How to employ a suspended lawyer

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Supreme Court offers guidance

Have you ever wanted to hire your suspended lawyer buddy?  What if your best friend from law school gets suspended and is desperate for work?  What if she is a great title abstractor? Now you can, under limited circumstances, hire her, and if you’re careful, you’ll keep your own license safe.

In February of 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court softened its long-standing rule barring lawyers from employing disbarred or suspended lawyers, directly or indirectly, in any capacity. Under the former version of Rule 34* a lawyer without a current license could not be employed as a paralegal, investigator or in any capacity connected with a law practice.

Rule 34 was amended in 2015 to allow the employment of a lawyer suspended from practice for less than nine months under limited circumstances. The new version of Rule 34 allows these suspended lawyers to engage in:

  • Clerical legal research and writing, including document drafting, library or online database research, and searching titles, including obtaining information in the recording office; and
  • non law-related office tasks, including but not limited to, building and grounds maintenance, personal errands for employees, computer and network maintenance, and marketing or design support.

These suspended lawyers who are employed by a lawyer or law firm are forbidden from:

  • Practicing law in any form;
  • Having contact or interaction with clients, former clients or potential clients;
  • Soliciting prospective clients;
  • Handling client funds or trust accounting;
  • Holding himself or herself out as a lawyer; or
  • Continuing employment with the lawyer, law firm, or any other entity where the misconduct resulting in the suspension occurred.

The suspended lawyer must be supervised by a lawyer in good standing, and the two must submit a written plan to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct to outline the scope of the employment, anticipated assignments and procedures in place to insure no further misconduct.

After the amendment of Rule 34, the South Carolina Bar filed a petition with the Supreme Court to amend Rule 5.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, to detail the responsibilities of a supervising lawyer who elects to employ a suspended lawyer. By its order dated May 17, 2017, the Court adopted the Bar’s proposal and amended Rule 5.3 in addition to Rule 5.1.  You can read the entire order here.

If you have a heart of gold and want to help out a friend down on his luck, you now have the Court’s blessing and guidance. But, use caution and meticulously follow the rules to avoid finding yourself in your friend’s unfortunate position!

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Court decides timeshare owners can sue developers

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Real Estate Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction

The South Carolina Supreme Court, answering questions certified to it by the Federal District Court, held last week that the South Carolina Real Estate Commission (REC) does not have exclusive jurisdiction to determine violations of the South Carolina Vacation Time Sharing Plans Act.*

The Court also stated that the REC’s determination of a violation of the Time Act** is not a condition precedent to a private cause of action to enforce the Act and that the determinations of the REC are not binding on the courts.

These questions arose from two sets of litigation in the federal court involving individuals who entered into contracts with developers to purchase timeshare interests.

One set of plaintiffs, the Fullbrights, brought a purported class action against a timeshare developer, Spinnaker Resorts, Inc., seeking the return of money paid under a contract to purchase, plus interest, as well as a declaration that the contract was invalid.

The other set of plaintiffs, the Chenards, brought suit against another timeshare developer, Hilton Head Island Development Co., LLC, alleging fraud, negligent representation and violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act as well as violations of the Timeshare Act.

In answering the questions, the Supreme Court stated that it was not taking any positions on the merits of the cases, which remain under the jurisdiction of the federal court.

The Court found that §27-32-130 unambiguously allows for lawsuits by stating that the provisions of the Act do not limit the right of a purchaser to bring a private cause of action. The developers had argued that this statute is ambiguous and that public policy evidenced by the Timeshare Act as a whole requires the REC’s jurisdiction to be exclusive.

These determinations will no doubt clear the way for class action lawsuits against timeshare developers.

 

* Fullbright v. Hilton Head Island Development Co., LLC, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 27220 (May 17, 2017).

** S.C Code §27-32-10 et seq.

Multi-state mortgage modification practice may be hazardous to your law license!

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Last week, this blog discussed two April 19 South Carolina Supreme Court cases* in the context of the social media issues they raised. This week, I want to point out the mortgage modification issues, which were, no doubt, the impetus for the discipline in both cases.

Let’s look at the facts in the first case, In the Matter of Bacon. In November of 2012, attorney Brunty hired INMN, Inc., a marketing company, to solicit out-of-state clients interested in modifying their home mortgages. Brunty hired Integrity Partners, LLC to process the loan modifications. Brunty was suspended and later disbarred.

