SCOTUS refuses to review SC Episcopal property dispute

Standard

It has been close to a year that I wrote in this blog that I was thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempted to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2, 2017*. I continue to be thankful that my mission is limited to the real estate issues in this difficult case because the United States Supreme Court refused to review that ruling on June 11. We are left with the difficult opinion issued in Columbia, and church officials and members from both sides of the dispute are left to sort out their on-going concerns in light of that ruling.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains, but I am attempting here to boil those issues down to a manageable few words for all of us.

the_episcopal_church_welcomes_you

News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant.  I assume a petition for rehearing will ensue as well as an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when 39 local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, prior to the ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

South Carolina’s ruling upheld the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. It also orders the breakaway group to return 29 properties to the national church. Seven parishes may maintain their independence.

The position of the properties turns on whether the local parishes agreed to be bound by the “Dennis Canon” which was enacted in 1979 and provided, in effect, that real property of a parish is held in trust for the national church and the local Diocese, subject to the power of the local parish over the property, so long as the parish remains a part of the national church and Diocese. No evidence was found in the records of the seven parishes that those parishes ever agreed to be bound by the Dennis Canon. The other 29 properties were the subject of documentation to the effect that the local churches intended to hold the property in trust for the denomination. The opinion did not uphold the Dennis Canon in and of itself. Explicit recognition of the Canon was required.

That, in short, was the result of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need watch for a potential settlement. In the meantime, we will sit tight and not involve ourselves in sales and mortgages of these properties.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I am always thankful to be a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

Advertisements

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

Standard

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.

katy perry nun

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.