Supreme Court calls Awendaw’s annexation efforts “nefarious conduct”

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Conduct results in standing for challengers

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The Town of Awandaw’s annexation of a ten-foot wide, 1.25 mile-long parcel of land within beautiful Francis Marion National Forest was challenged by two individuals and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in a recent South Carolina Supreme Court case.*

The sole question before the Court was whether the challengers had standing to contest the annexation in a case where the “100 percent method” of annexation is used, meaning all property owners petition the municipality to have their property annexed.

The case involved three parcels of land serving as links in a chain necessary to satisfy the contiguity requirement of annexation. The first link is the ten-foot strip managed by the United States Forest Service. The second link is owned by the Mt. Nebo AME Church, and the third link is approximately 360 acres of unimproved real estate surrounded by the National Forest on three sides and owned by Defendant EBC, LLC.

In the fall of 2003, the Town sought to annex the ten-foot strip which required a petition signed by the Forest Service. Town representatives sent the Forest Service four letters seeking approval. Through verbal discussions, the Town learned the Forest Service was opposed to annexations because of their impact on the Service’s ability to conduct controlled fire burns. Additionally, the Forest Service indicated any petition would have to come from Washington, D.C., officials, a process that might take several years.

The Town annexed the property anyway in 2004, relying on a 1994 letter from a Forest Service representative, stating it had “no objection” to annexing several strips of property in the same vicinity. However, the Town had previously stated that it realized this letter was unclear.

In 2009, EBC, LLC requested that Awendaw annex its property, and the Town passed an ordinance annexing that property and simultaneously rezoning it as a “planned development” to permit residential and commercial development. In annexing the EBC property, the Town relied on the ten-foot National Forest strip as well as the church property. Without either component, there would be no contiguity and annexation would be impossible.

In November of 2009, the petitioners filed a complaint against the Town and EBC alleging, among other things, that the Town lacked authority to annex the ten-foot strip of National Forest property because the Forest Service never submitted an annexation petition. The Town and EBC moved for partial summary judgment contending the petitioners lacked standing and that the statute of limitations had run.

At trial, a surveyor testified that the 1994 Forest Service letter referred to a different strip of land. The Town’s administrator responded that the Town had used the 1994 letter at least seven times, and that he believed the letter incorporated the property in question. The petitioners testified they were concerned about potential harm caused by developing the property, including damage to unique species of animals. They testified that they were also concerned that the proposed development would threaten the Forest Service’s ability to conduct the controlled burns necessary to maintain the health of the forest.

The trial court found that the petitioners had standing and concluded that the annexations were void because the Town never received the required petition from the Forest Service. The Court of Appeals concluded that the petitioners lacked standing.

In analyzing the standing issue, the South Carolina Supreme Court discussed its prior cases that held “non-statutory parties” (meaning, non-property owners of the annexed properties) lacked standing to challenge a purportedly unauthorized annexation. Those cases, however, were premised on good faith attempts by annexing bodies, according to the Court.

The opinion at hand stated that the Court did not believe the General Assembly intended in establishing the statutory framework for annexation to preclude standing where there is a credible allegation that the annexing body engaged in “deceitful conduct”. The Court held that a party that can demonstrate the annexing body engaged in “nefarious conduct” has standing to challenge the annexation.

The Court also discussed the public importance exception to the standing rule. This exception states that standing may be found when an issue is of such public importance as to require its resolution for future guidance. The Court stated that the petitioners had satisfied the “future guidance” prong of the public importance exception because the Town had used the 1994 letter numerous times and fully intended to use it again.

The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals to address the Towns’ remaining arguments.

*Vacary v. Town of Awendaw, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 27855 (December 19, 2018).

Lawyers: be careful with client documents

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You and your staff can’t “fix” them

paperwork confusion

A recent disciplinary case from the South Carolina Supreme Court involved a document problem in a child custody case, but the case reminded me of an area that can create difficulties for real estate lawyers. The case, In re Robinson*, resulted in a definite suspension of nine months for a lawyer who submitted a sworn affidavit to a family court purportedly signed by the client and notarized by the lawyer. After the attorney-client relationship was dissolved, the client informed the court that the affidavit was forged. The client indicated that she had no knowledge of the affidavit when it was filed but contents of the affidavit were true.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. A deadline approached. An affidavit was needed. The client was unavailable. The lawyer decided “no harm no foul” and “fixed” the document problem with an affidavit that spoke the truth but that was not signed by the client.

How does this case translate to real estate? Closing attorneys and their staff members are often tempted to correct errors in executed documents by replacing pages or typing or writing directly on them, both before and after recording. Some practitioners assume that if they can locate the original document after recording, they can simply “fix” it and re-record it. This assumption is incorrect. The documents belong to the parties to the transaction. Lawyers and their staff members cannot revise and re-record documents without party participation.