Brunty introduced Bacon to a principal in Integrity, who assured Bacon that Integrity and INMN were complying with federal laws and regulations and had a network of attorneys licensed to practice in every state where clients were accepted. Bacon accepted those assurances and hired INMN and Integrity. (Two people who’ve read this blog asked me about the relationship between Bacon and Brunty. I don’t know. The Court did not specify.)

Handling the former Brunty cases did not go smoothly, to say the least. Integrity continued to work on those cases without attorney involvement. Integrity employees incorrectly advised many of Brunty’s clients that their files had been assigned to Bacon. Some of Brunty’s clients became Bacon’s clients, but some did not. Some of Brunty’s clients’ credit cards were charged fees that were paid to Bacon.

Bacon admitted that he violated federal rules against unfair or deceptive acts or practices in respect to the mortgage modification matters.

The FTC’s “Regulation O” places a number of restrictions on mortgage modification services. For example, a provider may accept a fee only after the client has executed a written agreement with the lender or servicer. Attorneys are exempt from this rule if they are licensed to practice in the state where the home is located as long as they hold advance fees in trust accounts and comply with trust accounting rules.

Bacon was not licensed to practice in all jurisdictions, so he was not authorized to accept any up-front fees. He also failed to deposit the fees into a trust account, failed to maintain separate ledgers for these clients, and failed to properly supervise the individuals who had access to the accounts.

The Court stated Bacon was involved in the unauthorized practice of law in several states. He was suspended from the practice for six months and ordered to pay restitution to clients.

In the second case, In the Matter of Emery, the attorney received a public reprimand. In 2013 Emery signed a contract with Friedman Law, a New York law firm, to accept referrals for mortgage modification cases. Emery received client referrals from an internet marketing company and paid for the service based on the potential number of clients referred to her. Regardless of the residence of potential clients, cases would be assigned to Emery as a part of the Friedman Law network.

Non-lawyers employed by Friedman Law or two paralegal services worked the cases. The non-lawyers included Emery Law in their signature blocks and used Emery Law letterhead. Other than the fact that some of the non-lawyers employed by one of the paralegal services worked in Emery’s office, she did not directly supervise the work.

For the most part, the non-lawyers worked diligently, but six clients filed disciplinary cases because of some issue or complication resulting in client dissatisfaction.

The Court stated that the written fee agreements in these cases were confusing and self-congratulatory and often contradicted the verbal communications of the non-lawyers.

The non-lawyers sometimes wrongly held themselves out as employees of Emery Law. Clients never knew whether they were dealing with employees of Emery Law, Friedman Law, a firm in the Friedman Law network or one of the paralegal services.

Interestingly, in 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that lenders do not engage in the practice of law when they handle mortgage modification transactions.** In the present case, however, the Court stated that assisting clients in mortgage modification matters is the practice of law in South Carolina when performed by a lawyer.

Friedman Law represented to Emery that assisting clients in mortgage modifications is not the practice of law and that its network of lawyers in other states satisfied the requirements of multijurisdictional practice.

The Court stated that regardless of whether a particular state had adopted a rule permitting multijurisdictional practice and regardless of whether the particular state had determined that loan modification assistance was the practice of law, the fee agreements repeatedly referred to the services as “legal services”. In other words, the clients believed they were being represented by an attorney.

The Court said that Emery was involved in the systematic and continuous presence in other states, which constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

Accepting mortgage modification cases across state lines may be possible in certain circumstances, but these cases are obviously fraught with hazards. DO NOT accept these cases without carefully examining the federal and state laws involved in each situation and without carefully supervising each person who touches the cases. The best advice may be to never accept these cases when they involve properties located outside of South Carolina.

 

*In the Matter of Bacon, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27710, April 19, 2017; In the Matter of Emery, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27712, April 19, 2017.

**Crawford v. Central Mortgage Co. and Warrington v. Bank of America, 404 S.C. 39, 744 S.E.2d 538 (2013)

SC Supreme Court publishes new commentary on social media

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Real estate lawyers are involved in two disciplinary cases

Two disciplinary cases* were published by the South Carolina Supreme Court on April 19 concerning lawyers involved in multi-state mortgage modification practices. Stay tuned for a blog on the mortgage modification issues because Palmetto State dirt lawyers should steer clear of the unauthorized practice of law and other prickly issues these practices may trigger.

But ostensibly even more pressing, the Court provided ample guidance on lawyer marketing in the context of social media. Using websites and social media in marketing effort is common in 2017 for most lawyers.

