Second real estate case of the year rejects replacement mortgage doctrine

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SC Supreme Court discards arguments of ALTA and PLTA

Real estate cases can be absent from our Advance Sheets for months, but we have seen two cases already in 2023. In ArrowPoint Federal Credit Union v. Bailey* our Supreme Court was asked to adopt a novel replacement mortgage doctrine, but the Court deflected the question, deferring to the legislature, even though American Land Title Association and Palmetto Land Title Association filed amicus briefs in favor of the doctrine.

This is a real estate mortgage priority dispute between two institutional lenders concerning a residential property in Winnsboro.  Jimmy and Laura Bailey mortgaged their residence at 247 Morninglow Drive to Quicken Loans in the amount of $256,500. The mortgage was recorded on October 20, 2009. One week later, the Baileys closed an equity line of credit with ArrowPoint Federal Credit Union in the amount of $99,500. The second mortgage was recorded on November 4. ArrowPoint had record notice of the Quicken mortgage. On November 23, the Baileys refinanced the Quicken mortgage with Quicken, this time in the amount of $296,000.

In connection with the refinance, the Baileys executed an interesting document entitled “Title Company Client Acknowledgment”, which stated the only outstanding lien on the property was the prior Quicken mortgage. This statement was false. The Court stated that there was no clear explanation as to whether Quicken had the title searched at this point.

The Baileys used $257,459 from the refinance to pay off the first mortgage. On December 15, Quicken released the first mortgage and recorded the refinance mortgage. Quicken assigned the mortgage to U.S. Bank, the petitioner in this case.

(If these facts make you break out into a cold sweat, then you were around doing real estate closings at the break-neck speed we suffered during this time frame.)

The Baileys defaulted on the line of credit, and ArrowPoint filed this action seeking a declaration that its line of credit had priority over the Quicken refinance mortgage. Both lenders moved for summary judgment. U.S. Bank claimed it had priority under the replacement mortgage doctrine. The special referee and Court of Appeals agreed with ArrowPoint, and the Supreme Court affirmed. Both appeals courts concluded that adopting the replacement mortgage doctrine is a question for the General Assembly.

Dirt lawyers are intimately familiar with South Carolina’s race-notice statute (S.C. Code §30-7-10) which prioritizes liens based on notice and the recording date.

The Supreme Court recited that it had recognized the equitable subordination doctrine as an exception to the race-notice statute. The Court noted the right of subrogation is essentially a creation of the court of equity, which allows a person who is secondarily liable for a debt, upon paying the debt, to assume by law the place of the creditor whose debt is paid.  Decades later, the Court declined to recognize the doctrine for a lender that refinanced its own mortgage but failed to discover an intervening mortgage. The Court said in the case at hand that it had previously warned lenders of their duty to search titles!**

The Court noted that the replacement mortgage doctrine is another exception to the race-notice statute, and many jurisdictions either recognize the doctrine or follow its logic. Cases from other jurisdictions were cited, and the Restatement (Third) of Property was quoted. According to the Restatement, the replacement mortgage doctrine provides:

  • If a senior mortgage is released of record and, as a part of the same transaction, is replaced with a new mortgage, the latter mortgage retains the same priority as its predecessor, except
  • To the extent that any change in the terms of the mortgage or the obligation it secures is materially prejudicial to the holder of a junior interest in the real estate, or
  • To the extent that one who is protected by the recording act acquires an interest in the real estate at a time that the senior mortgage is not of record.

The Court said that it was required to respect the authority of the legislature on public policy matters and declined to sit as a “superlegislature” to second-guess the General Assembly’s decisions. The Court differentiated the equitable subrogation doctrine from the replacement mortgage doctrine by saying that the “race” begins with the original mortgage in the equitable subrogation situation, and the intervening lender suffers no loss. Under the replacement mortgage doctrine, on the other hand, the original first mortgage is satisfied of record and replaced with a new mortgage that is recorded after the intervening mortgage.

The Court also criticized the replacement mortgage doctrine because it dilutes the importance of title examinations. Lenders who seek to refinance their own mortgages, as Quicken did in this case, can easily search the title to discover the intervening lien. The last words of the case state, “Finally, we emphasize parties must conduct diligent title searches to protect their interests under the race-notice statute.”

