South Carolina Supreme Court abolishes common law marriage

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Maybe we’ll get a “Big Chill” sequel

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The Big Chill” is one of my husband’s favorite movies, in fact, it’s up there with “Braveheart” and “Casablanca”. Several years ago, we celebrated a milestone birthday by inviting two couples who were friends from law school to the mountains for a “Big Chill Weekend” of eating great food, playing great music* and reminiscing about the old days. We did agree to eliminate drugs and spouse swapping from the Big Chill agenda.

Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court abolished common law marriage in South Carolina.** This rule will be prospective only. Parties may no longer enter into a valid marriage in South Carolina without a license.

Hang on. I will explain how the movie and common law marriage in South Carolina connect for those too young to remember the news. (And the connection has nothing to do with our Big Chill weekend.)

When the movie was being filmed in the winter of 1982-83 in Beaufort, actor William Hurt was living with Sandra Jennings, a former dancer in the New York City Ballet. Ms. Jennings became pregnant with Mr. Hurt’s son, Alexander Devon Hurt, who was born in 1983. The couple lived together in New York and on the road from 1981 – 1984.

When the couple split, Ms. Jennings brought suit in New York claiming a share of Mr. Hurt’s substantial assets, based on the theory that they had established a common law marriage during the few months they lived in South Carolina. She sought a divorce. Child support was not an issue because Mr. Hurt was paying $65,000 per year to support the couple’s son. Common law marriages hadn’t been recognized in New York since 1933, so the claim was based on South Carolina law and the short time the couple lived together in Beaufort.

Ms. Jennings was not successful in the law suit, but litigation is very expensive and the story got lots of mileage in South Carolina. The standing line was that actors had to be careful in this state! Maybe the cast can finally return for a sequel.

The Supreme Court stated that the time has come to join the overwhelming national trend, despite our legislature’s failure, to abolish common law marriage. The court said, “The paternalistic motivations underlying common-law marriage no longer outweigh the offenses to public policy the doctrine engenders.”  I know some other outdated ideas I’d like to see abolished in South Carolina.

* Favorite lines from the movie which demonstrate, in part, why it’s a favorite: Michael:  “Harold, don’t you have any other music, you know, from this century?” Harold: “There is no other music, not in my house.”  There is no other music in the Manning house either.

Favorite movie trivia: The dead guy, the corpse being dressed for his funeral in the opening scenes, was played by none other than Kevin Costner. There were plans to have flash-back scenes to the characters’ college antics, but those scenes were later eliminated.

** Stone v. Thompson, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27908 (July 24, 2019).

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Abbeville fraud litigation leads to noteworthy arbitration case

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Supreme Court finds arbitration clause unenforceable against nonsignatories

Abbeville, SC

I found it hard to believe the South Carolina Supreme Court took 21 pages to hold an arbitration provision unenforceable against nonsignatories to the contract, but it did! In an April case involving insurance fraud in Abbeville County, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had relied on an equitable estoppel theory to bind individual insureds to a contract between an insurance agency and the insurance companies*.

The case arose out of numerous lawsuits brought by individual insureds against an insurance agent, Laura Willis, her broker, their agency and six insurance companies for which their offices sold policies. The suits alleged Willis engaged in fraudulent conduct including forging insurance documents and converting cash payments to her own use, resulting in the insureds having no coverage or reduced coverage. Two of the lawsuits were brought by other insurance agents, alleging Willis engaged in illegal business practices that effectively blocked them from the local market, resulting in a substantial loss of clients and revenue.

The other defendants were alleged to have failed to properly investigate, train and supervise Willis, especially after she was fined, publicly reprimanded and place on probation for dishonesty by the South Carolina Insurance Commission in 2011. Alternatively, Willis was alleged to have acted with express or implied permission of the other defendants.

A full year into the litigation, three of the insurance companies filed motions to compel arbitration and dismiss the lawsuits. The arbitration clause in question was contained in a 2010 agency contract signed by the insurance companies and the insurance agency. The theory was that the insureds were third-party beneficiaries to the contract or were equitably estopped from asserting their nonparty status. The Circuit Court denied the motion to compel arbitration, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding equitable estoppel should be applied to enforce arbitration against the nonsignatories because the individuals sought to benefit from other provisions in the agency agreement.