The lawyers in these cases failed to adequately monitor the individuals (staff members and third parties) who handled these marketing efforts for their practices.  Failure to properly supervise these effort resulted in running afoul of the Rules of Professional Responsibility.

Dirt lawyers, here are some practices you should avoid taking in your marketing efforts:

  • You should not “cut and paste” from other lawyers’ websites without scrutinizing the materials.
  • If you are a sole practitioner, your website and other marketing materials should not indicate your practice includes “attorneys” or “lawyers”.
  • You should not exaggerate your years of experience.
  • You should not use the word “expert” except in those areas where you are certified as a specialist by the Supreme Court.
  • You should not advertise practice areas where you have no experience in those areas and where you do not intend to take cases in those areas.
  • You should not congratulate clients on their closings without obtaining the clients’ permission to post their names and other information about their legal matters on social media. I see (and “like”) lots of these congratulatory messages on Facebook, and these messages are not objectionable if the lawyer has obtained the clients’ consent.
  • Your marketing materials should not refer to your legal services as “best”.
  • You should not advertise special discounted rates for legal services without disclosing whether or not these rates include anticipated costs.
  • You should not compare your services to other attorneys in ways that cannot be factually substantiated.
  • You should not allow third party vendors to identify themselves as employees of your firm when communicating with prospective clients.

Not many of us are “experts” in the area of attorney advertising, but I strongly recommend that you pay close attention to the Rules in all aspects of website development and social media use. Unlike most areas of the law, the Rules of Professional Responsibility that control advertising appear to be somewhat “black and white”. And failure to follow these Rules will anger your fellow lawyers and will likely to land you in the Advance Sheets. Be careful out there!

 

In the Matter of Bacon, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27710, April 19, 2017; In the Matter of Emery, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27712, April 19, 2017.

SC Dirt lawyers: check your documents

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SC Supreme Court issues opinion that may keep us up at night!

Are the words “developed” and “improved” used interchangeably in your form real estate documents?  You might want to pull your documents to check based on a recent South Carolina Supreme Court case.*

The Supreme Court affirmed a Court of Appeals decision finding property had not been developed into discrete lots entitling them to voting rights under a set of restrictive covenants. While the two courts agreed on that determinative point, the Supreme Court felt the need to clarify the Court of Appeals’ opinion that may be read to “conflate” the terms “developed” and “improved”. (The only word that was unclear to me was “conflate”, which I now know means to combine two or more concepts into one.)

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The Supreme Court cited a 2007 Washington state opinion for the definition of “developed”: conversion of raw land into an area suiting for building, residential or business purposes. Improving land is subject to a higher threshold, according to the Court, and would require such actions as installing utilities or buildings.

Chief Justice Pleicones and Justice Few concurred, and the Chief wrote a separate opinion for the sole purpose of expressing concern that dictating the meanings of the terms “developed” and “improved” may inadvertently alter the meaning of documents or create a conflict with legislative enactments. He used a subsection of a statute dealing with mechanics’ liens as an example.

South Carolina Code Section 29-6-10 (2) contains the following definition of “Improve”:

 “Improve means to build, effect, alter, repair, or demolish any improvement upon, connected with, or on or beneath the surface of any real property, or to excavate, clear, grade, fill or landscape any real property, or to construct driveways and roadways, or to furnish materials, including trees and shrubbery, for any of these purposes, or to perform any labor upon these improvements, and also means and includes any design or other professional or skilled services furnished by architects, engineers, land surveyors and landscape architects.”

That definition is written as broadly as possible to protect the interests of any professional who provides labor or services in connection with developing, I mean improving, real estate.

The underlying Court of Appeals opinion** indicated that platting separate lots on paper without further steps did not rise to the level of the term “develop”, which, according to the Supreme Court, is a lower threshold than the term “improve”, which, according to the statute, includes platting. Do you see the Chief’s concern? I certainly do! Good luck with those documents!

*Hanold v. Watson’s Orchard Property Owners Association, Inc, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27702 (February 15, 2017)

**Hanold v. Watson’s Orchard Property Owner’s Association, 412 S.C. 387, 772 S.E.2d 528 (2016)

Could Efforts to Modernize Mortgage Practice Lead to Changes in SC Law?

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Reuters reports on a “patchwork of state laws” that hinder efforts.

