Did you hear the one about Katy Perry and the convent?

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It’s not a joke! It’s a true, real estate story!

Dirt lawyers, you know how your friendly title insurance underwriters are always harping about authority issues?  You have to carefully determine that the individuals with authority to sell or mortgage real estate are the individuals who actually sign the deeds and mortgages involved in your transactions.

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How do you solve a problem like Katy Perry?  (image from dailystar.co.uk)

And you know how the same friendly title insurance lawyers really harp about authority issues involving churches? Hardly a seminar goes by without the mention of a problematic closing or claim involving church property. I always say you should be particularly suspect if anyone, like a preacher, says he or she can act alone to sell or mortgage church property. Church transactions almost always involve multiple signatories.

Lawyers involved in transactions concerning church properties must ascertain whether the church is congregational, meaning it can act alone, or hierarchical, meaning a larger body at a conference, state or even national level must be involved in real estate transactions. In South Carolina, we have seen recent protracted litigation involving the Episcopal Church, making real estate transactions involving some of the loveliest and oldest church properties in our state problematic at best.

Lawyers must also determine, typically by reviewing church formation and authority documents, which individuals have authority to actually sign in behalf of the church. It is not at all unusual to find a church property titles in the names of long-deceased trustees.  It is always advisable to work with local underwriting counsel to resolve these thorny issues.

With that background, let’s dive into this Katy Perry story. The superstar decided to purchase an abandoned convent sitting on 8.5 acres in the beautiful Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles for $14.5 million in 2015. Only five nuns were left in the order, The Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This order had previously occupied the convent for around forty years. Two of the nuns searched the web to find Katy Perry’s provocative videos and music and became uncomfortable with the sale. Instead, those two nuns, without proper authority, sold the property to a local businesswoman, Dana Hollister, for only $44,000 plus the promise to pay an additional $9.9 million in three years.

Proper authority for the sale should have involved Archdiocese Jose Gomez and the Vatican. Both were required to approve any sale of property valued at over $7.5 million. The Archdiocese believed Ms. Hollister took advantage of the nuns and brought suit. After a jury trial that lasted almost a month, the church and Ms. Perry were awarded $10 million on December 4. The jury found that that Ms. Hollister acted with malice to interfere with Perry’s purchase. Two thirds of the verdict are designated for the church and one third for Ms. Perry’s entity.

Assuming lawyers were involved in the Hollister closing, you would not want to be in their shoes! Always pay careful attention to authority issues in your real estate transactions. In South Carolina, real estate lawyers are in the best position to avoid problems like the ones in this story.

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Blogging in the holiday spirit

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Be excellent to each other!

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The purpose of this blog is to, in a very small way, assist South Carolina real estate lawyers in their constant quest to stay out of trouble. And there are so many ways we can get ourselves into trouble!  Trust accounting, cyber-security, legislative changes, case law changes and rule revisions are just a few examples. But I’m in the holiday spirit, and it occurred to me that one of the easiest ways to get into trouble is to simply fail to be nice.

Some lawyers had developed such terrible habits of failing to be courteous to each other and to opposing parties that our Supreme Court added a “Civility Oath” in 2003, which reads:  “To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications…”  New lawyers now take this oath when they are sworn in, and the rest of us had to attend seminars or functions that included the new oath as a component. We have all now pledged to be civil.

South Carolina lawyers have been disciplined for being uncivil and unprofessional. One lawyer wrote a letter questioning whether the officials of a municipality had brains and souls. He was suspended for 90 days and required to complete the Bar’s legal ethics and professionalism program. Another lawyer was suspended for 90 days for slapping an opposing party during a deposition.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel has requested a sanction for bringing the profession into disrepute through a blog. Because the lawyer didn’t identify himself as a lawyer in his blog, the Supreme Court said the profession was not harmed. (I promise to be careful!)

Some authorities on the subject of attorney civility have speculated that technology and social media have exacerbated this problem. It’s easy to be rude while hiding behind a computer screen. Another factor has been the economy. When young lawyers are forced to hang out shingles without the careful mentorship of seasoned lawyers, they often fail to obtain the requisite training on how lawyers should behave.

Litigation lawyers are in the business of fighting for a living, so they often walk a tight rope between vigorously representing their clients and mowing over their opponents in an uncivil manner. I remember, however, attending a trial early in my career to witness two excellent, seasoned, respected Columbia lawyers attempt to out-polite each other. It was an impressive display of civility and effective representation that has remained vividly in my memory for many years. If we were all as civil as those two litigators were, no civility oath would have been necessary.