The Supreme Court stated that while arbitration is viewed favorably by the courts, it is predicated on an agreement to arbitrate because parties are waiving their fundamental right to access to the courts. The Court held that whether the provision is enforceable is a state law question, and that South Carolina has recognized several theories that could bind nonsignatories to arbitration agreements under general principles of contract and agency law, including (1) incorporation by reference, (2) assumption, (3) agency, (4) veil piercing/alter ego, and (5) estoppel.

The estoppel argument is based on a direct benefits theory in South Carolina. Under that theory, a nonsignatory may be compelled to arbitrate where the nonsignatory knowingly exploits the benefits of an agreement containing an arbitration clause and receives benefits flowing directly from the agreement.

In this case, according to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs did not allege a claim of breach of the contract, and they were not even aware of the existence of the contract until arbitration was sought a year into the litigation. In the Court’s view, the plaintiffs did not knowingly exploit and receive a direct benefit from the agency agreement. The Agreement was purely for the benefit of its parties, outlining their business relationship.

The Court also stated that equitable estoppel is ultimately a theory designed to prevent injustice, and it should be used sparingly. This litigation will continue!

And I’ve reduced the 21-page case to less than 600 words for your reading pleasure. You’re welcome!

Wilson v. Willis, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27879 (April 10, 2019)

Court of Appeals affirms Circuit Court in “nefarious conduct” Awendaw annexation case

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awendaw

In December of last year, this blog discussed a South Carolina Supreme Court case in which the Court called the Town of Awendaw’s annexation attempt “nefarious conduct”.* The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision that the annexation attempt was void ab initio.**

The Town of Awendaw’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.

The sole question before the Supreme Court last year 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 Supreme 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. The Court of Appeals, apparently noting the Supreme Court’s strong language and robust opinions, reversed course and affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the annexation was void.

 

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

**South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5645 (May 1, 2019).

SC Supreme Court “debars” two lawyers for UPL violations

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Mortgage modification practices get out-of-state lawyers in trouble

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On April 24th, two out-of-state lawyers were debarred by the South Carolina Supreme Court.* If the word “debar” isn’t familiar to you, don’t feel alone. Miriam-Webster indicates the definition of the word, used in a legal sense is, “to bar from having or doing something.” Our Supreme Court uses the word to mean to preclude a lawyer from another state from practicing law or seeking any form of admission to practice law in South Carolina, including pro hac vici admission, without first obtaining an order of the Supreme Court.

What did these two lawyers do to cause the wrath of our Court? They were both involved in mortgage modification schemes in multiple states. Naderi was licensed in California and provided legal services operation as the Pacific National Law Center (PNLC).

Ochoa was previously licensed in Florida but was disbarred in 2018 for misconduct involving lack of competence, failure to keep clients’ property safe, and conduct involving dishonest, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. He operated a solo practice and entered into an agreement with a non-attorney owned company (NVA) to market his legal services on the internet. Through NVA’s advertisements, he specifically targeted South Carolina residents seeking to negotiate modifications of their home loans.

Let’s look at just one example of the activities of these lawyers from the Naderi case. The Court refers to this scenario as “The J. H. Matter.” In December of 2013, Naderi was hired by J.H. a South Carolina resident, homeowner and veteran, to assist him in negotiating a modification of his home loan. Individuals from PNLC assured J.H. that the firm could get his loan modified and decrease his mortgage payments by securing both a balance reduction and a lower interest rate. J.H. was promised that the firm would work diligently and return his telephone calls within 48 hours.

J.H. signed several forms provided by PNLC staff members, including an “Attorney Client Retainer Agreement” and a “Third Party Authorization and Release Form”. The release form permitted the lender to discuss the loan with PNLC. Naderi was specifically named as the individual permitted to discuss the loan on behalf of J.H., but, interestingly, the form listed Naderi’s title as “Paralegal”.

The retainer agreement provided that, in exchange for $2,995, PNLC would provide “legal services” including “representation…for negotiation and resolution of disputes with current lender(s) regarding the subject real property and mortgage loan(s).” But litigation services were excluded from the scope of representation.

The agreement also provided that the fees were not conditioned on the outcome of the case and restricted J.H.’s ability to cancel the agreement and seek a refund after five days. Disputes arising after five days were to be handled by the guidelines and standards adopted by the California Bar.

In January, February and March of 2014, J.H. made payments totaling $2,995 via counter deposits into PNLC’s bank account. PNLC staff members told J.H. not to worry, that the law firm would secure the loan modification, and his lender would not take his home. Shortly after making his last payment, J.H. began experiencing difficulties reaching anyone at PNLC. PNLC never obtained a loan modification or offered J.H. any other solutions.

