Don’t Amend Your Master Deed As A Litigation Strategy

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The South Carolina Court of Appeals was not impressed!

The owners of The Gates at Williams-Brice (a great place to tailgate!) were surprised in 2012 when a maintenance company refused to bid on an exterior caulking/sealant job because of perceived construction defects.  Almost immediately, the owners’ association and an individual owner filed a complaint alleging negligence, gross negligence, breach of warranty and strict liability claims. The defendants were numerous developer and contractor entities.

The plaintiffs demanded a jury trial and sought to establish a class action for the condominium owners. The developer filed a motion for a nonjury trial and to strike the class action allegations. The Circuit Court ruled for the plaintiffs, and the defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals, in an Opinion dated August 31*, reversed.

The case contains several practice pointers for dirt lawyers, especially those who draft master deeds and amendments to master deeds and those who represent owners’ associations.

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The Master Deed establishing The Gates at Williams-Brice contained provisions requiring arbitration, waiving the right to a jury trial, waiving the right to a class action, and eliminating the right to secondary, incidental or consequential damages.

The original complaint was filed in December of 2012. An answer, opposing the certification of a class, was filed in May of 2013. Later that month, the complaint was amended to add defendants. And on May 23, the homeowners amended the Master Deed to remove the provisions that thwarted their litigation efforts.

The Circuit Court found that the provisions at issue were no longer within the Master Deed and that the defendants were precluded from enforcing unconscionable arbitration and alternative dispute resolutions that contained oppressive, one-sided terms.

On appeal, the defendants argued that the Master Deed could not be amended retroactively to remove the provisions at issue. Neither party contested that the homeowners’ actions were taken in anticipation of litigation. The Court of Appeals held that the homeowners knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived their rights to a jury trial and to a class action when they signed their deeds.

Citing a North Carolina case**, the Court of Appeals said that to remove the agreed-upon waivers retroactively would effectively substitute a new obligation for the original bargain of the parties. The Court pointed to the cites in the North Carolina case that indicate several jurisdictions apply a reasonableness standard when reviewing amendments to covenants and holding a provision authorizing an owners’ association to amend covenants does not permit amendments of unlimited scope; rather, every amendment must be reasonable in light of the contracting parties’ original intent.

The Court of Appeals discounted several cases involving amendments in condominium projects by the Circuit Court as not controlling. One such case found the developer’s amendment to increase maintenance assessments was enforceable against new purchasers. Another case approved an amendment regarding leasing restrictions. A third case found that an owners’ association properly amended covenants to prohibit the developer from advertising on the property. The final case held that an amendment authorizing the association to suspend utilities for unpaid judgments was properly applied against a unit owner because any alleged retroactivity was proper based on the contractual relationship between the association and the unit owner.

Other cases cited by the Circuit Court were dismissed as neither dealing with amendments to condominium declarations nor to master deeds.

The Court stated that it was unaware of any authority in South Carolina that would permit contracting parties to unilaterally alter agreed upon provisions once litigation has started.

The developer also argued that the amendments were ineffective because they failed to obtain the required permission of lenders and other “bound parties” such as the developer. The Court declined to address that issue because of its other conclusions.

What will the Supreme Court say if it gets the opportunity to rule on this issue?

 

*The Gates at Williams-Brice Condominium Association v. DDC Construction, Inc., S.C. Court of Appeals Opinion 5438 (August 31, 2016)

**Armstrong v. Ledges Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 633 S.E.2d 78 (N.C. 2006)

Good News for Condo Financing (and King Tut)

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Obtaining loans for SC’s coastal condominiums will become easier

The Housing Opportunity through Modernization Act (H.R. 3700) was signed into law by President Obama on July 29. This law will act to ease restrictions on mortgage financing for condominiums. The law reforms the process used by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to determine if condominium unit owners will be in a position to qualify for FHA insurance.

In 2009, FHA changed the rules for qualifying for insurance, leaving most condominium home buyers without the opportunity for FHA insured mortgages. The new law will result in some improvements for home buyers who view condominiums as an affordable housing option.

Under the new law, the FHA must issue guidance regarding the percentage of units that must be occupied by owners in order for the condominium project to be eligible for FHA mortgage insurance. The current requirement is 50 percent owner occupancy. In the event the FHA fails to issue guidance within ninety days of the effective date of the legislation, the required percentage for owner occupancy automatically becomes 35 percent.

Steve Martin King Tut
“Got a condo made of stone-a”

 

The new law amends the National Housing Act to modify certification requirements for condominium mortgage insurance to make recertifications of condominium projects substantially less burdensome than original certifications. The FHA is required to consider lengthening the time between certifications for approved properties and allowing information to be updated rather than resubmitted.

