With great power comes great responsibility

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Six sensational ways to stop cyber villains

Cybersecurity is job #1 for dirt lawyers. Even in our close-knit state, we hear of attacks every week. A lawyer’s office could easily be forced out of business by one of these evil attacks. In our office, we read everything printed on the topic, and I offer you the six best, simplest tips I’ve seen. The first five are from American Land Title Association, developed with the help of the FBI, and the sixth is from the South Carolina Bar.

  1. Call, don’t e-mail: Confirm all wiring instructions by phone before transferring funds. Use the phone number from the recipient’s website or business card.
  2. Be suspicious: It’s not common for the companies involved in real estate transactions to change wiring instructions and payment information. Use common sense, stay alert to things that don’t look or feel quite right in a transaction and use your “Spidey senses”!
  3. Confirm it all: Ask your bank to confirm not just the account number but also the name on the account before sending a wire.
  4. Verify immediately: Call the recipient to validate that the funds were received. Detecting that you sent the money to the wrong account within 24 hours gives you the best chance of recovering your money.
  5. Forward, don’t reply: When responding to an email, hit forward instead of reply, then start typing with a known email address. Criminals use email addresses that are similar to real ones. By typing email addresses you will make it easier to discover if a fraudster is after you.

Thank you, ALTA and FBI, for those great tips!

The best tip, by far, that I have seen comes from the South Carolina Bar.  This tip is not only excellent for avoiding cyber fraud, it’s a great way of avoiding mistakes of all kinds in real estate practices. Here it is:

  1. Give yourself and your staff permission to slow down! We know things are hot out there not only in terms of the weather but also in terms of the speed of closings. Many of us who weathered the financial downturn remember what it was like when things were hot in 2005 – 2007. Closing speed can be increased only so much without causing error after error. Remember illegal flips prior to the financial downturn?  How many of them could have been prevented if someone had stopped long enough to think or long enough to bounce the scenario off of a friendly title insurance company underwriter? The same is true of protecting your clients’ money. Stop and think and allow your staff members to spend the time to stop and think.

Thank you, South Carolina Bar, for this great tip.

And, finally, I strongly recommend insurance against cyber fraud. Check with your E&O carrier to see what it offers. If it does not offer insurance to protect against this danger, find a company that does!  Call your title insurance company for suggestions!

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CFPB Structure Held Unconstitutional in PHH Case

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Don’t get excited; this shouldn’t change much for SC dirt lawyers.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously on October 11 that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau allows its director to wield too much power.

This highly publicized case began when PHH Corp. was ordered by CFPB Director Richard Cordray to pay $109 million in restitution resulting from illegal kickbacks to mortgage insurers pursuant to Section 8 of RESPA. An administrative law judge had ordered a $6 million penalty at the trial level, but Director Cordray apparently wanted to set an example and ordered the “ill-gotten gains” to be disgorged. The trial court had limited the violations to loans that closed on or after July 21, 2008. Director Cordray applied the fines retroactively.

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PHH brought suit, arguing that the CFPB is unconstitutional because Director Cordray has the sole authority to issue final decisions, rendering the CFPB structure to be in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The petition stated, “Never before has so much authority been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from the President’s control and Congress’s power of the purse.” The petition argues that the Director is only removable for cause, distancing him from the power of the President, and is able to fund the agency from the Federal Reserve’s operating expenses, distancing him from Congress’s power to refuse funding.

The Court agreed. It wrote, “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency.”

The restriction that the Director can only be removed “for cause” was severed, giving the President the power to remove the Director at will. This decision effectively makes the CFPB an agency of the Executive Branch rather than an independent agency.

