Matthew Cox, notorious fraudster, resurfaces

Standard

Check out the August issue of The Atlantic

matthew cox

Picture courtesy of The Atlantic, August 2019 issue

I’ll never forget the name, Matthew Cox or the telephone call that tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation here in Columbia. Long before the housing bubble popped, an attorney called to let us know what was going on that day in the Richland County ROD office. Representatives of several closing offices were recording mortgages describing the same two residential properties in Blythewood, as if the properties had been refinanced multiple times in the same day by different closing offices.

At first, we thought our company and our attorney agent were in the clear because our mortgage got to record first. South Carolina is a race notice state, and getting to record first matters. Later, we learned that deeds to the so called borrower were forged, so there was no safety for anyone involved in this seedy scenario. Thousands of dollars were lost.

Next, we learned about the two fraudsters who had moved to Columbia from Florida through Atlanta to work their mischief here. The two names were Matthew Cox and Rebecca Hauck. We heard that Cox had been in the mortgage lending business in Florida, where he got into trouble for faking loan documents. He actually had the guts to write a novel about his antics when he lost his brokerage license and needed funds, but the novel was never published. With funds running low, Cox and his girlfriend, Hauck, moved to Atlanta and then Columbia to continue their mortgage fraud efforts.

We didn’t hear more from the pair until several years later, when we heard they had thankfully been arrested and sent to federal prison.

For a much more colorful account of these criminal activities and Cox’s attempt to write “true crime” stories from the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida, I refer you to the comprehensive and entertaining article written by Rachel Monroe in the August issue of The Atlantic magazine. Please enjoy the full text of the article here.

Ms. Monroe said she had been contacted by Matthew Cox by email telling her he was attempting to write a body of work that would allow him to exit prison with a new career. He described himself as “an infamous con man writing his fellow inmates’ true crime stories while immersed in federal prison.”

The crimes perpetuated by Cox and Hauck were made easier by the housing bubble itself. Everything was inflated and values were hard to nail down. And closings were occurring at a lightening pace. This excellent article made my heart skip a beat as I was reminded of those times. I hope all of us in the real estate industry have learned valuable lessons that will similar prevent mortgage fraud in the future. Those of us who made it through the economic downturn are certainly older and hopefully wiser!

Advertisements

Connecticut codifies attorney closing requirement

Standard

connecticut map

South Carolina licensed attorneys must close real estate transactions because our Constitution gives our Supreme Court the power to define the practice of law, and that Court, beginning with the 1987 seminal case, State v. Buyers Service, has defined the practice of law to include closing real estate transactions.

No explicit authority has required a similar result in Connecticut, but by custom, lawyers in Connecticut have routinely been involved in real estate closings. Beginning October 1, 2019, however, this long-standing practice will be required by statute as a result of the passage of Connecticut Senate Bill 320 (Public Act 99-88).

The new law defines “real estate closing” as follows:

  • a mortgage loan transaction, other than a home equity line of credit transaction or any other loan transaction that does not involve the issuance of a lender’s or mortgagee’s policy of title insurance in connection with such transaction, to be secured by real property, or
  • any transaction wherein consideration is paid by a party to such transaction to effectuate a change in the ownership of real property in Connecticut.

A violation of the new law will constitute a felony punishable by a $5,000 penalty or five years in jail.

It is interesting to me that a loan not involving title insurance does not require the involvement of an attorney. Why would a lender’s requirement of title insurance be determinative?  I can envision the argument that foregoing title insurance and thereby foregoing the requirement of the involvement of a licensed attorney would greatly decrease closing costs. Both are protective of the interest of the lender. It seems to me that either title insurance OR a closing attorney would be more desirable than neither.

It is also interesting that there is no differentiation between residential and commercial transactions in the new Connecticut statute. All the South Carolina cases in this area have involved residential facts, and at least one well-respected commercial lawyer in Columbia believes the Court may not have intended to include commercial transactions, where sophisticated parties are almost always involved. Most commercial transactional lawyers believe commercial transactions must follow the residential line of cases.  In Connecticut, it seems clear by the statutory definitions that lawyers are required for commercial closings.

Equity lines not being included under the purview of the new law seems counterintuitive. A consumer can get into as much or more trouble with an equity line as with any first or second mortgage.

And my final thought is that the statute doesn’t seem to define who the attorney must represent in the closing. The law states “no person shall conduct a real estate closing unless such person has been admitted as an attorney in this state.” South Carolina cases are clear that the protections are established for the consumer borrower.