I, for one, will not argue with that final statement. It now appears that if ALTA and PLTA want a replacement mortgage doctrine in South Carolina, they need to approach the legislature.

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28129, January 11, 2023.

**All the citations are omitted but are set out in detail in the subject case.  

All the Rules of Professional Conduct are not intuitive

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…but this one is: be honest!

Some of the rules we learned in our professional responsibility classes in law school were problematic because they didn’t seem intuitive. I found the advertising rules to be particularly prickly. The rules surrounding financial recordkeeping require extreme attention to detail in accounting, and we went to law school because we aren’t strong in math, right? Even the rules surrounding competency require careful study for each practice area.

But Rule 407’s requirement of honesty is identical to the directive our parents imposed and, for that reason, absolutely intuitive. As lawyers, we must be honest in our professional relationships.

One lawyer learned this lesson the hard way according to a November 23 attorney disciplinary opinion from the South Carolina Supreme Court. *

This lawyer worked as a law clerk for a firm after graduation and became an associate attorney when he was admitted to practice in November 2017. He was paid on an hourly basis. The firm used computer software to track working hours in real time, and throughout 2018, the lawyer used software to clock in and out during times when he was not in the office or otherwise working to inflate his hours and increase his pay.

Fortunately, the lawyer did not bill clients directly, so no client overpaid because of his misconduct. At tax time, though, the lawyer’s supervising attorney discovered the discrepancy and confronted the associate. The total overpayment was just short of $18,000. After confronting the lawyer, the firm allowed the associate to self-report. His report included a signed restitution agreement in which he agreed to repay the law firm in full. 

The lawyer also filed an affidavit in mitigation, in which he expressed remorse and explained that his preoccupation with financial security arose from his disadvantaged upbringing. He said he was desperate to prove his personal worthiness and to achieve financial security. Those goals eclipsed his better judgment. He also stated he has worked with counselors to understand why he committed this misconduct.

He entered into an agreement for a six-month suspension, which the Court accepted. He was also required to complete the Legal Ethics and Practice Program Ethics School and to pay the costs incurred by the ODC in investigating and prosecuting the matter.

Stay honest out there, lawyers, and take the time to mentor young lawyers with regard to their ethical responsibilities.

*In the Matter of Jacob, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 28122 (November 23, 2022).

SC Supreme Court probate case is real estate adjacent

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Interest in marital property vests when marital litigation is filed

Real estate lawyers, consider these fact patterns:

  • James Franklin owns 200 acres of property under contract with your developer client. Your client intends to use the property to develop a residential subdivision. Your title examination reveals Franklin’s wife recently filed a petition for divorce. Can your closing proceed without involving Franklin’s wife?
  • Let’s make the facts more difficult.  A divorce has been filed, but your title examination misses it.
  • Finally, let’s make the facts even more difficult. A divorce has been filed, your title examination misses it, and Mrs. Franklin dies before your closing.

Seels v. Smalls* answers these questions. And the involvement of Mrs. Franklin or her personal representative is required for your closing in each instance. In fact, the involvement of the family court and probate court may also be required.

In this South Carolina Supreme Court case, Olivia Seels Smalls and Joe Truman Smalls had been married for more than thirty years, living in Goose Creek, and accumulating significant assets. Mrs. Smalls filed marital litigation on July 2, 2014 and died unexpectantly on December 17, 2015. Mrs. Smalls’ brother, Randall Seels, was appointed personal representative. He moved to be substituted as plaintiff in the family court case. Mr. Smalls sought dismissal of the action, arguing the entire matter had abated upon the wife’s death.

