Court of Appeals decides Hilton Head easement case

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Real estate cases involving property in Hilton Head Island are almost always interesting, and this one* is no exception. I’m sure my friend, Dick Unger, will be discussing it fully in his upcoming revised treatise on easements for the South Carolina Bar. In the meantime, here’s enough of a description to get this case on your radar.

The case involves a welcome center, a gas station and a shopping complex on Palmetto Bay Road near Sea Pines Circle. Enmark owns the gas station which is adjacent to the welcome center. The shopping complex is located behind the gas station and adjacent to the welcome center. The roadway in question covers a portion of the welcome center property and connects the station to the parking lot on the shopping center property.

The roadway initially forked around a small vegetative island located on the shopping center property and had two connections to the parking lot. The shopping center removed the island and placed a trash dumpster in its place. (That doesn’t sound like something that would have been well received in Hilton Head!) The station’s customers use the roadway as an alternative entrance and exit for the station, and the general public uses it to bypass Sea Pines Circle and access the shopping center.

The case outlines the chains of title for the welcome center and gas station properties. When a dispute about the roadway arose, the property owners entered into a tolling agreement in mid-2013, in which they agreed the owner of the welcome center would file a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment to determine each party’s rights as to the roadway.

The welcome center owner then involved the Town of Hilton Head, which wrote a letter stating the roadway violated Hilton Head’s Land Management Ordinances. The town ordered the road to be removed and replaced with a vegetative buffer.  The gas station owner informed the Hilton Head official about the existence of the tolling agreement and of the importance of the roadway to its business and the public. The town stated that its letter was premature and subsequently decided the roadway was grandfathered into the Land Management Ordinances.

The welcome center owner filed a complaint in August of 2013 seeking an order that the gas station owner had neither an express nor a prescriptive easement. The Master-In-Equity found the existence of a prescriptive easement, and this appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals first eliminated the involvement of the town as a determinative factor in its decision, holding that the 2013 letter was not a final decision.

The Court next outlined the elements of a prescriptive easement: (1) continued and uninterrupted use or enjoyment of the right for a period of twenty years; (2) the identity of the thing enjoyed; and (3) the use or enjoyment which is either adverse or under claim of right.

Citing an earlier case, the Court of Appeals said our Supreme Court had clarified the third element, holding “adverse” and “claim of right” are in effect the same thing. The Supreme Court had simplified the elements stating the claimant must identify the thing enjoyed and show his use has been open, notorious, continuous, uninterrupted, and contrary to the burdened property owner’s rights for a period of twenty years.

The welcome center owner argued that the identity of the thing enjoyed was not established because the roadway is an “easement to nowhere”, not terminating on a public road. The Court held that termination on a public road was not required.

Continuous use was established through tacking the periods of use by prior owners in the gas station’s chain of title. The welcome center argued the use was interrupted by three threatening letters (dated 1994, 2008 and 2012, respectively), plus the placement by the shopping center of the garbage bin. The Court held that the letters were too late to interrupt the required twenty-year period, and the placement of the garbage bin was irrelevant because it was not placed by the owner of the burdened estate.

The owner of the welcome center raised multiple arguments as to the lack of adverse use, but it conceded in its post-trial brief that the existence of the easement would not be presumed “only if the use of the (roadway) during the entire prescriptive period was uninterrupted”, an issue upon which the Court had previously ruled.

I give you this case as an interesting discussion of prescriptive easement law in South Carolina and wait with you to hear Dick Unger’s words of wisdom!

 

*Carolina Center Building Corp. v. Enmark Stations, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5804 (February 10, 2021).

Rock Hill residential real estate lawyer gets five years in jail

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawyers: Help Get the Vote Out

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South Carolina licensed lawyers have been nudged by our Supreme Court to provide assistance with our greatest responsibility as citizens: voting!  See the attached Order of the Court granting CLE credit to lawyers who work the polls on November 3. 

There are, of course, guidelines. You must work the entire day, for example, and you can’t get paid. Pay attention to the details if you seek the credit.

What a great way for lawyers to demonstrate we are leaders in our communities! And in this problematic political environment, the more clear-headed, logical, calm lawyers who can be present, the better!

In other election news, the United States Supreme Court held on Monday that South Carolina mail-in ballots must be witnessed. Help get that word out to your family, friends and clients.

Thank you to all lawyers who stand and lead!

SC Supreme Court disbars two lawyers

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On June 24, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued two disciplinary opinions that both resulted in disbarment. Both involved interesting fact patterns, and I invite you to read  them as cautionary tales.