In any event, I believe most South Carolina dirt lawyers would agree with me that we like the fact that Connecticut agrees with South Carolina and wish other states would follow suit!

Dave Whitener’s “Palmetto Logs”

Standard

SC palmetto state

Two weeks ago, this blog paid tribute to the late, great Dave Whitener, a giant among real estate legal professionals in South Carolina. As suggested in that blog about Dave’s “Top Ten You Betters”, I also wanted to share with you Dave’s “Palmetto Logs”.

Several years before his death, Dave was asked to address the American Bar Association. The issue was whether a successful defense might be mounted if a federal agency attacked the rights now existing in South Carolina for lawyers, and only lawyers, to close real estate transactions. In that talk, Dave cited ten areas of defense that he called the Palmetto Logs. For non-South Carolinians, the palmetto log has traditionally been a symbol of protection for South Carolinians in time of war. South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”.

Here are Dave’s suggested protections against an attack from outside our state for closings performed by licensed South Carolina attorneys:

Caselaw

  1. State v. Buyers Service, 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court defined the practice of law in a residential real estate closing to include: certification of the title; preparation of the deed and loan closing documents, closing the transaction and overseeing recording.
  2. Doe v. Condon, 351 S.C. 158, 568 S.E.2d 356 (2002). In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court reiterated and confirmed that the four protected areas set out in Buyer’s Service would also apply to residential refinances.
  3. Doe v. McMaster, 355 S.C. 306, 585 S.E.2d 773 (2003). In 2003, the South Carolina Supreme Court again reiterated its holding in Buyer’s Service.

Statutes and South Carolina Constitution

  1. C. Code §40-5-310 makes it a felony for an individual to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  2. C. Code §40-5-320 makes it a misdemeanor for a corporation or other entity to participate in the unauthorized practice of law.
  3. C. Code §37-10-102 gives a borrower the absolute right to choose the closing attorney in a residential loan closing. The statute provides for a $7,500 penalty if the disclosure is not given.
  4. South Carolina’s Constitution gives the S.C. Supreme Court the exclusive right to define the practice of law within South Carolina

Practical Considerations

  1. The low cost attributable to attorneys’ fees for residential closings in South Carolina. Dave believed the low cost would present a major difficulty if a federal agency argues that South Carolina’s practice is anti-competitive or increased prices.
  2. Major job losses would possibly result from the outsourcing of jobs to closing centers outside of South Carolina
  3. Major risks would be raised in turning over the duties now performed by experienced lawyers to unregulated and inexperienced lay persons.

I’m not sure whether Dave would say differently if he were here to analyze this topic for us today. I fear that the retirement of Chief Justice Jean Toal may have resulted in the loss of the South Carolina lawyer’s strongest advocate in the South Carolina Supreme Court. So far, the Palmetto Logs are holding strong, but some more recent cases from our Supreme Court give me some concern on this topic.

In any event, I am continually thankful for Dave Whitener and his influence, mentorship and friendship to South Carolina dirt lawyers!

Happy New Year!

Standard

Let’s make 2019 a great year!

2019 Happy New Year small

2018 has been a difficult year for our work family here in Columbia. Almost every person in our office suffered a personal loss or a difficult illness of a family member during the year. We have supported each other to the extent a work family can provide support, and we have collectively decided to turn the corner and to make 2019 our year. We invite you to join us in that resolution.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” My guess is that he used the qualifier “most” because he recognized that outside forces might lead to unhappiness for some people, but I couldn’t agree more with our 16th president that happiness is usually a matter of choice.

Here in the Bible Belt South, some may believe that faith leads to happiness, but experience suggests that people of faith don’t always choose happiness. Experience also suggests that affluence does not create happiness. In fact, it seems that the opposite may be true in many instances.

I write this blog* for South Carolina real estate lawyers and their staff members, and my goal is to keep us all up to date on real estate issues that may affect our practices.

Abe Lincoln Happiness

Early in my career, I decided to focus on real estate law because I chose happiness. I found real estate law to be a happier choice than litigation, especially the domestic litigation I tried for about five minutes. If the economy is good, then everyone should be satisfied at the end of the closing process. The seller should walk away with funds. The buyer should have a new piece of real estate to inhabit, rent or develop. The lender should have a nice income stream. And the players in the marketplace should be paid fairly for their services in connection with the closing.

Those of us who weathered the economic downturn that began in 2007 are well aware that practicing real estate law does not lead to similar happiness when the economy is terrible. Kudos to all of us who survived and came out the other side of that particularly unhappy season. And here’s to hoping we don’t experience a similar downturn any time soon.

