Lawyers: be careful with client documents

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You and your staff can’t “fix” them

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A recent disciplinary case from the South Carolina Supreme Court involved a document problem in a child custody case, but the case reminded me of an area that can create difficulties for real estate lawyers. The case, In re Robinson*, resulted in a definite suspension of nine months for a lawyer who submitted a sworn affidavit to a family court purportedly signed by the client and notarized by the lawyer. After the attorney-client relationship was dissolved, the client informed the court that the affidavit was forged. The client indicated that she had no knowledge of the affidavit when it was filed but contents of the affidavit were true.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. A deadline approached. An affidavit was needed. The client was unavailable. The lawyer decided “no harm no foul” and “fixed” the document problem with an affidavit that spoke the truth but that was not signed by the client.

How does this case translate to real estate? Closing attorneys and their staff members are often tempted to correct errors in executed documents by replacing pages or typing or writing directly on them, both before and after recording. Some practitioners assume that if they can locate the original document after recording, they can simply “fix” it and re-record it. This assumption is incorrect. The documents belong to the parties to the transaction. Lawyers and their staff members cannot revise and re-record documents without party participation.

Changes in documents should be accompanied, at the very least, by the initials of the signatories. Perhaps more often, new documents should be signed, witnessed, notarized and re-recorded. Substantial changes may require more formal corrective measures, such as a deed back from the grantee and a corrective deed from the grantor.

Closing attorneys and their staff members sometimes attempt to correct documents with the participation of only the seller or borrower when actual correction of the problem may require the participation of the buyer or lender. For example, a developer’s deed mistakenly refers to Lot 1, when the closing involved Lot 2. It is not sufficient to correct this problem by having the seller sign a corrective deed using the legal description for Lot 2. The buyer should reconvey Lot 1 to the seller, and the seller should then convey Lot 2 to the buyer. Similarly, if Lot 1 was mortgaged in this closing, the lender should release Lot 1, and Lot 2 should be substituted by way of a corrective mortgage or mortgage modification.

Like the lawyer in the disciplinary case, real estate lawyers and their staff members may believe the adage “no harm no foul” comes into play when a mistake is found in a document. To stay out of the Advance Sheets, resist the impulse to “fix” client documents acting alone. And train your staff to resist similar impulses.

 

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27824 (July 11, 2018)

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SC Supreme Court tells Kentucky lawyer what she’s NOT gonna do….

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I’ve blogged before about Mike Goodwin, the “Bow Tie Comedian” based here in Columbia, who entertained us during lunch at Chicago Title’s seminar last year. I highly recommend Mike if you need a comedian suitable for a family audience. A joke that bubbled up through his very funny presentation was a line his mother used to keep him on the straight and narrow during his childhood, “what you NOT gonna do is…..”

 

For example, she would say, what you NOT gonna do is to stand there and hold that refrigerator door open while you try to decide what you want to eat. During one lull in the laughter, Mike said to us, “what you NOT gonna do is sit there and not laugh at my jokes.” (So we laughed.)

Mike’s tag line kept coming to me as I read In the Matter of McKeever, a September 20, 2017 South Carolina disciplinary case where a Kentucky lawyer was permanently debarred from seeking any form of admission to practice law (including pro hac vice admission) in South Carolina.

The Court clearly told McKeever what she’s NOT gonna do in the Palmetto State!

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McKeever engaged in several interesting and dangerous courses of action in South Carolina. One of the most damaging to her position seemed to be failing to respond to the disciplinary charges or to participate in the disciplinary proceedings in any way. The Court held this failure to be indicative of a disinterest in the law. No lawyer should ever be found to be disinterested in the law if she wants to continue to practice in this or any state!

Other activities were equally dangerous. McKeever and her husband left Kentucky in the midst of a foreclosure of their $1 million home loan. She arrived in Charleston and came into contact with Betty McMichael who owned two properties, 991 Governors Road where she resided, and 986 Governors Road, which she rented out.

McMichael faced foreclosure on both properties, and McKeever offered her legal representation despite not being licensed in South Carolina. McMichael repeatedly declined the offer but ultimately agreed to an arrangement, after repeated phone calls and visits, that allowed McKeever and her family to live at 986 Governors Road.