Changes in documents should be accompanied, at the very least, by the initials of the signatories. Perhaps more often, new documents should be signed, witnessed, notarized and re-recorded. Substantial changes may require more formal corrective measures, such as a deed back from the grantee and a corrective deed from the grantor.

Closing attorneys and their staff members sometimes attempt to correct documents with the participation of only the seller or borrower when actual correction of the problem may require the participation of the buyer or lender. For example, a developer’s deed mistakenly refers to Lot 1, when the closing involved Lot 2. It is not sufficient to correct this problem by having the seller sign a corrective deed using the legal description for Lot 2. The buyer should reconvey Lot 1 to the seller, and the seller should then convey Lot 2 to the buyer. Similarly, if Lot 1 was mortgaged in this closing, the lender should release Lot 1, and Lot 2 should be substituted by way of a corrective mortgage or mortgage modification.

Like the lawyer in the disciplinary case, real estate lawyers and their staff members may believe the adage “no harm no foul” comes into play when a mistake is found in a document. To stay out of the Advance Sheets, resist the impulse to “fix” client documents acting alone. And train your staff to resist similar impulses.

 

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27824 (July 11, 2018)

Welcome to The Hotel California*

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You can resign; but you can never stop paying dues

 

hotel california

A recent South Carolina Supreme Court case deals with whether the governing documents of a Beaufort County development, Callawassie Island, unambiguously require equity members to continue paying expenses after resignation.** The trial court and Supreme Court found no ambiguities. The Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Hearn disagreed.

In 1999, Ronnie and Jeanette Dennis purchased a home on Callawassie Island for $590,000 and joined a private club known as the Callawassie Island Club, paying $31,000 to become “equity members”. The governing documents in place at the time of the purchase provided that an equity member who resigns will be obligated to continue to pay dues and food and beverage minimums to the Club until the equity membership is reissued.

In 2010***, Mr. and Mrs. Dennis decided to resign their membership in the club but to retain ownership of their home. They sent a letter of resignation to the club and stopped making all payments. At that time, the required payments included $634 monthly as membership dues, $100 monthly in special assessments, and $1,000 yearly in food and beverage minimums.

The governing documents were amended many times over the years, and the dissent argued that the controlling documents at issue in the case could not even be identified by the Club. The Supreme Court held, however, that all versions of the documents contained the language requiring the continued payments.

Mr. and Mrs. Dennis argued, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that the Club’s interpretation violates §33-31-620 of the South Carolina Nonprofit Corporation Act which provides that a member of a nonprofit corporation may resign at any time. The Supreme Court pointed to subsection (b) of that statute, however, which states that a resignation does not relieve the member from any obligations incurred prior to the resignation. The dissent said the majority’s interpretation effectively eliminates any meaningful right of resignation.

The dissent called the majority’s result “harsh” and stated that taking the majority’s view to its “logical end”, the monetary obligations to the club would extend beyond a member’s lifetime. The majority stated that they were not deciding whether the governing documents could support perpetual liability. The emphasis was provided by the Court.

The Supreme Court suggested that Mr. and Mrs. Dennis could have eliminated their obligations to the Club by selling their home. In footnote 7, the dissent countered that the majority “blithely” suggests selling the house, which may be easier said than done.

The footnote refers to a news article included in the record that reveals the Club’s membership scheme has significantly chilled potential buyers. **** According to this article, one member failed to sell her property for more than two years, despite listing it for $1. As of July of 2016, according to the article, eight lots were listed at less than $10,000 each. The footnote asserts that these facts bely the use by the majority of the description of Callawassie Island property as “exclusive.”

The circuit court had awarded the Club summary judgment, and the Supreme Court reinstated that order. What an interesting case! I hope some of my lawyer friends from Beaufort County will let me know whether the homes in this development are selling better in 2018.

 

*Not my joke.  See footnote 4 of the case:  “Although we disagree with the court of appeals’ legal reasoning here, we do applaud the reference to the Eagles’ hit Hotel California.”  Who said justices aren’t funny?

**The Callawassie Island Members Club, Inc. v. Dennis, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27835 (August 29, 2018).

***Keep in mind how dismal the economy continued to be in South Carolina in 2010.

****Kelly Meyerhofer, Callawassie Club ruling: Court sides with members, cited Eagles song, The Beaufort Gazette (August 5, 2016).

Captain Sam’s Spit continues to be the subject of litigation

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I’ve blogged about “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island previously. Googling that name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a gorgeous but extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in July of 2016 and again in July of 2018 included field trips to view this property, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University School of Law is an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as lawyers, have for field trips? South Carolina Dirt lawyers should calendar the July 2020 version of this workshop.

Real estate development is my bread and butter, but two visits to the area told me that property should not be developed. A fellow field tripper, however, pointed out that the south end of Pawleys Island, where my parents took me to the beach as a child and which has been developed for many years, is just as precarious.