It will be interesting to see how the FHA implements the new law. Changes to FHA regulations and existing agency guidelines should be expected soon.

The National Association of Realtors has been a proponent of the new law and praised its passage in a press release as a victory for real estate agents and home buyers.

This law affects housing in other ways. It modifies HUD’s rental assistance programs, including Section 8 low-income (voucher) and public housing programs. In addition, it modifies the Department of Agriculture’s single family housing guaranteed loan program.

The expectation is that the new law will make home ownership for first-time buyers (and old King Tut in his “condo made of stone-a”) a little easier in the current economic environment.

Old McDonald Had a Farm

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South Carolina Court of Appeals says partition actions in probate court require an open estate; sends action back to circuit court.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals held last week that probate courts in South Carolina have subject matter jurisdiction over partition actions only where open estates are involved.*

The dispute involved a farm in Darlington County originally owned by S.W. Byrd. Mr. Byrd died in 1923, and his estate was probated in Darlington County and finally closed in 1948. The estates of several of Mr. Byrd’s heirs were not subsequently probated, and in April of 2012, E. Butler McDonald filed an action for partition and the determination of heirs in the Darlington County Probate Court.

At that time, more than ten years had passed since the deaths of Mr. Byrd’s original heirs. Since §62-3-108 of the South Carolina Code establishes a time limitation of ten years after death for the administration of an estate, these estates could not be probated at the time Mr. McDonald filed his action.

farmlandThe Probate Court determined the heirs of S.K Byrd and their percentages of ownership. The Probate Court also found that no interested party had expressed a desire to purchase the property and that physical partition of the farm was impractical. The farm was ordered to be sold at a public auction, and Mr. McDonald’s reasonable attorneys’ fees were ordered to be paid.

On appeal by the other heirs, the Circuit Court affirmed. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the appellants made several arguments, but the Court of Appeals focused on subject matter jurisdiction. Section 62-3-911 of the South Carolina Code establishes the jurisdiction for probate courts and specifically states that an heir may petition the probate court for partition prior to the closing of an estate. Since it was clearly established at trial that S.K. Byrd’s estate was closed in 1948, an action to partition his farm should have been brought in the circuit court, according to the Court of Appeals. The probate court’s determination of heirs and their percentages of ownership was affirmed, but the order was vacated as to the remaining issues.

*Byrd v. McDonald, S.C. Court of Appeals Case 5409 (June, 8, 2016)

Upscale Mt. Pleasant Condo Project Subject of Arbitration Clause Dispute

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Court of Appeals sides with roofing supplier

The South Carolina Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 1 that will delight the drafters of corporate contracts who imbed arbitration clauses within their warranty provisions.  Whether the South Carolina Supreme Court will approve remains to be seen.

The dispute arises over the construction of One Belle Hall, an upscale condominium community in Mt. Pleasant. Tamko Building Products, Inc. was the supplier of the asphalt shingles for the community’s four buildings, and placed a mandatory binding arbitration clause within its warranty provision. The warranty purported to exclude all express and implied warranties and to disclaim liability for all incidental and consequential damages.

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At some point after construction was completed, the owners’ association determined that the buildings were affected by moisture damage, water intrusion and termite damage, all resulting from various alleged construction defects. The developer contacted Tamko to report a warranty claim on the roof shingles, contending they were blistering and defective.  Tamko sent the developer a “warranty kit”, requiring the claimant to provide proof of purchase, samples of the allegedly defective shingles and photographs. The developer failed to respond.

Two years later, the owners’ association filed a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of all owners, alleging defective construction against the community’s various developers and contractors. Tamko filed for a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration.

Circuit Court Judge J. C. Nicholson, Jr. denied the motion and ruled that Tamko’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the condominium owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms. The trial court held the arbitration clause to be unconscionable and unenforceable because of the cumulative effect of several oppressive and one-sided terms in the warranty.

The Court of Appeals begged to differ. It held that the circuit court erred in finding the arbitration clause in the warranty was unconscionable. It stated that our supreme court has made it clear that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The underlying sale of Tamko’s shingles was stated to be a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate warranty terms.

The court found it significant that the packaging contained a notation: “Important: Read Carefully Before Opening” providing that if the purchaser is not satisfied with the terms of the warranty, then all unopened boxes should be returned. The court pointed to the standard warranty in the marketplace that gives buyers the choice of keeping the goods or rejecting them by returning them for a refund.

The appellate court also found it significant that the arbitration clause did facilitate an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker and that the arbitration clause was separable from the warranty.

Consider the exact opposite approach of the CFPB’s recently-announced proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits. That proposed rule can be read here and is the subject of a May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It’s interesting to see such different approaches by two authorities on an issue affecting consumers in the housing arena. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more to come from either ruling.