In an article dated September 9, Reuters reports that the practice of notarizing documents, which dates back “at least to Ancient Rome” is becoming “passé” in the era of FaceTime, Skype and live-streamed social media. South Carolina real estate lawyers might want to take deep breaths and read the article, which is linked here

South Carolina practitioners are banking on State v. Buyers Service, our seminal case from 1987 holding that closings are the practice of law, to keep us in the closing business. Buyers Service is still good law in South Carolina and has been cited favorably many times and as late as this year.

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There have been some hints, however, in our long line of “UPL” cases that some of our current Supreme Court Justices may not be as committed to our strong rule as some of the prior Justices have been. (I hope that comment was vague enough to keep me out of trouble if I encounter any of the current or former Justices at a cocktail party. Please notice citations are purposefully missing.)

The South Carolina Supreme Court has repeated in almost every case on point that the purpose of requiring lawyers to be involved in closings is to protect consumers. The Reuters article suggests that the effort to modernize mortgages would also protect consumers. One borrower in the story, a civilian paramedic at a military base in Kuwait, was forced to fly 6,500 miles to buy a house in Virginia. Webcam notaries would cut expenses for lenders, notaries and borrowers, the article suggests.

Are the two efforts to protect consumers diametrically opposed? No doubt, South Carolina lawyers could be on one end of the webcams. I encourage all of us to read the news and to pay attention to how closings happen in other parts of the country and to continually think of ways to modernize our practices.  Keeping up with technology can only contribute toward keeping a real estate practitioner in the closing game.

A Certain Path to Disbarment:

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Fake a title insurance agency and ignore a real estate practice!

In the Matter of Samaha* is a South Carolina Supreme Court attorney disciplinary case that resulted in disbarment.

This lawyer was creative; you have to give him that!

For starters, he witnessed and notarized the signature of his client’s late wife, who had died seven years earlier. He typed, witnessed and notarized a revocation of a durable power of attorney for an 83 year old retired paralegal with cognitive and physical limitations.

Perhaps the most interesting violations, however, had to do with the title insurance. (What? It’s tough to make title insurance interesting. Trust me. I try and fail on a daily basis. This stuff is only interesting to title nerds like me!)

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A relationship with a title insurance company is essential to a real estate practice in South Carolina. The closing attorney must either be in a position to issue his own title insurance commitments and policies as an agent, or to certify to a title insurance company as an approved attorney to obtain those documents.

Consider the activities of  Mr. Breckenridge, the lawyer who was publicly reprimanded this spring for allowing non-attorney entities to control his real estate practice.** During oral arguments, he stated that he preferred to handle closings in the customary manner in South Carolina, where the attorney acts as agent for a title insurance company as well as closing attorney. But he had been suspended by the Supreme Court for a short time and, as a result, had been canceled as an agent by his title insurance company. He said he was then forced to work for an entity that hires lawyers to attend closings only.  When a problem arose with the disbursement of one of those closings, he found himself in front of the Supreme Court again.

Mr. Samaha had also been canceled by his title insurance companies. That did not stop him and his staff from proceeding full steam ahead with closings in the customary manner.  Although he originally denied any knowledge that documents had been forged in his office, he ultimately admitted that closing protection letters had been forged and issued to lenders.

A mortgage lender later uncovered not only forged closing protection letters, but also forged title insurance commitments and policies. It was not possible for Mr. Samaha to obtain any of these documents legitimately during this timeframe, because his status had been canceled as an approved attorney as well as an agent. The Court commented that, absent the forgeries of these documents, the lawyer’s real estate practice could not have functioned.

(This is not the first disbarred lawyer in South Carolina to have included the forgery of title insurance documents in his repertoire of misdeeds.***)

The Court stated that Mr. Samaha allowed his staff to, in effect, run his office. He failed to supervise them and failed to supervise and review closing documents.  He, in effect, completely ignored his real estate practice.


He also committed professional violations of a more mundane but equally scary nature. For example, he made false and misleading statements on the application for his professional liability insurance.

red card - suitHe failed to pay off four mortgages. By his own calculations, the loss was more than $200,000, but the Office of Disciplinary Counsel stated that his financial records and computers had been destroyed, making it impossible to prove the true extent of the financial mismanagement and misappropriation.  Apparently, the money from new closings was used to fund prior closings, up until the date of Mr. Samaha’s suspension from the practice of law.

 

*In the Matter of Samaha, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27660 (August 24, 2016)

** In the Matter of Breckenridge, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27625 (April 20, 2016)

*** In the Matter of Davis, 411 S.C. 209, 768 S.E.2d 206 (2015)