SC Supreme Court deals with Rock Hill stormwater issue

Standard

Justice Few declares piping storm water under a house is “wrong”

I love a case where a separate opinion (usually a dissent) cuts to the chase and explains in a few words a multiple-page quagmire.  That’s what we have in Ray v. City of Rock Hill*, a case decided on August 4 by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Lucille Ray sued the City of Rock Hill for inverse condemnation, claiming her property was taken as a result of stormwater flowing through pipes under City streets into a terra cotta pipe that runs behind her property. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the City, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the City engaged in an affirmative, positive, aggressive act sufficient to support the inverse condemnation claim. The Supreme Court modified and affirmed that decision, remanding the case for a determination on that issue.

The facts are particularly interesting for dirt lawyers. Ray purchased her house on College Avenue in 1985. Before the house was built in the 1920s, someone—there is no record as to who—installed a 24-inch underground terra cotta pipe under the property. The property and the pipe are located at the topographical low point of a 29-acre watershed. Three stormwater pipes installed and owned by the City collect stormwater and transport it under various streets in the neighborhood. Stormwater runs through the pipe to a catch basin directly in front of Ray’s house. When the water reaches the catch basin, it is channeled under Ray’s house to the back of her property. The pipe has been channeling stormwater in this fashion for roughly 100 years although the record reflects no evidence of an easement.

You won’t be shocked that Ray’s property had a history of sinking and settling. In 1992, Ray saw her gardener fall waist-deep into a sinkhole. The house’s roof was subject to bending and movement. The steps on the front porch sank. In 2008, Ray contacted the City and was told about the pipe running under those steps. (This exchange supported the City’s claim that the statute of limitations had run on a damages claim.)

In 2012, Ray brought this action seeking inverse condemnation and trespass. Other relief was sought and the South Carolina Department of Transportation was added as a defendant, but those issues are not relevant to this appeal. Shortly after Ray brought the suit, the City began maintenance work on a sewer line beneath College avenue.

To get to the sewer line, the City had to dig up part of College Avenue in front of the property and to sever three stormwater pipes from the catch basin. The basis of the inverse condemnation claim is that the City’s reconnection of the pipes to the catch basin was an affirmative, positive, aggressive act. That issue was returned to the circuit court for determination.

Justice Few’s separate opinion (not categorized as a concurrence or a dissent) is cogent. He wrote to make two points. First, the City should not be piping stormwater under Ray’s house! It is wrong, he said, and he doesn’t care who built the pipe or whose fault it is that the house is sinking because of the water. “The City should do the right thing and fix the problem.”

Justice Few’s second point is that all wrongs are not subject to redress in our civil courts. To the extent Ray’s inverse condemnation theory is valid, he said, the taking occurred many years ago, either when the pipes were installed or when the deterioration of the pipes began to harm the property. He said it makes no difference that the pipes were reconnected in 2012. The effect of that act was to continue to run storm water under property Ray alleges had already been taken.

Justice Few concluded that there is simply no right of action available under an inverse condemnation theory and that the circuit court correctly dismissed that claim

I look forward to what happens next!

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28045, August 4, 2021

Rock Hill residential real estate lawyer gets five years in jail

Standard

Thankfully, it has been ten years or more since we’ve heard word “defalcation” used in connection with a South Carolina real estate lawyer. Sadly, we have to use that word in 2020 because a Rock Hill lawyer was arrested in 2019 after funds allegedly went missing from a residential closing.

That lawyer, Thomas Givens, was suspended by the South Carolina Supreme Court on September 25, 2019. Earlier this month, the 67-year old pled guilty for breach of trust and was sentenced to five years in prison, five years’ probation, and restitution. 

The closing took place on July 15, 2019 but the $166,000 mortgage payoff was never made. Two months later, Givens was arrested and charged with breach of trust over $10,000. The arrest warrant reads that Givens failed to make the mortgage payoff and does not have the funds.

We usually do not experience defalcations when the economy is good. With the economic downturn that began in 2007, we learned the difficult lesson that attorneys who are prone to dip into their trust accounts often manage to keep the balls in the air as long as closings continue to occur. They typically steal from one closing to fund another. They rob Peter to pay Paul.

Like a game of musical chairs, when the music (and closings) stop, bad actor attorneys no longer have closings to provide funds for prior transgressions, and the thefts come to light.