The Court did not agree with Director Cordray imposing the huge fine retroactively. The Court explained:

“Put aside all the legalese for a moment. Imagine that a police officer tells a pedestrian that the pedestrian can lawfully cross the street at a certain place. The pedestrian carefully and precisely follows the officer’s direction. After the pedestrian arrives at the other side of the street, however, the officer hands the pedestrian a $1,000 jaywalking ticket. No one would seriously contend that the officer had acted fairly or in a manner consistent with basic due process in that situation. Yet that’s precisely this case. Here, the CFPB is arguing that it has the authority to order PHH to pay $109 million even though PHH acted in reliance upon numerous government pronouncements authorizing precisely the conduct in which PHH engaged.”

It is not likely that this landmark decision will make any changes in our current closing practices. The Court stated specifically that the ongoing operations of the agency will not be affected. The Court vacated the CFPB’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings. We might also see an appeal. Regardless, the CFPB is still in charge of the closing process, and all the rules remain in place.

New Settlement Agent Communication from Wells Fargo

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Seller CD must be provided to Wells prior to disbursement

Wells Fargo communicated with its settlement agents (closing attorneys in South Carolina) by memo dated September 22. In case you missed it, you can read it in its entirety here.

The biggest news is that Wells will now require a copy of the seller Closing Disclosure along with the other documents required prior to disbursement. Apparently, receipt of the seller CD has been a challenge, necessitating the procedural modification.

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Another challenge has been the process for handling changes to the borrower’s CD. The memo stated that any changes known prior to closing, including changes to the closing numbers, the closing date and the disbursement date, must be communicated to the Wells Fargo closer.  Wells Fargo’s closer will provide an updated borrower CD and any other updated documents for closing.

Any changes detected at or post-closing should be communicated to:  SAPostClosingCommunications@wellsfargo.com.

The memo also discussed the phased rollout in progress for delivering training materials and other support for the use of Closing Insight™.  We encourage closing attorneys to read and comply with this information to avoid being left out when this process is fully implemented.

Feds Extend Footprint of Shell Game

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

Secretly purchasing expensive real estate continues to be a popular method for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

Early this year, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasurer issued an order that required the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

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At that time, the reach of the project extended to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies were required to disclose to the government the names of buyers who paid cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. The natural persons behind the legal entities had to be reported for any ownership of at least 25 percent in an affected property.

Now, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, will be involved, and the footprint of the project is being extended effective August 28.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds will be:

  • Borough of Manhattan, New York; $3 million;
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Borough of Staten Island, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Florida; $1 million;
  • Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Diego Counties, California; $2 million; and
  • Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas; $500,000.

Although the initial project was termed temporary and exploratory, FinCEN has indicated that the project is helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and is also informing future regulatory approaches.

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program may be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in money laundering schemes. We will keep a close watch on this program for possible expansion!

Old McDonald Had a Farm

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South Carolina Court of Appeals says partition actions in probate court require an open estate; sends action back to circuit court.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals held last week that probate courts in South Carolina have subject matter jurisdiction over partition actions only where open estates are involved.*

The dispute involved a farm in Darlington County originally owned by S.W. Byrd. Mr. Byrd died in 1923, and his estate was probated in Darlington County and finally closed in 1948. The estates of several of Mr. Byrd’s heirs were not subsequently probated, and in April of 2012, E. Butler McDonald filed an action for partition and the determination of heirs in the Darlington County Probate Court.

At that time, more than ten years had passed since the deaths of Mr. Byrd’s original heirs. Since §62-3-108 of the South Carolina Code establishes a time limitation of ten years after death for the administration of an estate, these estates could not be probated at the time Mr. McDonald filed his action.

farmlandThe Probate Court determined the heirs of S.K Byrd and their percentages of ownership. The Probate Court also found that no interested party had expressed a desire to purchase the property and that physical partition of the farm was impractical. The farm was ordered to be sold at a public auction, and Mr. McDonald’s reasonable attorneys’ fees were ordered to be paid.