In the Matter of Brooks* involved a lawyer who was sworn in on February 19, 2019. Her application had been based on the Uniform Bar Exam score from Wyoming. One day after her admission, the Office of Bar Admissions learned that the lawyer had knowingly provided false or misleading information in her application.

She failed to disclose information about 2005 and 2014 arrests for driving under the influence (DUI), a resulting license suspension, use of cocaine and marijuana during her release as well as issues with Character and Fitness Boards in bar applications in other jurisdictions.

Bottom line: do not lie or omit facts on bar applications if you seek to practice in other jurisdictions. And advise potential South Carolina lawyers in your life to tell the truth and the whole truth on their applications.

The other case** is interesting only because of an underlying criminal conviction. The lawyer stole about $440,000 from trust accounts and was sentenced to probation. Never having worked in the criminal law arena, this sentence sounds unreasonably lenient to me. The disbarment makes complete sense though.

Bottom line: do not ever touch client funds for your own use!  Don’t borrow client funds, planning to replace them. Remove from your thought processes the idea that client funds are available to you for any reason other than to protect them for your clients.

 

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27983 (June 24, 2020).

**In The Matter of Collins, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27984 (June 24, 2020).

The Episcopal Church property saga continues

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We have a new circuit court order

This is my third blog about the controversy surrounding the properties of various Episcopal churches in South Carolina. I previously said I am thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempt to decipher these issues.

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St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Episcopal Churches, Downtown Charleston, SC 

In August of 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a 77-page opinion in this litigation. We now have a new circuit court order, and I am confident we will hear more at a later date.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains. The South Carolina Supreme Court seemed to indicate that the 29 breakaway churches had to return their properties to the national church under the “Dennis Canon”. But the Supreme Court left open the possibility that the lower court might clarify the position, and clarify Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson did.

He wrote that state law, not church law, requires the transfer of real property by deed. He said that no parish expressly acceded to the Dennis Canon. He said, “This is a property case. A decision on property ownership is usually governed by the title to real estate—the deed. In this case, all the plaintiff parishes hold title to their property in fee simple absolute.”

News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant. Future appeals are almost guaranteed. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

The South Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling upheld the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. The new circuit court order begs to differ.

I continue to be thankful that I am a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

SC lawyers connected to Hardwick receive admonitions

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Nat HardwickIn additional fallout from the Nat Hardwick fiasco in Atlanta, the South Carolina Supreme Court has anonymously admonished two bar members for failing to restrict access to South Carolina-based trust accounts containing client funds and failing to ensure proper monthly reconciliations of those accounts*.

This blog has discussed Nat Hardwick, a name familiar to many South Carolina real estate lawyers three times. He was convicted in 2018 of embezzling more than $25 million from his former companies, including his former law firm, Morris Hardwick Schneider. In February of 2019, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His co-conspirator and controller, Asha Maurya, was sentenced to seven years after she cooperated with the government. In May of 2019 Hardwick and Maura were ordered to pay $40 million in restitution.

Nathan E. Hardwick IV, described himself as the face of Morris Hardwick Schneider, an Atlanta residential real estate and foreclosure firm that grew into sixteen states, including South Carolina. The firm once had more than 800 employees and boasted of offices in Charleston, Hilton Head, Columbia and Greenville.

This story hits close to home. My company was one of the victims of the crimes and one of the parties awarded restitution because it funded the firm’s escrow accounts when the losses were discovered.

The prosecutor described an extravagant lifestyle that Hardwick enjoyed at the expense of others. The case was said to be particularly troubling because the illegal activity was orchestrated by a lawyer who swore an oath to uphold the law and represent his clients with integrity. The U.S. Attorney said he hoped the case sent the message that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office will not tolerate this type of white-collar crime.

According to the evidence, from January 2011 through August 2014, Hardwick stole more than $26 million from his law firm’s accounts, including its trust accounts, to pay his personal debts and expenses. The firm’s audited financial statements showed that the firm’s net income from 2011 through 2013 was approximately $10 million. During that time, according to the evidence, Hardwick took more than $20 million from firm accounts.

Asha Maurya, who managed the firm’s accounting operations, reached an agreement last May with the U.S. Attorney’s office and pled guilty. She was expected to testify at the trial, but was unexpectedly not called as a witness. Her lawyer argued at the restitution hearing that she should be liable for only $900,000, the amount she admitted taking from the firm for her own benefit. She had agreed to pay restitution in that amount as a part of her plea bargain.

During the trial, Hardwick did take the stand in his defense and attempted to blame Maurya with the theft. He said that he trusted her to his detriment, that he was entitled to the funds, and that he was unaware that the funds were wired from trust accounts. Hardwick testified for more than a day and explained that he believed Maurya followed proper law firm procedures.