J.H. received notice of a foreclosure hearing, but he was unable to reach anyone at PNLC. J.H. appeared by himself and eventually hired another lawyer to file bankruptcy.

J.H. testified that he was unaware of any contact PNLC made with his lender. He believed he had been scammed and thought the wrongdoer should be in jail or disbarred.

Other matters were similarly described in both cases. It sounds as if the services were to collect fees only, and not to, in fact, perform legal work. The fact that these schemes cause delays when homeowners are in trouble with their loans make them particularly egregious. Dirt lawyers who are legitimately licensed by the South Carolina Supreme Court should be aware of these schemes and should be in a position to advise clients to avoid them with a vengeance!

 

* In the Matter of Naderi, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27881 (April 24, 2019); In the Matter of Ochoa, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27881, (April 24, 2019).

Landlords may have “sweeping” new duty to protect tenants in SC

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Apartments’ courtesy officer program may create liability

It is not uncommon for apartment complex managers to exchange reduced rent for the casual services of resident law enforcement officers. These services may include parking law enforcement vehicles on the property, answering security calls regarding incidents in the complex, and walking the property in uniform. A recent South Carolina Supreme Court case* may have imposed liability on apartment complexes employing these tactics to protect tenants from criminal acts of third parties.

Denise Wright was abducted and robbed at gunpoint by two assailants in the common area of Wellspring apartment complex within the Harbison community near Columbia. The incident took place after Wright left choir practice at her church at around 10 o’clock on a September night in 2008. The assailants were never apprehended. Wright had lived at Wellspring since 2003. She became interested in Wellspring because of its proximity to her job and because of recommendations from several church members. She testified that security was an important factor in her decision.

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Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Wright testified that at the time she signed her lease, a Wellspring manager told her there were security officers on duty. The defendants conceded this fact. Wright testified this representation made her believe Wellspring would be a safe place to live.

An internal Wellspring employee manual stated, “We generally do not provide security for our residents, and employees should never indicate that we do so.” Wellspring had designed a courtesy officer program allowing residents affiliated with law enforcement to receive reduced rent in exchange for spending a minimum of two hours daily of their off-duty time walking the property, answering calls regarding incidents on the property and submitting daily reports to the property manager. The parameters of these agreements were not revealed to other tenants. Wellspring published a “security pager” number in a monthly tenant newsletter. The newsletter also prominently noted that security was a top priority with the complex and advised tenants to call the security pager or Richland County Sheriff’s Department if they saw “anything suspicious”.

There were no courtesy officers at Wellspring on the night of the abduction and robbery; in fact, the last time a courtesy officer had been employed was the previous July. Wellspring had continued to publish the pager number in its monthly newsletter. The tenants were not informed that there were no courtesy officers.

Wright argued, among other things, that Wellspring was negligent in failing to execute its courtesy officer program in a reasonable manner. The defendants argued that they did not owe Wright a duty to provide security and that, even if they did, that duty was not breached, and even if the duty was breached, their alleged negligence was not a proximate cause of the harm. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed. On a writ of certiorari, the sole question before the Supreme Court was whether the Court of Appeals erred in failing to apply section 323 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which provides:

“One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

  1. his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of harm, or

  2. the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.”

The Supreme Court stated that it is well settled in South Carolina that a landlord generally does not owe an affirmative duty to a tenant to provide security. An “affirmative acts” exception exists, however, where one assumes to act even though under no obligation to do so. Wright’s brief acknowledged that South Carolina case law is not clear as to how the “affirmative acts” exception differs from the “undertaking” exception of the Restatement. The Supreme Court found that Wright’s negligence cause of action invoked the undertaking exception and held that summary judgment should not have been granted. The Court stated that there are questions of fact that a jury must resolve to ascertain whether a duty of care arose in this case.

Justice Kittredge’s strongly worded dissent said that the majority took the common existence of an apartment complex’s security officer program and morphed that limited undertaking into a sweeping duty to protect tenants from unforeseen criminal acts of third parties. The dissent found particularly troubling a lack of proximate cause.

Dirt lawyers who represent owners or managers of apartment complexes should take a careful look at this case with their clients.

*Wright v. PRG Real Estate Management, Inc., South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27868 (March 20, 2019)

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

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Conduct results in standing for challengers

awendaw

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).