Unlike trial lawyers, transactional lawyers are in the business of providing solutions, solving problems, arriving at consensus and properly documenting all of the above. Transactional lawyers should, in theory, have fewer problems getting along with each other than trial lawyers have. That is definitely not always the case.

Sitting here in Columbia and listening to title problems from lawyers across South Carolina all day long, the lawyers in our office hear fights between real estate lawyers on a routine basis. It seems to us that an inability to communicate civilly can have a direct dollar impact on business through lost time and productivity.

Books and articles on business ethics stress the value of being nice. I believe that being nice is particularly valuable to transactional lawyers. Being nice can, for example, go a long way toward keeping a lawyer from being sued.

I was taught as a young lawyer to be courteous to the most annoying real estate agents and the most exasperating clients. We should all own up to and fix our mistakes, even when fixing a mistake requires writing a check. Our written and oral communications should demonstrate that we are not only effective lawyers, but also courteous, caring, sympathetic individuals. Being a meticulous and effective lawyer is the best method to eliminate being a defendant in litigation, but being nice is probably the second best method.

I am now stepping off of my soap box and wishing each of you happy holidays and a healthy, happy and prosperous 2018!

Airbnb in Sea Pines?

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Court of Appeals says “yes” under some circumstances

I wouldn’t have predicted it, based on the history of exclusive Sea Pines Plantation in Hilton Head, its extensive set of restrictive covenants and the aggressive efforts to enforce those restrictive covenants over the years. But our Court of Appeals approved an owner’s rental through Airbnb of a portion of a residence in a December 6, 2017 case*.

Mr. and Mrs. Wall bought their residence at 48 Planters Wood Drive in 1998. The second story of the home consists of a guest suite that is accessible only by an outside staircase. In 2012, the Walls began renting a room through Airbnb, an online rental broker. The Airbnb listing was titled “Hilton Head Organic B&B, Sea Pines”. The Walls cooked breakfast for their renters.

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Community Services Associates, Inc. (CSA), the property owners’ association in power to enforce Sea Pines’ restrictive covenants, expressed concern about the Airbnb listing, and the Walls changed the listing to the “Whole House” category and began renting out the entire first floor of their home while living in the second-story guest suite. They also dropped the “Hilton Head Organic B&B, Sea Pines” title and stopped cooking breakfast for their renters.

CSA filed suit seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against the Walls because of their alleged operation of a “bed and breakfast” in their home and the rental of less than the entire residence.

Here are the operative provisions of the restrictions:

  1. All lots in said Residential Areas shall be used for residential purposes exclusively, No structure, except as hereinafter provided, shall be erected, altered, placed or permitted to remain on any lot other than one (1) detached single dwelling not to exceed two (2) stories in height and one small one-story building that may include a detached private garage and/or servant’s quarters, provided the use of such dwelling or accessory building does not overcrowd the site and provided further that such building is not used for any activity normally conducted as a business. Such assessor building may not be constructed prior to the main building.

  2. A guest suite or like facility without a kitchen may be included as part of the main dwelling or accessory building, but such suite may not be rented or leased except as part of the entire premises, including the main dwelling, and provided, however, that such guest suite would not result in over-crowding of the site.

CSA took the position that the restrictions authorized the short-term rental of the entire residence but not part of the residence, that the Walls were operating an offending bed and breakfast, and that the guest suite included a second kitchen.

At a hearing before the master-in-equity, Mr. Wall testified that the couple kept an induction plate, a toaster oven, and a mini-refrigerator in the guest suite, and they occasionally prepared their food and washed their dishes in the suite.

The master denied the motion for injunctive relief and dismissed CSA’s complaint.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the dorm-style portable appliances used by the Walls did not create a kitchen. The Court held that the express terms of paragraph 6 require a residence with a guest suite to be rented in its entirety when the guest suite is rented out, but paragraphs 5 and 6 do not, by their express terms or by plain and unmistakable implication, require a residence with a guest suite to be rented in its entirety in every circumstance.

At best, according to the Court, paragraphs 5 and 6 are capable of two reasonable interpretations: (1) a residence with a guest suite must be rented in its entirety in every circumstance, or (2) the owners of a single family dwelling with a guest suite may stay in the guest suite themselves while renting out the remaining space. Because the latter interpretation least restrict the use of the property, the Court adopted that interpretation.

