SC dirt lawyers sued for email funds diversion by a third-party criminal

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This is the first suit of this type I’ve seen. I’m confident it won’t be the last!

A dirt lawyer friend sent a copy to me of a hot-off-presses lawsuit filed in a circuit court in South Carolina against a closing law firm because the purchaser’s $50,000 in closing funds were diverted by a third-party criminal posing in an email exchange as the transaction’s real estate agent. My friend said he sent the case for my information. I think he sent it so I wouldn’t sleep!

Here are the facts as recited in the complaint. The names are being changed to protect all parties.

Paul and Penny Purchaser signed an Attorney Preference Form on March 28, 2017, selecting Ready and Able, LLC as their legal counsel for the purchase of a residential home and the closing of a purchase money mortgage with Remedy Mortgage, LLC.

On April 10, Paul and Penny Purchaser received Ready and Able, LLC’s “Purchaser’s Information Sheet” which required Paul and Penny to pay all closing funds over $500 to Ready and Able, LLC by wire transfer. The complaint states that these were silent as to the security of wire transfers, the security of private information to be conveyed between the purchasers and the law firm, and the security or lack of security of the use of email for closing information.

Also on April 10, Penny Purchaser telephoned the law firm and spoke with paralegal, Candy Competent, providing her with the purchasers’ Social Security numbers. The complaint states that Ms. Competent accepted the information and provided no wiring information or warnings.

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The complaint states that on April 14, Paul Purchaser received what purported and reasonably appeared to be an email from Regina Realtor, their real estate agent for the transaction, asking Mr. and Mrs. Purchaser to wire closing funds in the amount of $48,490.31 that day so that the closing scheduled for April 21 would not be delayed. Penny Purchaser replied to the email requesting wiring instructions. An attachment purporting to be wiring instructions for Ready and Able, LLC. was sent via reply email.  The complaint states that the wiring instructions reasonably appeared to be the correct wiring instructions for the law firm and appeared to be printed on law firm letterhead. This email exchange was actually with a third-party criminal.

Later on April 14, Penny Purchaser telephoned Candy Competent and requested the amount needed to close. Ms. Competent discussed the amount needed to close despite the fact, according to the complaint, that she knew or should have known that the law firm had not sent wiring instructions to the purchasers or the real estate agent.

On April 17, Ms. Competent sent an email to Mrs. Purchaser advising her to add $550 to the funds due to close to cover a survey bill that came in on April 14. No mention was made of wiring instructions in that email. The email also did not discuss the fact that the law firm had not yet provided an amount to close to the purchasers or to the real estate agent. Mrs. Purchaser wired $49,015.31 using the wiring instructions provided by the third-party criminal.

On April 21, Paul and Penny Purchaser learned for the first time that the wiring instructions were the work of a criminal third party, who received the funds and has failed to return the funds.

The complaint states two causes of action, negligence and legal malpractice, and lists the following breaches of duty committed by the law firm:

  • Requiring the plaintiffs to use wire closing funds to defendant, without counseling the plaintiffs about the methods by which the secure delivery of such funds could be compromised;
  • Failing to counsel the plaintiffs about the risks and insecurity of email communications, particularly of private, sensitive, or financial closing information; and
  • Failing to be alerted by the circumstances of Mrs. Purchaser’s telephone call on April 14, and therefore to warn her that no communication had been sent by the law firm.

Is this, in fact, negligence or legal malpractice?  We will have to wait to see.  Would the processes established by your law firm for the protection of your clients’ funds prevent this type of crime? That is the question of the day. Please discuss among yourselves!

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SC Court Effectively Extends Statute of Limitations for Legal Malpractice

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Epstein case is overruled

SC Supreme Court LogoA car dealership case against a law firm provided the South Carolina Supreme Court the opportunity to reverse its prior ruling on the point in time the three-year statute of limitations begins to run in a legal malpractice case. Interestingly, retired Chief Justice Toal’s dissent in the earlier case was adopted. The new bright-line rule in South Carolina is that the statute of limitations does not begin to run in a legal malpractice case that is appealed until the appellate court disposes of the action by sending a remittitur to the trial court.

The current case, Stokes-Craven Holding Corp. v. Robinson*, involved a negligence suit against a law firm that was dismissed at summary judgment based on the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations.  The automobile dealership had been sued by a consumer who discovered the vehicle he purchased had sustained extensive undisclosed damage prior to his purchase.  After an adverse jury verdict which was affirmed on appeal, the dealership sued its lawyer, arguing that the lawyer, among other matters, failed to adequately investigate the facts in the case, failed to conduct adequate discovery, and failed to settle the case despite the admission by the dealership that it had “done something wrong”.

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The lower court, following precedent, found that the dealership knew or should have known it had a legal malpractice claim against its trial counsel on the date of the adverse jury verdict.  A 2005 South Carolina Supreme Court case, Epstein v. Brown **, had held just that, despite the fact that the claimant in the earlier case, like the current case, had filed an appeal.

Epstein represented a minority position in the country, according to the current case. A majority of states have adopted the “continuous-representation rule”, which permits the statute of limitations to be tolled during the period an attorney continues to represent the client on the matter out of which the alleged legal malpractice arose.  In Stokes-Craven, our Court continued to reject the continuous-representation rule, finding that rule to be problematic because its application may be unclear under some factual scenarios.  Our Court looked to existing appellate court rules to the effect that an appeal acts as an automatic stay as to the judgment in the lower court. In other words, if the claimant appeals the matter in which the alleged malpractice occurred, any basis for the legal malpractice cause of action is stayed while the appeal is pending.

The Court stated that its new bright-line rule is consistent with the discovery rule which states that an action must be commenced within three years of the time a person knew or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that he or she had a cause of action.  A client either knows or should know that a cause of action arises out of the attorney’s alleged malpractice if an appeal is unsuccessful.

Chief Justice Pleicones dissented, stating he would adhere to the discovery rule adopted in Epstein and reverse the trial court’s order granting summary judgment because there are unresolved genuine issues of material fact making that relief inappropriate.

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27572 (May 24, 2016)

** 363 S.C. 381, 610 S.E.2d 816 (2005)