It took our Supreme Court thirteen pages to ruminate over what I thought was settled law in South Carolina. The personal representative was entitled to the wife’s interest in the marital property. One paragraph from page 46 summarizes the holding:

“In summary, section 63-3-530, governing the family court’s subject matter jurisdiction, provides in subsection (A)(2) that the family court has ‘exclusive jurisdiction’ to settle all legal and equitable rights regarding marital property, importantly in section 20-3-610, the General Assemble has confirmed that each spouse has a ‘vested special equity and ownership right in the marital property’ that is subject to apportionment by the family court at the time marital litigation is filed. Further, the definition of ‘marital property’ in subsection 20-3-630(A) provides ‘marital property’ is all property acquired or owned by the parties as of the date marital litigation is filed, regardless of how it is titled, so marital property essentially springs into existence as a legally defined concept at that moment in time.”

The bottom line, dirt lawyers, is that marital litigation involving your seller should stop you in your tracks. Don’t close until you carefully examine the family court implications. And, if your client’s spouse has died, you will also need to deal with probate court implications. If you have concerns, call your friendly title insurance company underwriter for assistance.

This blog often ends with these words, and today is no exception. Be careful out there!

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28103 (August 3, 2022).

South Carolina Supreme Court issues final decision on Episcopal church real estate

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“This case is over” according to the court

Church schisms are tough in many ways, and the real estate issues are no exception. This week, the South Carolina Supreme Court filed an opinion* that it says finally resolves the real estate issues. In other words, the Court has decided who owns the real estate of the churches in dispute.

The dispute began in 2010 when the Lower Diocese of South Carolina, after doctrinal disputes, dissociated from the National Episcopal Church. The parties have been involved in extensive litigation in state and federal courts for the twelve years that have followed the dissociation. I am glad that I don’t have to figure out the doctrinal issues. The real estate issues are thorny enough.

My best advice to practicing real estate lawyers: when you are asked to close any transaction involving Episcopal church property, call your intelligent and friendly title insurance underwriter. In fact, call your underwriter when you deal with any church real estate transaction. They will stay current on the real estate issues involving churches.

The Court based its decision on which of the parishes adopted the national church’s “Dennis Cannon”. This church law provides that all real and personal property owned by a parish is held in trust for the national church.  The actions taken by each church with regard to the Dennis Cannon were examined.

Without belaboring the analysis, the following parishes will maintain their properties:

  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Pinopolis
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, Charleston
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Michael, Charleston
  • Church of the Cross, Inc., Bluffton
  • The Church of the Epiphany, Eutawville
  • The Vestry and Church Warden of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
  • Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Conway
  • The Church of the Resurrection, Surfside
  • The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Radcliffeboro
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bennettsville, Inc.
  • All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Inc., Florence
  • The Church of Our Savior of the Diocese of South Carolina, John’s Island
  • The Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg

The properties of the following parishes are held in trust for the National Church:

  • The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
  • The Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
  • St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Hartsville
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St John’s, John’s Island
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Jude’s Church of Walterboro
  • Saint Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
  • St. David’s Church, Cheraw
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Matthew (St. Matthews, Fort Motte)
  • The Vestries and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Andrew (Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston)
  • The Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg
  • Trinity Church of Myrtle Beach
  • Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Charleston
  • Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
  • St. James’ Church, James Island

I feel for all the parties involved. I am a United Methodist, and our international church authorities have been examining similar issues in recent years. We may see more church schism opinions in South Carolina and elsewhere. Stay in touch with your friendly title insurance company underwriter!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28095 (April 20, 2022).

South Carolina Supreme Court protects Captain Sam’s Spit again

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Photo courtesy of the Post and Courier

This blog has discussed “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island three times before. Googling that picturesque name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a beautiful and extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

In the latest case*, South Carolina’s Supreme Court refers to the property as one of our state’s only three remaining pristine sandy beaches readily accessible to the general public. The other two are Hunting Island State Park and Huntington Beach State Park. I enjoy the blessing of walking the pristine beach of Huntington Beach State Park on a regular basis, so despite having a career on the periphery of real estate development, I am in favor of maintaining these three state treasures.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in 2016 and 2018 included field trips to Captain Sam’s Spit, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University of South Carolina School of Law was an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as dirt lawyers, have for field trips? The South Carolina Environmental Law Project, located in Pawleys Island, fights these cases. Amy Armstrong, an attorney with that entity, joined our group to explain the environmental and legal issues.

