SC Court reverses itself on “active energy” judgment issue

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South Carolina dirt lawyers seldom breathe a sigh of relief when our Supreme Court decides a real estate case. But the November 21 opinion in Gordon v. Lancaster* was greeted with a collective “thank goodness”!  We were living with a less-than-exact term for the viability of a judgment, and we didn’t like it.

The question in this case was whether a creditor may execute on a judgment more than ten years after enrollment when the ten-year statutory period for execution** expires during the course of litigation. The Court overturned its 2010 decision in Linda Mc Co. v. Shore***, which held that, despite the passage of more than ten years, the judgment continued to have “active energy” because the judgment creditor had filed for supplemental proceedings.

In the current case, a judgment was enrolled in 2002 against Rudolph Drews, the now-deceased uncle of the Petitioner Donald Lancaster, in connection with a civil action for violating securities laws in an investment scheme for a new business venture in Charleston. Frank Gordon, the creditor, filed a petition for supplemental proceedings in 2006. During the hearing, Gordon’s counsel became suspicious that Drews’ wife and Lancaster were attempting to shield Drews’ assets from creditors. The hearing was continued when Drews failed to produce tax and financial documents.

Drews died in 2007. Gordon sought to continue supplemental proceedings, but there were delays in the estate administration. In 2010, suspicions were confirmed about hiding assets when Lancaster was deposed. Soon after, one day before her scheduled deposition, Drews’ wife died. Gordon filed this action, asserting Lancaster assisted Drews is hiding assets in violation of the Statute of Elizabeth. In 2011, Drews’ estate confessed judgment in the approximate amount of $300,000, and his wife’s estate settled with Gordon for $60,000.

During a bench trial in 2013, Lancaster moved for a directed verdict based on Gordon’s prior concession that the suit was based on the earlier judgment, which was obviously older than ten years. The trial court and the Court of Appeals disagreed, relying on the holding in Linda Mc: If a party takes action to enforce a judgment within the ten-year statutory period of active energy, the resulting order will be effective even if issued after the ten-year period has expired.

The Court noted that Linda Mc represented a departure from its historic approach and created confusion in what was formerly a well-settled area of the law. (To that I would like to very politely reply “duh”.) The Court overruled itself and returned to the bright-line ten-year rule.

In a footnote, the Court stated that it is overruling Linda Mc prospectively. The same footnote referred to Justice Pleicones’ dissent in Linda Mc, which predicted confusion in a previously settled area of the law.

Justice Few concurred in the result but disagreed with overruling Linda Mc, which he said created a narrow exception to the bright-line ten-year rule for the issuance of an execution on a judgment. There was a discussion in the opinion and the concurring opinion about dictum vs. holding, but, thankfully, nothing concrete came out of that. Justice James concurred in part and dissented in part, agreeing that Linda Mc should be overruled, but believing that Gordon should have received relief because of the prospective nature of the decision.

Pennsatucky AmenAs a title insurance lawyer and title examiner from way back, I am happy to see us return to a common sense, bright-line approach to the ten-year rule. Can I get an “Amen”?

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27847, November 21, 2018.

** South Carolina Code Section 15-39-30.

*** 390 S.C. 543, 703 S.E.2d 499 (2010).

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Hot off the presses UPL case!

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(But it only affects real estate peripherally)

The South Carolina Supreme Court handed down a UPL decision in a declaratory judgment action in its original jurisdiction on February 22.*

The Court accepted the action to determine whether Community Management Group, LLC and its employees engaged in the unauthorized practice of law while managing homeowners’ associations. The Court found that the respondents did, in fact, engage in UPL. At the outset of the case, the Court had issued a temporary injunction halting the offending activities.

Community Management Group, without the involvement of an attorney, prepared and recorded notices of liens and related documents; brought actions in magistrates’ courts to collect debts; and filed the resulting judgments in circuit courts. The entity also advertised that it would perform these services “in house”.

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In a 1992 administrative order entitled In re Unauthorized Practice of Law Rules Proposed by South Carolina Bar**,  the Court had modified prior case law to allow a business to be represented by a non-lawyer officer, agent or employee. The Court had also promulgated South Carolina Magistrate Court Rule 21, which provides, “A business…may be represented in a civil magistrates’ court by a non-lawyer officer, agent or employee…”

The central question in the action at hand was whether the word “agent” in these authorities includes third party entities and individuals like Community Management Group and its employees. The Court held it does not and was never intended to.

The Court had earlier held that filing claims in probate courts does not amount to UPL, but stated in the present case that it is the character of the services rendered that determines whether the services constitute the practice of law. Filing claims in Probate Court, according to the Court, does not require the professional judgment, specialized knowledge or ability of an attorney. The Court found that the services required to represent a business in magistrates’ courts are not comparable to filing claims in probate courts.

Community Management Group conceded that it prepared a lien document for the purpose of putting a cloud on title so property could not be sold unless the homeowner paid overdue assessments. This stated purpose demonstrated to the Court that the lien documents were “instruments”, that is, written legal documents that define rights, duties, entitlements or liabilities.