* One Belle Hall Property Owners Association, Inc. vs. Trammell Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1,2016)

Beware of Cyberattacks on Free E-mail Services

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Think a client won’t sue for misdirected funds?  Think again!

domain securityE-mail services, even those with the tightest security possible, can be hacked. We have heard local stories, as close as Rock Hill and Charleston, of funds being misdirected by cybercriminals through intercepting e-mails and sending out fraudulent wiring instructions.

Law firms have taken action: encrypting e-mails, adding tag lines to emails warning that wiring instructions will not be changed, adding warning paragraphs to engagement letters, in addition to normal security efforts. Many offices now require confirmation of all wiring instructions by a telephone calls initiated internally. No verbal verification?  No wires!

Last month, an attorney in New York was sued by her clients in a cybercrime situation. This time, the property was a Manhattan co-op, and the funds amounted to a $1.9 million deposit. The lawsuit alleged that the attorney used an AOL e-mail account that welcomed hackers. The complaint stated that had the attorney recognized the red flags or attempted to orally confirm the proper receipt of the deposit, the funds would have been protected.

The old phrase “you get what you pay for” is definitely applicable in these situation. Attorneys who continue to use free email services are putting themselves and their clients at greater risk for cyberattacks. Criminals understand that free email services have low security against cyber-intrusion, so they naturally gravitate to those accounts for their dirty work.

I heard one expert say that free e-mail services are not only not secure, they are also unprofessional! Surely, lenders will soon look at this issue as they decide who will handle their closings.

Buried in the Dirt

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Are you sure your IOLTA account was properly established?

A Charleston lawyer just shared a bit of an Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) horror story with us, and I’m passing it along for the benefit of all South Carolina practitioners to prevent at least one surprise in future certification attempts.

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This lawyer was being vetted by a third-party vendor for the purposes of staying on the good side of a lender. The vetting company advised that the lawyer’s IOLTA account had been set up incorrectly using his firm’s Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN).  The lawyer called The South Carolina Bar Foundation and learned that the account should have been set up using the Foundation’s TIN: 23-7181552. In order to make this change, the bank required the lawyer to open a new account…with all that entails.

As a review, here are some IOLTA facts.

  • These accounts must be used for client funds that are small in amount or expected to be held for a short time, so that the funds cannot practically be invested for the client because they won’t provide a positive net return.
  • Funds that do not meet the nominal or short-term fund requirements of an IOLTA account should be deposited in a separate demand account to earn interest for the benefit of the client, and the client’s TIN should be used.
  • Some financial institutions waive all fees for IOLTA accounts. If reasonable and customary fees are charged, those fees may be deducted from interest. Other fees and service charges are the responsibility of the attorney.
  • There should be no tax consequences for the attorney or client for IOLTA accounts.
  • The Bar Foundation maintains a list of eligible financial institutions on its website.
  • Rule 1.15(h) of the SC Rules of Professional Responsibility mandates that all lawyers with trust accounts must file a written directive with their bank requiring the bank to report any non-sufficient funds (NSF) transactions. This mandate applies to IOLTA accounts.

Check your IOLTA accounts and make sure you’re in compliance before the vetting companies arrive on the scene!

Lender Challenges CFPB’s Constitutionality

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cfpb-logoOn July 30, this blog discussed State Bank of Big Spring v. Lew, a case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on July 30 that a small Texas bank had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The same court was asked on August 5 by mortgage lender PHH Corporation to stay a final decision of the CFPB on constitutionality grounds.

The latter case follows the CFPB’s final decision in an enforcement action against PHH requiring the lender to pay $109 million in disgorgement. The lender was accused of illegally increasing consumers’ closing costs by requiring them to pay reinsurance premiums to PHH’s in-house reinsurance company. The CFPB classified the reinsurance payments as kickbacks.

The court granted the stay, holding PHH “satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal.”

PHH argues the CFPB is unconstitutional because Director Richard Cordray 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 states, “Never before has so much authority been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from President’s control and Congress’s power of the purse.” The petition argues that the Director is only removable for cause, distancing him from the power of the President, and is able to fund the agency from the Federal Reserve System’s operating expenses, distancing him from Congress’s power to refuse funding.

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The court issued a one paragraph stay order, and it is not clear whether the motion was successful based on the constitutionality argument because PHH had also argued that Director Condray misinterpreted settled law on mortgage reinsurance and on how disgorgements are calculated.

The stay is in place pending the appeal. It will now be interesting to see whether the Court of Appeals will reach the constitutionality issue or decide the case on the legal interpretation issues. And, of course, it will be interesting to see whether future constitutionality challenges continue with regard to this powerful agency that is changing the rules for residential closings.