Here are greatly simplified facts. Captain Sam’s Spit encompasses approximately 170 acres of land above the mean high-water mark along the southwestern tip of Kiawah Island and is surrounded by water on three sides. The Spit is over a mile long and 1,600 feet at its widest point, but the focal point of the latest appeal is the land along the narrowest point (the “neck”), which is the isthmus of land connecting it to the remainder of Kiawah Island. The neck occurs at a deep bend in the Kiawah River where it changes direction before eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via Captain Sam’s Inlet.

The neck has been migrating eastward because of the erosive forces of the Kiawah River. The “access corridor”—the buildable land between the critical area and the ocean-side setback line—has narrowed significantly in the past decade to less than thirty feet. Googling this issue will lead to active maps which show the change over time. The width of the neck is significant because the developer needs enough space to build a road. At the base of the neck is Beachwalker Park, operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission. Our fieldtrips were conducted on that Park.

Previously, the administrative law court (ALC), over the initial objection of DHEC, has granted permits for the construction of an extremely large erosion control device in the critical area. In the prior cases (citations omitted), the Supreme Court found the ALC erred. The current appeal stems from the ALC’s third approval of another structure termed “gargantuan” by the Supreme Court—a 2,380-foot steel sheet pile wall designed to combat the erosive forces carving into the sandy river shoreline in order to allow the developer to construct the road to support the development of fifty houses. The Court again reversed and, in effect, shut down the proposed development, at least temporarily. The economic interests of an increased tax base and employment opportunities do not justify eliminating the public’s use of protected tidelands, according to the Court.

After a motion for a re-hearing, the result is the same. The Court reaffirmed its earlier decision without further arguments. We’ve pondered whether each case is the end of the litigation. At this point, we don’t know. Creative developers and lawyers may make further attempts to proceed. Stay tuned.

*South Carolina Coastal Conservative League v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28031 (June 2, 2021); Re-Filed September 1, 2021.

SC Supreme Court deals with Rock Hill stormwater issue

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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

Three strikes, you’re out?

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South Carolina Supreme Court protects Captain Sam’s Spit for the third time

This blog has discussed “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island twice before. Googling that picturesque name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a beautiful and extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

In the latest case*, South Carolina’s Supreme Court refers to the property as one of our state’s only three remaining pristine sandy beaches readily accessible to the general public. The other two are Hunting Island State Park and Huntington Beach State Park. I enjoy the blessing of walking the pristine beach of Huntington Beach State Park on a regular basis, so despite having a career on the periphery of real estate development, I am in favor of maintaining these three state treasures.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in 2016 and 2018 included field trips to Captain Sam’s Spit, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University of South Carolina School of Law was an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as dirt lawyers, have for field trips? The South Carolina Environmental Law Project, located in Pawleys Island, fights these cases. Amy Armstrong, an attorney with that entity, joined our group to explain the environmental and legal issues.

Here are greatly simplified facts. Captain Sam’s Spit encompasses approximately 170 acres of land above the mean high-water mark along the southwestern tip of Kiawah Island and is surrounded by water on three sides. The Spit is over a mile long and 1,600 feet at its widest point, but the focal point of the latest appeal is the land along the narrowest point (the “neck”), which is the isthmus of land connecting it to the remainder of Kiawah Island. The neck occurs at a deep bend in the Kiawah River where it changes direction before eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via Captain Sam’s Inlet.

The neck has been migrating eastward because of the erosive forces of the Kiawah River. The “access corridor”—the buildable land between the critical area and the ocean-side setback line—has narrowed significantly in the past decade to less than thirty feet. Googling this issue will lead to active maps which show the change over time. The width of the neck is significant because the developer needs enough space to build a road. At the base of the neck is Beachwalker Park, operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission. Our fieldtrips were conducted on that Park.