On the stand, Hardwick, described as the consummate salesman, said that he gave his cellphone number to almost everyone. He said he returned calls and messages within a few hours and instructed his employees to do the same. He apparently believed himself to be a master in marketing and customer service and prided himself in focusing on the firm’s expansion strategy. He hoped to expand to all fifty states and make money through a public stock offering.

With his ill-gotten gains, Hardwick bought expensive property, made a $186,000 deposit for a party on a private island, spent $635,000 to take his golfing friends to attend the British Open in 2014, paid off bookies, alimony obligations, and sent more than $5.9 million to various casinos, all according to trial evidence. Hardwick’s activities lead to the loss of his law license and the bankruptcy of his firm.

Hardwick’s former partners, Mark Wittstadt and his brother, Gerald Wittstadt, were each awarded $6 million in restitution, and Art Morris, a retired member of the firm, was awarded $5 million.  All claim damage to their reputations in addition to substantial monetary losses.

These two South Carolina disciplinary cases began in May of 2014 when SunTrust Bank reported it paid three wires that were presented against insufficient funds on one of the firm’s South Carolina IOLTA accounts, leaving the account overdrawn by more than $65,000. Approximately a month later, the bank reported the same account was overdrawn by more than $18,000. The ODC began its investigation about the same time the law firm and my company began investigating the problems in Atlanta.

In South Carolina, the misappropriations occurred primarily through online transfers between firm trust accounts. More than $9 million in transfers in and out of the South Carolina trust accounts occurred during 2014 alone. As a result of the investigations and the subsequent funding of the shortage by my company, no South Carolinians lost funds.

*In re Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar, SC Supreme Court case 27937 (May 27, 2020) and In re Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar, SC Supreme Court case 27974 (May 27, 2020).

Are RON closings now allowed in South Carolina?

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After a tease from our Supreme Court on Friday, the answer is still “no”

For about 15 minutes on Friday afternoon, May 1, those of us involved in real estate transactions in South Carolina got excited. An Order* from the South Carolina Supreme Court hit our in-boxes. The order was entitled “RE: Participation in Closings of Real Estate Transactions”. We collectively thought South Carolina may have moved into the 21st Century with an authorization for Remote Online Notarization (RON) closings.

Then we read the order.

You can read it here.

By way of preamble, the Court said, “we find that the public health emergency created by COVID-19 requires changes in the usual operation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in terms of the normal functioning of real estate transactions.”

Then the order stated that until August 1, lawyers may “participate in and supervise the closing of a real estate transaction by way of a video conference.”

Fair enough, but I think most South Carolina transactional lawyers believed they could already ethically handle closings via video conference.

Most lawyers definitely believed they can ethically handle “mail away closings.” Were we wrong? Ethics Advisory Opinion 05-16 states that an attorney may ethically conduct real estate closings by mail as long as it is done in a way that: (1) ensures that the attorney is providing competent representation to the client; (2) all aspects of the closing remain under the supervision of an attorney; and (3) the attorney complies with the duty to communicate with the client so as to maintain the attorney-client relationship and be in a position to explain and answer any questions about the documents sent to the client for signature.

To meet this test, according to the EAO, clients must have reasonable means to be in contact with the attorney, by telephone, facsimile, or electronic transmission. The EAO further states that there is no legal requirement that a client attend the closing, but that it must be the client’s decision not to attend the closing.

Ethics Advisory Opinions are, of course, not binding on the South Carolina Supreme Court. But if we rely on the EAO and handle mail-away closings, why can we not also handle closings via video conference, as long as we comply with all of our ethical obligations to properly represent our clients? Technology has changed since 2005!

Setting that issue aside, let’s look at the real problem. The primary obstacle to any closing that is not conducted strictly in the presence of the lawyer is the proper notarization of the recordable documents. According to South Carolina Code §26-1-5, the notary must be in the physical presence of the signatory. For this reason, clients and their lawyers must employ notaries in the client’s location when the client and the lawyer are not in the same location.

Did the May 1 Supreme Court order fix the notary problem at least temporarily? Lawyers who have spent the last four days debating this question via listserv and Facebook have decided that it does not. But did the Court try to help? Maybe.

The Order goes on to say, “necessary persons to a real estate transaction may, under the direction of the supervising attorney, similarly participate in the real estate closing by way of a video conference, provided any necessary person so consents; further, the supervising attorney shall ensure that the attestation of a recordable instrument is accomplished, which may be satisfied by use of real-time audio-visual communication technology, provided the identity of the necessary person is confirmed and a notary attests the signature of any necessary person.” (Emphasis added.)