Understanding a little about the culture of Sea Pines, I will be surprised if we don’t hear more about this Airbnb issue in the future.

Lawyer accolades

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Is it ethical to advertise you’ve won?

If you are a recipient of legal awards and accolades, you’ll be glad to know that we now have an Ethics Advisory Opinion that tells us it is acceptable to let the world know you have won, under certain circumstances.

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Many newspapers, television stations and national publishers compile an annual “best of” list by surveying their customers or conducting evaluations. Some of the entities ask for nominations from their customers or ask for a fee to be paid in order to receive a nomination. Some accept all nominations and votes without the consent of the nominee. Most offer a badge or emblem to be used on firm websites and in other marketing materials to publicize the honor.

The question posed in EAO 17-02 is whether a South Carolina lawyer may accept and advertise a designation or accolade such as “Best Lawyers” or “Super Lawyers” in a legal publication or newspaper readers’ poll, in conformity with the rules for lawyer advertising.

The Ethics Advisory Committee answered that these accolades and designations, including the badges and symbols are ethical when:

  1. The entity or publication has strict, objective standards for inclusion that are verifiable and would be recognized by a reasonable lawyer as establishing a legitimate basis for determining whether the lawyer has the knowledge, skill, experience, or expertise indicated by the listing;
  2. The standards for inclusion are explained in the advertisement or information on how to obtain the standards is provided in the advertisement. Referral to the publication’s website is adequate;
  3. The date of the designation or accolade is included;
  4. An advertisement makes it clear that the designation or accolade is made by a specific publication or entity through the use of a distinctive typeface or italics;
  5. No payment of any kind for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising or purchase of commemorative items, is required of the lawyer, or the lawyer’s firm, for giving the designation, accolade or inclusion in the listing; and
  6. The organization charges the lawyer only reasonable advertising fees to the extent it not only confers the designation or accolade but also provides a medium for promoting or advertising the designation or accolade.

The opinion stated that courts and bars of several jurisdictions nationwide uniformly approved the acceptance of designations or accolades including badges, symbols and other marks in attorneys’ advertising, subject to conditions designed to insure that the use of the accolades or designations is not false or misleading.

Does Facebook’s move into real estate signify the end of the Realtor?

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Social media has long been involved in real state. Aren’t all your real estate agent contacts your “friends” on Facebook? Aren’t you connected with them on LinkedIn? Don’t you regularly see their listings on all your social media outlets?  But the plot thickens!

According to a November 13 story in HousingWire, Facebook announced last week that it is significantly expanding the real estate listings section on its Marketplace, which is Facebook’s attempt to take on Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, Redfin, Craigslist, eBay and other e-commerce platforms.

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The HousingWire story, which you can read here, reports that Facebook currently allows individual homeowners to list their homes for sale on Marketplace. The new development is that Facebook is significantly expanding the real estate listings section on Marketplace. The new feature is said to be “rolling out gradually” and is currently only available via the mobile app in the United States.

And, according to the same report, Facebook is going full force into rental listings via partnerships with Apartment List and Zumper.

Facebook plans to upgrade its platform to include custom filters for location, price, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, rental type, square footage and pet friendly designations. Also included will be the ability to upload 360-degree photos for individual rental listings. When the potential renter selects a property, he or she will complete s contact form on Marketplace, and the property manager or agent will contact him or her directly.

Facebook says it will not participate in any transactions. It will simply connect the parties. Real estate agents are probably safe for now, but it’s a brave new world out there as social media infiltrates all aspects of our professional and personal lives! Dirt lawyers who fail to embrace social media may be left behind sooner rather than later.

A recorded power of attorney may not be necessary to establish agency where real estate is involved

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In a recent South Carolina Court of Appeals case*, a mother was held to be bound by the actions of her wheeler-dealer son who appeared to act in her behalf buying and selling properties in Laurens County.

Frank Lollis lived with and took care of his mother, Kathleen Lollis, and managed real estate transactions for the family. The attorney who handled these transactions testified that he saw Frank sign his mother’s name and that he thought he recalled Frank showing him a power of attorney.

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Lisa and Dennis Dutton, plaintiffs in this case, suing to enforce contracts Frank signed, testified that Frank had said he had a power of attorney. At trial, following Frank’s death, Mrs. Lollis denied the existence of the power of attorney.