Twice before, the administrative law court (ALC), over the initial objection of DHEC, has granted permits for the construction of an extremely large erosion control device in the critical area. In both cases (citations omitted), the Supreme Court found the ALC erred. The current appeal stems from the ALC’s third approval of another structure termed “gargantuan” by the Supreme Court—a 2,380-foot steel sheet pile wall designed to combat the erosive forces carving into the sandy river shoreline in order to allow the developer to construct the road to support the development of fifty houses. The Court again reversed and, in effect, shut down the proposed development, at least temporarily. The economic interests of an increased tax base and employment opportunities do not justify eliminating the public’s use of protected tidelands, according to the Court.

The Charleston Post and Courier has reported that a lawyer for the developer will ask for a rehearing of the latest case. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the litigation continue for another decade, despite rising sea levels and increasing hurricane threats affecting the precarious property. Stay tuned for future news.

*South Carolina Coastal Conservative League v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28031 (June 2, 2021)

SC Supreme Court warns Clerks of Court to avoid rejecting filings

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ROD offices should pay attention!

This post may be the first and last time this blog deals with a criminal case*, but the warning from South Carolina’s Supreme Court to Clerks of Court presents a worthy discussion for dirt lawyers.

The case involved a post conviction relief (PCR) application following a murder and attempted armed robbery conviction. The application was fraught with problems including a prison lockdown and incorrect forms. The Court said that the Clerk of Court’s ministerial duties required to Clerk to simply accept the application for filing, give it the appropriate docket number, and distribute it as required by law. Instead, the Clerk returned the application based on the statute of limitations. After chastising the Clerk, the Court granted the petition and instructed the petitioner to file his successive application within thirty days of the decision.

Omitting the citations and a significant footnote to be discussed later, here is the warning:

“We take this opportunity to remind the clerks of courts of their ministerial duty to docket filings irrespective of potential procedural flaws that may exist. It is not within the Clerk of Court’s authority to refuse to perform her duty based on her opinion that a filing lacks legal merit or is untimely. This duty is not discretionary. Unless specifically authorized by statute or a court rule, a clerk of court may not exercise any judicial power reserved for a judge. The clerk cannot, without express constitutional or statutory authority, exercise any judicial functions. This includes the prohibition of performing any action contingent on deciding a question of law. It follows that a clerk of court cannot ordinarily determine questions of law. Accordingly, a clerk of court does not have the authority to reject a filing based on ostensible or perceived failures, including whether the document is contained on the proper form. Because the clerk’s role is ministerial in this respect, the clerk shall not be concerned with the merit of the papers or with their effect and interpretation. Stated differently, a clerk of court may not reject a pleading for lack of conformity with requirements of form; only a judge may do that. In the absence of an order from a judge, clerks may not refuse to accept a notice of appeal, even if they believe that no appeal is untimely or otherwise defective. Instead, the clerk shall accept the filing, thereby permitting the court to decide any issues the parties may have with it.”

If you ever have an ROD office reject your deed, mortgage or other real estate documents, you may need to cite this case!

I had a situation early in my practice where properties had been accumulated across county lines for the development of a mall. To comply with seller and lender requirements, I had to record all the documents in a single day. Prior to cutting the recording checks, I had to apportion the documentary stamps between the two counties, which I did carefully and with much tax advice. The first county readily accepted all the documents. I was halfway home. The other county, however, rejected all the documents by jumping to a legal and tax decision about the sufficiency of the doc stamps for that county. I was in a proverbial pickle! I couldn’t un-record documents in the first county to take the time to sort out the situation. I had to convince the second county to accept the documents. Luckily, I had a good friend who was on the legal staff of the Department of Revenue. After several hours of running that friend down and explaining the situation to him in great detail, he agreed on my behalf to convince the second ROD to record the documents to allow the DOR to sort out the tax issue later. Whew! (And, by the way, my calculations turned out to be correct because I got great advice in advance.)

My position about this topic has always been that the ROD did not have the authority to decide a legal question about my documents! After this case, I believe the Supreme Court would agree.

Dirt lawyers love to tell stories about the treatment of documents in different counties. The stories go something like this…. County A will record a leaf that floats in from an open window, but County B will refuse to record a document on the flimsiest of legal technicalities.

I hope this case will help even the playing field.