Captain Sam's Spit

Aerial view of Captain Sam’s Spit from The Post & Courier

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project located in Pawleys Island fights these cases. Amy Anderson, an attorney with that entity, joined us and explained the environmental issues as well as the legal battle.

Six months ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that a bulkhead and retaining wall could not be built to develop the property.  Just last month, however, Administrative Law Court Judge Ralph Anderson ruled that a road can be built to support the development because the economic benefits of building homes on Captain Sam’s Spit outweigh its natural preservation.

Here are greatly simplified facts in a very complicated South Carolina Supreme Court case: the developer and the community association entered into a development agreement in 1994. That agreement covered many issues, one of which was the proposed conveyance from the developer to the community association of a ten-mile strip of beachfront property, basically, the entire length of the island. A deed consummated that conveyance in 1995. All of the property conveyed was undevelopable because of the State’s jurisdictional lines.

I didn’t learn the following fact from the published case, but I learned it from one of the lawyers who was kind enough to speak with me. When the jurisdictional lines were redrawn by the State, the 4.62 acre tract became developable. The developer then took the position that the 1994 development agreement and the 1995 deed resulted from a mutual mistake, and that the parties never intended to include that tract.

The Master-in-Equity and Court of Appeals did not see it that way. Both found that the agreement and deed were unambiguous and that parole evidence of the intent of the parties was not allowable. The Supreme Court agreed.

In the recent Administrative Law Court case, Judge Anderson said the economic benefit of developing the property would include real property taxes of $5 million per year. This case is just the most recent in a decade of litigation.

Count on an appeal in this case and other litigation to follow. I’ll keep you posted!

Lawyer disciplined for involvement in investment scheme

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The SEC is not “another jurisdiction” for the purpose of reciprocal discipline

On June 27, the South Carolina Supreme Court suspended a lawyer for eighteen months based on Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charges*. While this case has nothing to do with dirt law, I bring it to the attention of South Carolina lawyers because they often find themselves in the position of forming and representing limited liability companies (LLCs).

SECThe South Carolina lawyer, John Kern, helped form and served as general counsel for Ventures Trust II LLC and Face-Off Acquisitions, LLC, two of the LLCs used in a fraudulent investment scheme perpetrated by Craig Berkman. Berkman fraudulently raised around $13.2 million from approximately 120 investors by selling memberships in the LLCs he controlled. Unfortunately for these investors, Berkman was subject to a $23 million judgment in Oregon, in connection with another fraudulent investment scheme, and was also facing bankruptcy in Florida. Berkman began to use some of the funds from his new ventures to pay his bankruptcy obligations in Florida, and the SEC got involved.

In 2014, Kern signed an offer of settlement and consented to an entry by the SEC of an order imposing sanctions against him. SEC findings included that (1) Kern willfully aided and abetted the fraudulent conduct of Berkman; (2) Kern was ordered to disgorge fees of around $235,000 and to pay a fine of $100,000; (3) Kern was barred from associating with brokers and investment advisors; and (4) Kern consented to being denied the privilege of practicing law before the SEC.

South Carolina’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) filed formal charges in 2016 and argued that the SEC is “another jurisdiction” under the Rule 29(e), which deals with conclusiveness of misconduct adjudications against lawyers in other jurisdictions. The Supreme Court found that the SEC is not a jurisdiction for the purposes of reciprocal discipline, but found that Kern was guilty of providing false information in statements to others.

Kern falsely assured Berkman’s bankruptcy attorney that none of the funds used to settle Berkman’s bankruptcy obligations were derived from Ventures II. Kern also issued a false memorandum to investors in Ventures II to the effect that their funds were secure and were not part of a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Berkman.

Kern’s primary defense in his South Carolina disciplinary proceedings was that he was totally unaware of Berkman’s malfeasance, and that as soon as he became aware, he resigned as general counsel for the LLCs and encouraged a principal in the companies to act as a whistleblower to the SEC. Kern argued that he had no dishonest or selfish motive, did not profit from his misconduct and showed remorse for the harm caused to investors. The Court said that it took these mitigating factors into consideration in imposing sanctions.

Professor John Freeman, who taught ethics to many of us, was qualified as an expert in the case and testified that when a lawyer acts as general counsel for a private securities company, he or she must exercise due diligence to ensure money is invested for the represented purposes.

Despite the fact that the SEC is not considered by the South Carolina Supreme Court to be a jurisdiction for the purposes of reciprocal jurisdiction against attorneys, this attorney was suspended for eighteen months because of his conduct that led to charges before the SEC.

The lesson to us is clear. Be careful in forming and representing LLCs and use proper due diligence in statements made to the investors in those entities. Lacking a dishonest motive is not enough to protect lawyers from discipline.

*In the Matter of Kern, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27820 (June 27, 2018)