Lisa Dutton testified that she had known Frank for nineteen years and had done a lot of real estate business with him and his family. She said that all of the locations where she had lived for the ten years prior to the trial were related to the Lollis family and every time she purchased property that was titled in Mrs. Lollis’ name, she dealt with Frank and his attorney. She said she “never had an issue” until she tried to obtain a deed to enforce a contract at issue in this case.

Frank’s attorney testified that Frank did a lot of his business in cash and always carried a lot of cash. Frank typically bought property in other individuals’ names and signed their names to documents, including not only his mother, but a former employee. The attorney signed an affidavit to the effect that Frank explained his “checkered past” required him to operate in the names of other individuals. The affidavit further stated that Mrs. Lollis knew Frank titled properties in her name.

Frank was diagnosed with cancer, and when he became increasingly ill, he asked his attorney to prepare a power of attorney for his mother naming his sister as the attorney-in-fact. After Frank’s death, the Duttons unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the deed to consummate the contract Frank had signed in his mother’s behalf. This lawsuit followed.

The case contains a detailed discussion of the law of agency in South Carolina. Real estate lawyers should know that their clients can become bound by their actions even in the absence of a recorded power of attorney because agency is a question of fact that does not necessarily depend upon an express appointment and acceptance.

An agency relationship is frequently implied or inferred from the words and conduct of the parties and the circumstances of the particular case. The Court of Appeals stated that agency may be proved circumstantially by the conduct of the purported agent exhibiting a pretense of authority with the knowledge of the principal.

The doctrine of apparent authority provides that the principal is bound by the acts of his agent when he has placed the agent in such a position that persons of ordinary prudence, reasonably knowledgeable with business usages and customs, are led to believe the agent has authority and they can deal with the agent based on that assumption.

This rule is based on public policy and convenience to provide safety for third parties.  In this case, the attorney testified that the mother was “fully aware that Frank was buying and selling property in her name” and was “transacting business in her name.” Lisa and her husband testified that Mrs. Lollis was present when they made some payments to Frank. Mrs. Lollis never objected and even retrieved the receipt book for Frank on a few occasions.

Lisa testified (1) Frank told her he had a power of attorney; (2) Lisa relied on Frank’s representation; and (3) she would not have entered into the contract and made payments had she known Mrs. Lollis would not acknowledge the existence of the contract. Dennis testified that (1) he believed Frank was acting on his mother’s behalf; (2) he relied on the course of dealing established in a number of transactions; and (3) if he had known Mrs. Lollis was not going to honor the contract, he would not have entered into it nor made payments.

The Court said that Mrs. Lollis’ knowledge that her son was buying and selling real estate in her name and her tacit acceptance of this practice placed Frank in such a position that the plaintiffs were led to believe he had the authority to act. The plaintiffs dealt with Frank based on that assumption. The preponderance of the evidence, according to the Court, shows an agency relationship between Mrs. Lollis and Frank as well as his apparent authority to sell. Frank’s actions were binding on his mother.

*Lollis v. Dutton, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5522 (November 1, 2017)

Day of the Dead: Director Cordray didn’t get his Halloween wish

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President Trump signed the legislation repealing the CFPB arbitration rule

As we discussed in this blog last week, the United States Senate recently voted to dispose of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule that allowed consumers the right to bring class action lawsuits to resolve financial disputes. Under that rule, banks and credit card companies could not use mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in the fine print of credit card and checking account agreements.

Day of the DeadThe vote was 51-50 with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote. The vote in the Senate followed a previous vote with the same result in the House of Representatives, leaving only the stroke of President Trump’s pen to finalize the repeal.

After the Senate’s vote, CPBP director Richard Cordray released a statement stating the action was “a giant setback for every consumer in the country.” “Wall Street won”, he said, “and ordinary people lost.”  Interestingly, Director Cordray wrote a letter directly to President Trump on October 30 pleading with him to save the arbitration rule.

The letter said, “This rule is all about protecting people who simply want to be able to take action together to right the wrongs done to them.” It also appealed to President Trump’s support of veterans and lower income Americans by saying, “I think you really don’t like to see American families, including veterans and service members, get cheated out of their hard-earned money and be left helpless to fight back.”

The letter obviously had no effect. President Trump signed the law on November 1 to the delight of banking and business groups. Director Cordray said, “In signing this resolution, the President signed away consumers’ right to their day in court.”  The Trump administration, however, is clearly in favor of dismantling regulatory efforts it believes may put a damper on the free market in any way.