One significant footnote in the case relates to real estate transactions. Referring to the rule that indicates a clerk cannot exercise judicial power unless authorized by statute, footnote 2 reads: “For example, in the context of real or personal property, section 30-9-30 authorizes a clerk of court to remove a sham document from the public records upon proper notice if the clerk reasonably believes the document to be fraudulent.”

This statute and this power could be important in cases of forged signatures and other fraud, but I still believe the ministerial official would at least need sound legal advice.

Pull this case out the next time one of your documents is rejected!

*Barnes v. The State of South Carolina, South Carolina Appellate Case No. 2020-001360 (June 3, 2021).

SC Supreme Court’s footnote impacts easement law

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In a March 17 case*, the South Carolina Supreme Court made a thought-provoking comment on easement law through a footnote.

As with most real estate cases involving neighbors, the facts in this case are interesting. (I should probably admit the facts may only be interesting to dirt lawyers.) Paul and Susan McLaughlin bought Lot 22 in Seabrook Island and spent the next six years meeting and negotiating to build on the lot because of the existence of a pipe and an easement they were told had been abandoned.

The backstory involves a draining pipe and easement running through the backyards of seven lots. The easement and pipe were originally owned by Seabrook Island Property Owners Association (SIPOA). Over the years, the pipe degraded and became porous such that, aside from carrying away stormwater from the road, as intended, it also drained standing water from the lots. Nearly 20 years later, SIPOA installed a new draining system for the road, rendering the old one obsolete. At a property owner’s request, SIPOA abandoned the easement, but left the porous pipe in place.

After six excruciating years, the McLaughlins received home design and location approval from SIPOA, including the right to build on a former “no-build area” occupied by the abandoned easement. They removed the pipe and built their new home.

Neighbors Richard and Eugenia Ralph owned Lot 23 and sued claiming their backyard flooding became even worse as a result of the pipe removal. The jury awarded the Ralphs $1,000 in “nominal” damages. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages alone, and the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury’s verdict.

I won’t dwell on the remainder of the opinion, which deals mostly with litigation issues, but I wanted to point dirt lawyers specifically to footnote 5.

The Ralphs claimed some sort of ownership right in the abandoned easement, which the Supreme Court did not feel the need to address. But the Supreme Court did express concern over the Court of Appeals discussion of a seminal easement case in South Carolina, Blue Ridge Realty Co. v. Williamson**.

Blue Ridge is the case we rely upon for the right of property owners who buy lots with reference to a plat to use the roads shown on that plat. Without that case, many properties would have access issues.

The Supreme Court voiced concern over the alteration of a quote from the Blue Ridge case by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals quoted the case: “It is generally held that when the owner of land has it subdivided and platted into lots and (easements,) and sells and conveys the lots with referenced to the plat, he hereby dedicates said (easements) to the use of such lot owners (and) their successors in title…”

Blue Ridge actually said, “It is generally held that when the owner of land has it subdivided and platted into lots and streets and sells and conveys the lots with reference to the plat, he thereby dedicates said streets to the use of such lot owners, their successors in title, and the public. (Emphasis added by the Supreme Court in the current case.)

The Supreme Court said the scenarios presented by the current case and the Blue Ridge case were fundamentally different. Blue Ridge involved the claim of a property owner to use a public street shown on a recorded plat. In the current case, lot owners whose property contains an easement intended for the benefit of the HOA claims an ownership interest because the easement inadvertently benefits the property owner as well.

In Blue Ridge, the property owner and its successors in title were the intended beneficiaries.  Here, the opposite is true. The owners of Lots 22 – 28 were never intended to benefit directly from the easement. The fact that they did so, according to the Supreme Court, was a pure accident, caused by the unexpected degradation of the pipe. In short, Blue Ridge does not stand for the proposition for which it was cited by the Court of Appeals, according to the Supreme Court.

This distinction might be significant in many of the title scenarios real estate practitioners face routinely.

Interesting indeed! I also find it interesting that the Supreme Court refers to the Blue Ridge case, as we dirt lawyers refer to it, as the Williamson case, but that’s a blog for another day.

*Ralph v. McLaughlin, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28015, March 17, 2021.

**247 S.C. 112, 145 S.E.2d 922 (1965).