I hear the Supreme Court say, “what you’re NOT gonna do is to enter into an improper fee arrangement where the scope of the legal representation and the basis of the fee are not clearly explained to the client.) I also hear the Court say, “what you’re NOT gonna do is to create a conflict of interest by taking a possessory interest in property that is the subject of litigation.”

Later McKeever induced McMichael to execute a quitclaim deed in favor of Bondson Holdings, a “fictitious entity” owned by McKeever and her husband. (I can’t even put to paper the words the Court really wanted to use for this bit of deception.)

The saga continued with delay tactics, frivolous and meritless legal positions, false statements to courts, threatened civil actions and criminal prosecutions against opposing counsel, the presiding judge and the clerk of court. The Court was not amused and, in addition to the permanent debarment, reserved the right to void the deed after other proceedings involving the property are finally resolved.

I recommend the case as interesting reading in classic hutzpah and failing to follow any rules.

A Certain Path to Disbarment:

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Fake a title insurance agency and ignore a real estate practice!

In the Matter of Samaha* is a South Carolina Supreme Court attorney disciplinary case that resulted in disbarment.

This lawyer was creative; you have to give him that!

For starters, he witnessed and notarized the signature of his client’s late wife, who had died seven years earlier. He typed, witnessed and notarized a revocation of a durable power of attorney for an 83 year old retired paralegal with cognitive and physical limitations.

Perhaps the most interesting violations, however, had to do with the title insurance. (What? It’s tough to make title insurance interesting. Trust me. I try and fail on a daily basis. This stuff is only interesting to title nerds like me!)

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A relationship with a title insurance company is essential to a real estate practice in South Carolina. The closing attorney must either be in a position to issue his own title insurance commitments and policies as an agent, or to certify to a title insurance company as an approved attorney to obtain those documents.

Consider the activities of  Mr. Breckenridge, the lawyer who was publicly reprimanded this spring for allowing non-attorney entities to control his real estate practice.** During oral arguments, he stated that he preferred to handle closings in the customary manner in South Carolina, where the attorney acts as agent for a title insurance company as well as closing attorney. But he had been suspended by the Supreme Court for a short time and, as a result, had been canceled as an agent by his title insurance company. He said he was then forced to work for an entity that hires lawyers to attend closings only.  When a problem arose with the disbursement of one of those closings, he found himself in front of the Supreme Court again.

Mr. Samaha had also been canceled by his title insurance companies. That did not stop him and his staff from proceeding full steam ahead with closings in the customary manner.  Although he originally denied any knowledge that documents had been forged in his office, he ultimately admitted that closing protection letters had been forged and issued to lenders.

A mortgage lender later uncovered not only forged closing protection letters, but also forged title insurance commitments and policies. It was not possible for Mr. Samaha to obtain any of these documents legitimately during this timeframe, because his status had been canceled as an approved attorney as well as an agent. The Court commented that, absent the forgeries of these documents, the lawyer’s real estate practice could not have functioned.

(This is not the first disbarred lawyer in South Carolina to have included the forgery of title insurance documents in his repertoire of misdeeds.***)

The Court stated that Mr. Samaha allowed his staff to, in effect, run his office. He failed to supervise them and failed to supervise and review closing documents.  He, in effect, completely ignored his real estate practice.


He also committed professional violations of a more mundane but equally scary nature. For example, he made false and misleading statements on the application for his professional liability insurance.

red card - suitHe failed to pay off four mortgages. By his own calculations, the loss was more than $200,000, but the Office of Disciplinary Counsel stated that his financial records and computers had been destroyed, making it impossible to prove the true extent of the financial mismanagement and misappropriation.  Apparently, the money from new closings was used to fund prior closings, up until the date of Mr. Samaha’s suspension from the practice of law.

 

*In the Matter of Samaha, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27660 (August 24, 2016)

** In the Matter of Breckenridge, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27625 (April 20, 2016)

*** In the Matter of Davis, 411 S.C. 209, 768 S.E.2d 206 (2015)