On appeal by the other heirs, the Circuit Court affirmed. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the appellants made several arguments, but the Court of Appeals focused on subject matter jurisdiction. Section 62-3-911 of the South Carolina Code establishes the jurisdiction for probate courts and specifically states that an heir may petition the probate court for partition prior to the closing of an estate. Since it was clearly established at trial that S.K. Byrd’s estate was closed in 1948, an action to partition his farm should have been brought in the circuit court, according to the Court of Appeals. The probate court’s determination of heirs and their percentages of ownership was affirmed, but the order was vacated as to the remaining issues.

*Byrd v. McDonald, S.C. Court of Appeals Case 5409 (June, 8, 2016)

Upscale Mt. Pleasant Condo Project Subject of Arbitration Clause Dispute

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Court of Appeals sides with roofing supplier

The South Carolina Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 1 that will delight the drafters of corporate contracts who imbed arbitration clauses within their warranty provisions.  Whether the South Carolina Supreme Court will approve remains to be seen.

The dispute arises over the construction of One Belle Hall, an upscale condominium community in Mt. Pleasant. Tamko Building Products, Inc. was the supplier of the asphalt shingles for the community’s four buildings, and placed a mandatory binding arbitration clause within its warranty provision. The warranty purported to exclude all express and implied warranties and to disclaim liability for all incidental and consequential damages.

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At some point after construction was completed, the owners’ association determined that the buildings were affected by moisture damage, water intrusion and termite damage, all resulting from various alleged construction defects. The developer contacted Tamko to report a warranty claim on the roof shingles, contending they were blistering and defective.  Tamko sent the developer a “warranty kit”, requiring the claimant to provide proof of purchase, samples of the allegedly defective shingles and photographs. The developer failed to respond.

Two years later, the owners’ association filed a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of all owners, alleging defective construction against the community’s various developers and contractors. Tamko filed for a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration.

Circuit Court Judge J. C. Nicholson, Jr. denied the motion and ruled that Tamko’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the condominium owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms. The trial court held the arbitration clause to be unconscionable and unenforceable because of the cumulative effect of several oppressive and one-sided terms in the warranty.

The Court of Appeals begged to differ. It held that the circuit court erred in finding the arbitration clause in the warranty was unconscionable. It stated that our supreme court has made it clear that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The underlying sale of Tamko’s shingles was stated to be a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate warranty terms.

The court found it significant that the packaging 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.

The appellate court also found it significant that the arbitration clause did facilitate an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker and that the arbitration clause was separable from the warranty.

Consider the exact opposite approach of 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 a May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It’s interesting to see such different approaches by two authorities on an issue affecting consumers in the housing arena. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more to come from either ruling.

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

Beware of Cyberattacks on Free E-mail Services

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Think a client won’t sue for misdirected funds?  Think again!

domain securityE-mail services, even those with the tightest security possible, can be hacked. We have heard local stories, as close as Rock Hill and Charleston, of funds being misdirected by cybercriminals through intercepting e-mails and sending out fraudulent wiring instructions.

Law firms have taken action: encrypting e-mails, adding tag lines to emails warning that wiring instructions will not be changed, adding warning paragraphs to engagement letters, in addition to normal security efforts. Many offices now require confirmation of all wiring instructions by a telephone calls initiated internally. No verbal verification?  No wires!

Last month, an attorney in New York was sued by her clients in a cybercrime situation. This time, the property was a Manhattan co-op, and the funds amounted to a $1.9 million deposit. The lawsuit alleged that the attorney used an AOL e-mail account that welcomed hackers. The complaint stated that had the attorney recognized the red flags or attempted to orally confirm the proper receipt of the deposit, the funds would have been protected.

The old phrase “you get what you pay for” is definitely applicable in these situation. Attorneys who continue to use free email services are putting themselves and their clients at greater risk for cyberattacks. Criminals understand that free email services have low security against cyber-intrusion, so they naturally gravitate to those accounts for their dirty work.

I heard one expert say that free e-mail services are not only not secure, they are also unprofessional! Surely, lenders will soon look at this issue as they decide who will handle their closings.