Giving the Court the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the Justices did not attempt to fix the notary problem but, instead, believed they must address the professional responsibility aspects of the closing process to allow the legislature and governor address the statutory notary issue.

I think I am going to go with that interpretation. Otherwise the Order is useless.

And, I have another concern. Anyone of us who has read and struggled with the facts in the notorious Quicken** case knows that the Court by implication blessed dividing the various aspects of the closing that must be handled by an attorney among many attorneys. But the final sentence of this Order reads, “This order does not suspend any other provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and nothing in this order is intended to relieve an attorney of his or her obligation to assume the full professional and direct responsibility for the entire transaction.” (Emphasis added.)

I am so confused!

 

*Order 2020-05-01-01, South Carolina Supreme Court.

**Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc., 420 S.C. 452, 803 S.E.2d707 (2017).

Padding legal bills leads to suspension of South Carolina lawyer

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The South Carolina Supreme Court meted out discipline to a lawyer in terms of a definite three-year suspension on January 22.* Three straightforward reasons for the suspension are highlighted by the very short opinion:

  1. The lawyer fell behind on his billable hours and falsified his time;
  2. The lawyer was not always truthful with clients regarding their cases in an attempt to cover for his uncompleted work; and
  3. The lawyer falsified expense reports. Specifically, he altered hotel and airline bills to receive reimbursement for trips that were not made and client dinners that did not occur.

The opinion details that the lawyer padded his time by more than 35 hours and his expense reports by more than $5,000.

I don’t know about you, but I find these sums shockingly small. I don’t mean the lawyer should not have been disciplined. The punishment clearly fits the crime in my mind. Rather, it seems to me that putting a license to practice at law at risk for such minor sums is a colossal act of inanity.

The time and effort each of us puts into obtaining the privilege to practice law should encourage all of us to follow the rules. Some of the rules are not intuitive. Some of them are indisputably difficult to understand and remember. But the rules this lawyer broke are the simplest of all and breaking them can be described by one word: dishonesty.

I remember the first time I handled a closing for more than $20 million way back in the 1980s. I joked that I knew then that I would never dip into my trust account. In retrospect, that was a terrible joke. None of us should ever think for a moment that we can “borrow” from our trust accounts, no matter how small or how large the number.

But facing a three-year suspension for $5,000 and 35 billable hours is inconceivable.

Be smart and safe out there, lawyer friends!

 

*In the Matter of Sloan, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27936 (January 22, 2020)

Recent HOA foreclosure case leads to new rule in Beaufort County

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Master imposes rule based on Chief Justice Beatty’s concurring opinion

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This blog recently discussed the remarkable homeowners’ association foreclosure case, Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, 2019.) You can read the earlier blog here.

The case focused on the inadequacy of the foreclosure sales price and the business model of a third party to leverage a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear eviction. I believe the case will require HOA foreclosure attorneys to rethink their approach going forward.

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beatty said he would go a step further than the majority opinion and adopt the equity method of determining an adequate sales price for residential property in a foreclosure. The equity method compares the winning bid price to the equity in the property. The alternative debt method compares the total debt on the property to its fair market value.

The majority opinion stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but a search of our South Carolina’s jurisprudence reveals that our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does. In this case, the debt method would have resulted in a ratio of 53.9 percent, while the equity method would have resulted in a ratio of 4.9%.

The new rule of the Beaufort County Master-in-Equity Marvin Dukes focuses on a totally separate issue in the case. The homeowners, who were in default, did not receive a notice of the date and time of the foreclosure sale. Judge Dukes’ office disseminated a message to foreclosure attorneys requiring new wording in foreclosure orders.

The new required wording entitled “Special Default Foreclosure Order and Sale Notice Service Instructions” reads as follows:

That, in addition to all notices to the property owner(s) which are required by the  SCRCP or other law, in a case involving property owner’s SCRPC 55 default, or any other case or circumstances where property owner(s) would not ordinarily receive a copy of the Order of Foreclosure and/or Notice of Sale, the party seeking foreclosure (Foreclosing Party) shall, within 5 (five) days of the execution of this Order cause this Order and Notice of Sale (if available) to be served by US Mail upon said property owner(s).

An affidavit of such service shall be filed with the Clerk of Court expeditiously.

In cases where the Notice of Sale is executed later in time than the Order, service shall be accomplished separately, and shall be sent no later than 5 (five) days from receipt by the Foreclosing Party.”

I suspect additional guidance will be coming from our courts about whether the Winrose case will have broad application in foreclosure cases or be limited to its facts. I’m confident foreclosure attorneys feel they need more information.