On February 8, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued an opinion* in a real estate case involving the I’On development in Charleston County. Justice Hearn’s opening sentence is revealing: “This case involves promises made and broken to homeowners by a developer and its affiliated entities.” The first sentence describing the facts is equally telling: “The facts of this case are complicated, and, (in the words of a prior Supreme Court opinion, citation omitted) are “not for the weary.”
I’On is described as a high-density residential development that comprises public squares, restaurants, shops, and homes designed to imitate historic urban housing, including a replica of downtown Charleston’s Rainbow Row. The opinion recites that after the Court rejected a referendum effort to restrict multi-use zoning, construction of I’On Phase II began around 2000.
In 2010 two individual homeowners sued the developer entities and individuals for various causes of action related to the nonconveyance of certain real property and community amenities within the neighborhood. A mistrial was ordered to realign the homeowner’s association as a plaintiff. A subsequent trial resulted in a jury verdict in favor of the HOA in the amount of $1.75 million for breach of fiduciary duty and in favor of an individual owner in the amount of $20,000 for negligent misrepresentation.
The history of the development includes a 1998 Property Report filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to comply with the Interstate Land Sales Full Disclosure Act. The report contained a paragraph in all caps promising that “recreational facilities” would be conveyed to the HOA upon completion of construction. But the report warned that certain recreational facilities may be owned and operated by persons other than the HOA.
The Court recited that shortly after the Report was issues, the developers began a pattern of conduct altering their initial promise to convey ownership of the disputed properties to the HOA. Later, an easement agreement was executed and signed by the same person in three different roles, as manager of the I’On Club, as president of the HOA, and as general manager of the I’On Company. A property owner expressed the concern that this agreement was “sort of shaking hands with yourself.”
The Court of Appeals waffled, first upholding the lower’s court’s verdicts, then, on rehearing, practically nullifying the verdicts.
I am not going to get down into the weeds on the complex facts, but I do want to make a couple of points for your information.
First, the statute of limitations issues were thorny, and the Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court’s submission of these issues to the jury and stated that the facts supported the jury’s determination of the question of when the statute of limitations began to run.
Second, please pay attention to footnote 7. It states that the developer conceded on appeal that one individual owner’s contract to purchase his lot was a sealed instrument and thus has a twenty-year statute of limitations under S.C. Code §15-3-520. Please pay particular attention to whether your clients signed “sealed instruments” because liability under those instruments may be much longer than anticipated.
Otherwise, the Court was adamant that the verdicts were appropriate because of the “plethora of evidence presented of the Developers’ bad faith, broken promises, and self-dealing.”
Represent your developer clients well, dirt lawyers, to avoid losing cases like this one. Read this case carefully and share it with your developer clients as an excellent lesson of what not to do!
*Walbeck v. The I’On Company, LLC, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28134 (February 8, 2023)