, all almost identically worded and possibly coming from one set of fraudsters. All of the emails came from an “oddball Comcast.net email address” with nonsense usernames of similar length.

Please read this newsletter carefully and pay attention to the emails and supporting documents. In this particular case, the bad actors opened a bank account, ordered checks for that account and used one of those checks to support the phishing attempt.

Unfortunately, many of the targeted payroll employees, always willing to help employees with their payroll concerns, have responded to the requests. The emails are simple, direct and dispense with any attempt to construct believable backstories or pretexts.  According to KnowBe4, the emails invite an unthinking, reflexive response from targeted users.

Share this information with your staff members and encourage them to avoid those unthinking, reflexive responses!

Redevelopment of golf courses might be possible in South Carolina

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In April, this blog discussed the redevelopment of two Horry County golf courses. The North and South courses at Deer Track Golf Resort in Deerfield Plantation have been closed for more than ten years and are finally being redeveloped as residential lots. Adjacent lot owners waged class actions in Horry County seeking to have the use of the properties in question restricted to golf courses or open spaces. While these battles were being waged in court, nature attempted to reclaim the properties. One property owner testified that his views changed from overlooking a manicured golf course to overlooking a “sea of weeds”.

Similar battles have been successful in other parts of the country. The cases are fact intensive and turn on the law of implied easements, which, of course, varies widely from state to state. Plats showing golf courses may provide rights in adjacent lot owners, depending on the recorded documents, the sales program and the law of implied easements in the location.

golf course

I wanted to invite those interested in this area of the law to take a look at an article published in June by www.citylab.com. The article, written by Nolan Gray, is entitled “Dead Golf Courses Are the New NIMBY Battlefield”. In the interest of full disclosure, I had to Google NIMBY. This acronym stands for “not in my back yard”.

The article states that golf is dying, according to many experts. One study cited in Citylab’s article found that the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million between 2002 and 2016. The thinking is that the fall of Tiger Woods may have led to much of this gloom and doom around golfing. But Mr. Gray believes that the bigger story involves the sport’s aging demographics and the fact that millennials are not interested in the expensive, slow sport that provides few health benefits.

Golf courses and golf clubs across the country are closing, leaving the land to be redeveloped. Mr. Gray’s article states that the average 18-hole golf course sits on 150 acres, property that could host around 600 new single-family detached homes. Add to this mix the fact that many golf communities were built in areas with good schools and work opportunities. These properties are, therefore, particularly valuable in areas where housing inventory is a challenge.

So, what prohibits the development of these properties into residential subdivisions? Zoning is one of the challenges. Many golf courses are zoned for commercial uses to accommodate clubhouses, restaurants, pro shops and bars. But the main stumbling block, according to Mr. Gray, is the NIMBY attitude of neighbors. Residents near golf courses prefer that the properties be turned into parks, open spaces and natural preserves.

Let’s look, for example, at the Deerfield Plantation cases. First, the facts: The golf courses and surrounding residential subdivisions were originally developed beginning in the late 1970’s. The plats contained notes to the effect that the streets were dedicated for public use but the golf courses were to be maintained privately and were specifically not dedicated to public use.

The covenants gave the lot owners no rights, property, contractual, or otherwise, in the golf courses. A Property Report that was delivered to all prospective lot purchasers described the costs of golf memberships, which were not included in lot prices, and stated that to be allowed to use the golf courses, members would be required to pay initial dues and annual dues and fees. The real estate agents made it clear during the sales program that the mere purchase of a lot did not give a lot owner any right or entitlement to use the golf courses. The deeds of the lots did not convey any easements or other interests in the golf courses.

One plaintiff, who was also a real estate agent, testified that he was never told the golf courses would operate in perpetuity and that the real estate agents never told other potential purchasers that the golf courses would always exist on the properties.

What caused the golf courses to fail? When the golf courses opened, there were 30 – 40 golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area. By the time the golf courses closed, there were nearly 125 courses. Property taxes in the golf courses increased from $7,800 per year to $90,000 per year.  And then the economy tanked. These three factors have occurred across the country to varying extents.

Now, let’s look at South Carolina law. In one of the cases, a 38-page Order of Thomas J. Wills, Special Referee, examined the law of implied easements in South Carolina. I’m summarizing and eliminating the citations for this brief discussion.

The Order states that implied easements are not favored by the courts in South Carolina and must be strictly construed. The intent of the parties controls the existence and scope of implied easements, and the best evidence of that intent is the recorded documents. While case law in South Carolina is clear that lot owners in subdivisions hold easements in streets shown on plats by which their lots are sold, the order states that this rule does not extend beyond access, which is necessary and expected for residential purposes. Finally, the order states that no implied easements in views, breezes, light or air exist in this state.

Finally, these golf courses will be redeveloped into new residential subdivisions. Will we see more of this litigation in South Carolina?  Probably. While the law in South Carolina appears generally to favor redevelopment in these cases, there is no doubt that the facts in some of the situations may give rise to implied easements in adjacent lot owners, even in the face of our law. As long as we have NIMBY attitudes of those who live near defunct golf courses, we will continue to see litigation in this area.