Citing a 1987 case near and dear to the hearts of all South Carolina dirt lawyers, State v. Buyers Service***, the Court reminded us that preparing and recording legal documents is the practice of law.

This current case is a Per Curiam decision, but acting Justice Pleicones did not participate. We are holding our collective breath to learn the results of a Quicken Loan case pending in the original jurisdiction of the Court, and the present case may give us at least a small hint.

stay tunedWe have already received an underwriting question about this case in our office. We were asked whether our attorney agents can ignore the liens filed in contravention of this case. The answer is that we can discuss the specifics on a case-by-case basis, but it appears that although the liens may be invalidated by a court, dirt lawyers and title companies should not generally take this risk without the involvement of a court. If you run into this issue in connection with your closings, call your title insurance underwriter to discuss your options!

*Rogers Townsend & Thomas, PC v. Peck, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27707 (February 22, 2017)

**309 S.C. 304, 422 S.E.2d 123 (1992)

***292 S.C. 286, 468 S.E.2d 290 (1987)

Another South Carolina Arbitration Case

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Following these cases is like watching a tennis match!

This is the third blog on this topic this summer! The June 7 blog surrounded a South Carolina Court of Appeals case* that held an arbitration clause in a roofing supplier’s warranty provision was not unconscionable. The lower court had ruled that the supplier’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the injured property owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms, which were actually contained in the packaging for the shingles.

The Court of Appeals indicated that the underlying sale was a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate terms. The Court found it significant that the packaging for the shingles contained a notation:  “Important: Read Carefully Before Opening” providing that if the purchaser is not satisfied with the terms of the warranty, then all unopened boxes should be returned. The Court pointed to the standard warranty in the marketplace that gives buyers the choice of keeping the goods or rejecting them by returning them for a refund, and blessed the arbitration provision.

SCORE:  15- Love in favor of arbitration

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Let’s Talk Dirt on July 14 addressed a South Carolina Supreme Court case that appeared to take the opposite approach. ** A national residential construction company’s contract contained a number of “oppressive and one-sided provisions”, including an attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability and a prohibition on awarding money damages of any kind. The Supreme Court held that the home purchasers lacked a meaningful ability to negotiate their contract, the only remedy through which appeared to be repair or replacement.

SCORE:  15-all.

Note that Justices Kittredge and Pleicones dissented, stating that the contract involves interstate commerce and, as a result, is subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), “a fact conspicuously absent in the majority opinion”. The dissent stated that federal law requires that unless the claim of unconscionability goes to the arbitration clause itself, the issue of enforceability must be resolved by the arbitrator, not by the courts. The majority construed the Warranties and Dispute Resolution provisions of the contract as comprising the arbitration agreement and thus circumvented controlling federal law, according to the dissent.

Since the property owners raised no challenges to the arbitration clause itself, the dissent would have required that the other challenges be resolved through arbitration.

In a case dated August 17***, the majority decision is written by Chief Justice Pleicones with Justice Kittredge concurring. (Do you see a pattern here?) This case involved a residential subdivision that had been built on property previously used as an industrial site. The developer had demolished and removed all visible evidence of the industrial site and removed underground pipes, valves and tanks.

The plaintiffs bought a “spec” home in the subdivision and later discovered on their property PVC pipes and a metal lined concrete box containing “black sludge”, which tested positive as a hazardous substance. The present lawsuit was brought, alleging the developer failed to disclose the property defects. The developer moved to compel arbitration.

Paragraph 21 of the purchase agreement stated that the purchaser had received and read a copy of the warranty and consented to its terms. The purchasers had been provided with a “Homeowner Handbook” containing the warranty.

The circuit court, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, found the arbitration clause was enforceable for two reasons:

  1. it was located within the warranty booklet, making its scope limited to claims under the warranty. The Supreme Court held that the plain and unambiguous language of the arbitration clause provides that all claims, including ones based in warranty, are subject to arbitration.
  2. The alleged outrageous tortious conduct of the developer in failing to disclose concealed contamination made the outrageous torts exception to arbitration enforcement applicable. The Supreme Court overruled all South Carolina cases that applied to outrageous torts exception, making that exception no longer viable in South Carolina.

The Supreme Court discussed the heavy presumption in favor of arbitration by the FAA and in the federal courts and the push to place arbitration agreements on equal footing with other contracts and enforce them in accordance with their terms.

SCORE30-15 in favor of arbitration

You won’t be surprised to learn that there was a dissent, this time by Acting Justice Toal, and a concurrence, by Justices Hearn and Beatty.

And remember that the CFPB recently announced a proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits.

SCORE:  30-all

All of these authorities affect matters involving dirt law. So the tennis match involving arbitration clauses in our area is still being played, and we will continue to watch!

