Protracted litigation leads to noteworthy federal title insurance case

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Early in my legal career, I searched a title prior to contentious litigation surrounding a commercial tract in Horry County. I was eight months pregnant with my son at the time. Title examiners as old as I am will remember we used to pull huge books down from high shelves to search titles in South Carolina. I remember this project so well not because of the difficult work in my puffy condition, but because of the time it took to resolve the litigation. When we finally received the final order, my son was in the second grade.

That timing may not hold a candle to the case decided last year in The United States District Court for South Carolina surrounding a tract in Dorchester County. Dudek v. Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company* is the culmination (I hope) of what the court calls a “long- standing and enduring legal battle” over an eight-acre tract that was divided into two parcels of six and two acres, respectively.

Summarizing the almost undisputed facts as briefly as possible, plaintiffs Stephen Dudek and Doreen Cross entered into a contract to purchase the six-acre tract in 2012. A third party, Molly Morphew, entered into a back-up contract with the sellers to purchase the property in the event the plaintiffs’ purchase fell through. Both parties ultimately sued the seller for specific performance, and the plaintiffs in this case prevailed.

Dudek and Cross purchased the property in 2017 and obtained a title insurance policy from Commonwealth. The litigation with Morphew continued with two subsequent suits, the first alleging fraud and abuse of process in the purchase, and the second seeking to enforce a contract provision setting up a water and sewer easement in favor of the two-acre tract, which by this time had been purchased by Morphew. Dudek and Cross filed a title insurance claim on the easement issue, and Commonwealth denied the claim relying on an exception for easements and the exclusion for risks created by or known to the insured prior the policy date.

I’m eliminating a lot of facts and procedural nuances that title insurance nerds like me will find fascinating, so pull the case for the long story.

The Court held Commonwealth had no duty to defend the insured property owners, relying on the fact that they knew about the easement before they closed. Simple enough, right?

The more convoluted and interesting discussion revolves around the treatment of the policy of the easement issue.  The covered risk in question in the policy was that “someone has an easement on the Land”. The policy contained two exceptions, however, one for unrecorded easements and one for recorded easements. The court stated that the policy simultaneously extended and eliminated coverage for easements, rendering the policy provision meaningless and illusory.

Title insurance agents routinely add specific exceptions to title insurance policies to limit coverage. This case cautions against adding exceptions that operate to prevent all coverage from a covered risk. We will all need to be careful about this holding as time progresses.

*466 F. Supp. 3d 610 (D.S.C. 2020)

Court of Appeals sets a timing rule on ATI exemption

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The new rule favors the taxpayer

A case* from the South Carolina Court of Appeals on August 26 concerns South Carolina Code Section 12-17-3135 which allows a 25% property tax exemption when there is an “Assessable Transfer of Interest” of real estate. The issue was one of timing, whether a property owner must claim this exemption during the first year of eligibility.

The Administrative Law Judge had consolidated two cases. In both cases, the property owner had purchased property during the closing months of 2012. Neither taxpayer claimed the ATI Exemption in 2013, but both claimed it in January of 2014. The Dorchester County Assessor denied the requests, but the ALJ decided the exemptions had been timely claimed.

The statutory language in question provides that the county assessor must be notified before January 31 for the tax year for which the owner first claims eligibility. The taxpayers argued that the plain meaning of this language allows them to choose when to claim the exemption. The Assessor argued that the exemption must be claimed by January 31 of the year following the transfers.

The Court looked at taxation of real property as a whole and held that the legislature intended that all purchasers would have a meaningful opportunity to claim the exemption. Under the Assessor’s interpretation, there would be a much less meaningful opportunity for taxpayers who purchase property later in the calendar year.

The Court also stated that the ATI Exemption is not allowed to override the appraised value set in the statutorily required five-year reassessment scheme, so there would be a built-in time limit for claiming the exemption.

 

*Fairfield Waverly, LLC v. Dorchester County Assessor, Opinion 5769 (August 26, 2020)