Second real estate case of the year rejects replacement mortgage doctrine

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SC Supreme Court discards arguments of ALTA and PLTA

Real estate cases can be absent from our Advance Sheets for months, but we have seen two cases already in 2023. In ArrowPoint Federal Credit Union v. Bailey* our Supreme Court was asked to adopt a novel replacement mortgage doctrine, but the Court deflected the question, deferring to the legislature, even though American Land Title Association and Palmetto Land Title Association filed amicus briefs in favor of the doctrine.

This is a real estate mortgage priority dispute between two institutional lenders concerning a residential property in Winnsboro.  Jimmy and Laura Bailey mortgaged their residence at 247 Morninglow Drive to Quicken Loans in the amount of $256,500. The mortgage was recorded on October 20, 2009. One week later, the Baileys closed an equity line of credit with ArrowPoint Federal Credit Union in the amount of $99,500. The second mortgage was recorded on November 4. ArrowPoint had record notice of the Quicken mortgage. On November 23, the Baileys refinanced the Quicken mortgage with Quicken, this time in the amount of $296,000.

In connection with the refinance, the Baileys executed an interesting document entitled “Title Company Client Acknowledgment”, which stated the only outstanding lien on the property was the prior Quicken mortgage. This statement was false. The Court stated that there was no clear explanation as to whether Quicken had the title searched at this point.

The Baileys used $257,459 from the refinance to pay off the first mortgage. On December 15, Quicken released the first mortgage and recorded the refinance mortgage. Quicken assigned the mortgage to U.S. Bank, the petitioner in this case.

(If these facts make you break out into a cold sweat, then you were around doing real estate closings at the break-neck speed we suffered during this time frame.)

The Baileys defaulted on the line of credit, and ArrowPoint filed this action seeking a declaration that its line of credit had priority over the Quicken refinance mortgage. Both lenders moved for summary judgment. U.S. Bank claimed it had priority under the replacement mortgage doctrine. The special referee and Court of Appeals agreed with ArrowPoint, and the Supreme Court affirmed. Both appeals courts concluded that adopting the replacement mortgage doctrine is a question for the General Assembly.

Dirt lawyers are intimately familiar with South Carolina’s race-notice statute (S.C. Code §30-7-10) which prioritizes liens based on notice and the recording date.

The Supreme Court recited that it had recognized the equitable subordination doctrine as an exception to the race-notice statute. The Court noted the right of subrogation is essentially a creation of the court of equity, which allows a person who is secondarily liable for a debt, upon paying the debt, to assume by law the place of the creditor whose debt is paid.  Decades later, the Court declined to recognize the doctrine for a lender that refinanced its own mortgage but failed to discover an intervening mortgage. The Court said in the case at hand that it had previously warned lenders of their duty to search titles!**

The Court noted that the replacement mortgage doctrine is another exception to the race-notice statute, and many jurisdictions either recognize the doctrine or follow its logic. Cases from other jurisdictions were cited, and the Restatement (Third) of Property was quoted. According to the Restatement, the replacement mortgage doctrine provides:

  • If a senior mortgage is released of record and, as a part of the same transaction, is replaced with a new mortgage, the latter mortgage retains the same priority as its predecessor, except
  • To the extent that any change in the terms of the mortgage or the obligation it secures is materially prejudicial to the holder of a junior interest in the real estate, or
  • To the extent that one who is protected by the recording act acquires an interest in the real estate at a time that the senior mortgage is not of record.

The Court said that it was required to respect the authority of the legislature on public policy matters and declined to sit as a “superlegislature” to second-guess the General Assembly’s decisions. The Court differentiated the equitable subrogation doctrine from the replacement mortgage doctrine by saying that the “race” begins with the original mortgage in the equitable subrogation situation, and the intervening lender suffers no loss. Under the replacement mortgage doctrine, on the other hand, the original first mortgage is satisfied of record and replaced with a new mortgage that is recorded after the intervening mortgage.

The Court also criticized the replacement mortgage doctrine because it dilutes the importance of title examinations. Lenders who seek to refinance their own mortgages, as Quicken did in this case, can easily search the title to discover the intervening lien. The last words of the case state, “Finally, we emphasize parties must conduct diligent title searches to protect their interests under the race-notice statute.”

I, for one, will not argue with that final statement. It now appears that if ALTA and PLTA want a replacement mortgage doctrine in South Carolina, they need to approach the legislature.

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28129, January 11, 2023.

**All the citations are omitted but are set out in detail in the subject case.