This time, the economy was good. There are simply no excuses. It is a very sad commentary, and one I hoped not to see again.

Rock Hill residential real estate lawyer arrested

Standard

businessman theif briefcase smaller

Thankfully, it has been ten years or more since we’ve heard word “defalcation” used in connection with a South Carolina real estate lawyer. Sadly, we have to use that word in 2019 because a Rock Hill lawyer was arrested on September 13 after funds allegedly went missing from a residential closing. That lawyer, Thomas Givens, was suspended by the South Carolina Supreme Court on September 25.

The closing took place on July 15, but the $166,000 mortgage payoff was never made. Two months later, Givens was arrested and charged with breach of trust over $10,000. The arrest warrant reads that Givens failed to make the mortgage payoff and does not have the funds.

We usually do not experience defalcations when the economy is good. With the economic downturn that began in 2007, we learned the difficult lesson that attorneys who are prone to dip into their trust accounts often manage to keep the balls in the air as long as closings continue to occur. They typically steal from one closing to fund another. They rob Peter to pay Paul.

Like a game of musical chairs, when the music (and closings) stop, bad actor attorneys no longer have closings to provide funds for prior transgressions, and the thefts come to light.

It is a very sad commentary, and one I hoped not to see again.

Goodbye old friend

Standard

And hello 2017!

I bought a car on the first business day of 2017.

For most folks, buying a car is not a big deal, but I am definitely not a car person!  I drove my mother’s last car for almost eleven years after her death in 2006 and was embarrassed to shed a few tears at the dealership when I sentimentally traded it in on January 2. That car has 200,000 miles on its odometer! It’s still in great running condition, and I hope it finds a good home with someone, maybe a teenager, who needs safe and inexpensive transportation. Before my mother’s car, I drove a car I bought from a deceased friend’s estate. Are you detecting a pattern in my vehicular history?  Until this week, no car dealership had made a dime on me in the past 15 years!

My colleague and friend, Tom Dunlop, on the other hand, is definitely a car person. He currently drives a bright red late model Mercedes which he will upgrade this spring for the mere reason that two years have passed. His dealership loves him! In addition to trading every two years, Tom takes donuts to the staff when his car is serviced. What a nice guy! We’ve enjoyed that shiny red Mercedes as our lunch vehicle and can’t wait to see what Tom decides will be our new fancy ride in the spring.

new-year-new-startWhy is this car talk relevant to dirt law in 2017? It’s relevant because our success in the housing industry this year may depend on whether Americans and specifically South Carolinians are really home ownership people.

There are some reasons for concern. Interest rates are climbing. The mortgage interest rate deduction is under attack in Congress. The future of the CFPB may be precarious under the new administration and because of pending litigation challenging its constitutionality.  Some financial advisers are recommending renting as a better economic alternative for many Americans. Some retirees are being advised to sell the large homes where they raised their families in exchange for nifty, low-maintenance town homes, condominiums and even rental apartments.

But unlike my personal lack of thirst for new cars, I believe many Americans and many South Carolinians have an enduring thirst for new and upgraded residences. And I believe their thirst is most often quenched only by purchasing those residences. We have been taught that home ownership is an excellent investment vehicle coupled with a tax advantage. This advice goes back several generations. This wisdom is so ingrained that the counsel to retirees to rent shocked me! I had to read it from several sources to believe it was serious and sound advice for some folks.

And, thankfully, the economy is continuing to improve. Zillow is reporting that the U.S. housing market has regained all the value it lost during the housing crisis. South Carolina is particularly poised for success. Charleston is one of the fastest growing markets in the country. Hilton Head is digging out and rebuilding from Hurricane Matthew. The Rock Hill/Fort Mill area is growing toward Charlotte rapidly. It is impossible to ride around Myrtle Beach, Greenville and even Columbia without dodging construction activity. My own office’s numbers have improved during 2016, and I budgeted up for 2017. I suspect most South Carolina dirt lawyers are looking for a better year in 2017 than in 2016 assuming they can maintain their momentum and sustain the excellent staffing that momentum requires.

I am optimistic!  Here’s hoping Americans and South Carolinians continue to be home ownership people. And here’s hoping 2017 is a healthy, happy and prosperous year for you!