*One Belle Hall Property Owners Association v. Trammell Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1, 2016)
** Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27643 (July 6, 2016)
*** Parsons v. John Wieland Homes, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27655 (August 17, 2016

It’s Tough to Nail Down the Treatment of Arbitration Clauses in Housing Cases

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Authorities disagree!

On June 7, this blog discussed a South Carolina Court of Appeals case* that held an arbitration clause in a roofing supplier’s warranty provision was not unconscionable. The lower court had ruled that the supplier’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the injured property owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms, which were actually contained in the packaging for the shingles.

The Court of Appeals indicated that the underlying sale was a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate terms. The Court found it significant that the packaging for the shingles contained a notation:  “Important: Read Carefully Before Opening” providing that if the purchaser is not satisfied with the terms of the warranty, then all unopened boxes should be returned. The Court pointed to the standard warranty in the marketplace that gives buyers the choice of keeping the goods or rejecting them by returning them for a refund, and blessed the arbitration provision.

In a residential construction case, the South Caroline Supreme Court appeared to take the opposite approach last week.**  A national residential construction company’s contract contained a number of “oppressive and one-side provisions”, including an attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability and a prohibition on awarding of money damages of any kind.  The Supreme Court held that the home purchasers lacked a meaningful ability to negotiate their contract, the only remedy through which appeared to be repair or replacement.

nailing roofJustices Kittredge and Pleicones dissented, stating that the contract involves interstate commerce and, as a result, is subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), “a fact conspicuously absent in the majority opinion”.  The dissent stated that federal law requires that unless the claim of unconscionability goes to the arbitration clause itself, the issue of enforceability must be resolved by the arbitrator, not by the courts. The majority construed the Warranties and Dispute Resolution provisions of the contract as comprising the arbitration agreement and thus circumvented controlling federal law, according to the dissent.

The property owners raised no challenges to the arbitration clause itself, so the dissent would have required that the other challenges be resolved through arbitration.

Consider the CFPB’s recently-announced proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits. That proposed rule can be read here and is the subject of May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It seems the authorities are all over the place on the issue of arbitration provisions affecting consumers in the housing arena. We will surely see more discussion on this topic!

 

*One Belle Hall Property Owners Association, Inc., v. Trammell Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1, 2016).

**Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27645 (July 6, 2016).

SC Supreme Court Expands Attorney Liability

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Erika Fabian, the niece of a wealthy South Carolina doctor brought suit against her uncle’s estate planning attorneys for professional negligence and breach of contract in Fabian v. Lindsay, 410 S.C. 475, 765 S.E.2d 132, an October 2014 case decided by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The case had been dismissed in the circuit court for failure to state a cause of action on the grounds that there was no attorney-client relationship and no privity.

The facts were viewed in the light most favorable to willand testamentMs. Fabian. She alleged that her uncle, Denis Fabian, had signed a trust agreement drafted by his attorneys when he was around 80 years old, leaving his wife, who was about 20 years younger, a life interest. Remainder beneficiaries included his wife’s two daughters from a prior marriage, Dr. Fabian’s one living brother, Eli Fabian, who was in his 70’s and not in good health, and two nieces, Miriam Fabian, Eli’s daughter, and Erika Fabian, the daughter of a predeceased brother.

Erika had been told by her uncle and his wife that when his wife passed away, one half of the estate would be distributed to Mrs. Fabian’s daughters, and the other half would be distributed to Dr. Fabian’s nieces.

Dr. Fabian died in early 2000, and his brother died a few weeks later. The trust was valued at approximately $13 million.

After Dr. Fabian’s death, his estate planners mailed a letter and two pages of the trust agreement to Ms. Fabian informing her that she would not be receiving anything from the estate. Instead, her cousin Miriam would inherit as Eli’s only heir. Erika alleged that a drafting error resulted in an unexpected windfall to her cousin.

gavel cashThe Court took a huge leap, joined the vast majority of states, and recognized causes of action, both in tort and contract, by a third-party beneficiary of an existing will or estate planning document against a lawyer whose drafting error defeats or diminishes the client’s intent. Recovery under either cause of action was limited to individuals named in the estate planning document or otherwise identified in the instrument by their status.

Interestingly, the Court stated that its decision did not place an undue burden on estate planning attorneys because it merely puts them in the same position as most other attorneys by making them responsible for their professional negligence.

Ms. Fabian had argued that an estate planning lawyer’s negligence impacts three potential classes of plaintiffs: (1) the client, who is deceased; (2) the client’s estate, which lacks a cause of action or damages or both; and (3) the intended beneficiaries, the only possible plaintiffs who might suffer harm. If no cause of action is available for the beneficiaries, the negligent drafting lawyer is effectively immune from liability.

Also interesting was the Court’s application of the new rule to cases on appeal as of the date of the opinion. In a separate opinion, Justice Pleicones stated that the new rule should only apply prospectively because this case creates new liability where formerly none existed.

While not technically a dirt case, real estate practitioners should take note of the court’s inclination to favor third-party beneficiaries and reflect whether the Justices’ thought process could affect our world.