Another realization I made early in my career is that to make money, lawyers have to work very hard, often at a speed and pressure that do not benefit their health and happiness. And if lawyers have to work under those circumstances, then their staff members do as well.

So how do we choose happiness in a pressure-filled real estate practice that is dependent on the economy?

I offer Jon Gordon’s “20 Tips for a Positive New Year” as a suggestion. Jon Gordon is a motivational business speaker I enjoy following. Many of his tips for a positive 2019 focus on choosing to be happy. (But I particularly like his tip #8, “Get More Sleep” as I type this piece at 5:30 a.m.) You can download this excellent advice in poster format to keep at your desk or post in your workroom.

I am going to try to follow Abraham Lincoln’s and Jon Gordon’s advice in 2019. And I invite you to join me!

*Thanks to the readers of this blog! I began writing weekly very late in 2014. Readership has increased from just under 2,000 in 2014 to just over 31,000 in 2018. I’d like to take the opportunity of a new year to thank Martha McConnell and Jennifer Rubin, excellent lawyers in our office, who help me with ideas, redirect my thinking, keep me out of trouble and proofread my work. And I’d like to thank Cris Hudson, IT guru extraordinaire in our office, who handles technical issues. It is definitely a team effort, and I am blessed with a great team! My friend and fellow lawyer, Bill Booth, has also supplied me with a steady stream of ideas. Thanks Bill! If you have ideas for me, please contact me through this blog or at claire.manning@ctt.com.

Dirt lawyers: Did you know some County boundary lines in South Carolina are changing?

Standard

For your reading pleasure, here is a repost of an excellent blog (with maps!) by my friend Josh Lonon of The Wyche Firm in Greenville. We will have to pay particular attention as this un-folds. Some of us who have been involved in the practice of real estate law for many years will remember confusion and extra work for title examiners and practitioners when other county boundary lines changed. Thanks, Josh, for the great information!

Is your client in the market for timber?

Standard

Here’s what you’ll need to know to get started

timber

It’s always good to start with the law. In South Carolina, the case is, believe it or not, a 1938 grand larceny case.* It turns out that stealing standing timber is not grand larceny because standing timber is considered to be a fixture. The proper charge would be trespass.

Once the timber is severed from the real estate, however, it can be the subject of a grand larceny charge. What happens, you ask, if the criminal himself severs the timber and carries it away in a continuous act? That, my friends, is grand larceny. Even the South Carolina Supreme Court suggested this distinction may be subtle and illogical.

Now that we have exhausted my knowledge of subtle and illogical criminal law, let’s look at a few things dirt lawyers can understand. We draw from this case the proposition that standing timber is real estate in South Carolina.

Timber, like all real estate, should be conveyed by a deed. A seller might also reserve timber in a deed of the real estate to a third party. This would be similar to reserving an easement or reserving mineral rights.

The definition of “land” in a title insurance policy would include the timber growing on the land because the fee simple title holder owns all the physical elements (the “bundle of rights”, as we learned in law school) of the land. To insure land where the timber has been reserved, an exception would be taken for the timber.

From time to time, a title insurance company may be asked to insure timber. Only standing timber is insurable. Downed, fallen or cut trees would become personal property and no longer insurable in a title insurance policy. It might be problematic to insure future growth, trees seeded after a conveyance and timber sold expressly as “perpetual”. Consult your title insurance company before you get down into those weeds, so to speak.

Be careful about access issues. Timber roads are notoriously tricky, so pay careful attention to the description and ownership of real estate where the road is located. Often, GPS descriptions may be used to describe timber roads. Your client must be able to access the timber legally. The deed should grant the rights to cut and transport timber as well as the right of access.

Be careful about survey issues. You will typically not insure the acreage, and you may, again, face the problem of only having a GPS description. You might be the bad guy who has to require a survey.

You will typically take exception to the rights of others to use the land, as well as the terms and conditions of the timber deed.

Finally, determine whether a separate tax bill exists for the timber in order to prorate the correct tax amount.

You will likely want to involve your friendly title insurance company underwriter early and often if you become involved in a timber transaction.

 

 * State v. Collins, 288 S.C. 338, 199 S.E. 303 (1938).

Two positive articles for dirt lawyers from national sources

Standard

REALTOR®Mag is reporting that although financing remains the top roadblock to successful closings, fewer real estate agents are reporting financing as an issue today as opposed to previous months. This trend is a good one! Check out the article here.

The article indicates that, according to the REALTORS® Confidence Index, which is based on the responses from 2,500 real estate agents nationwide, the decline in complaints about financing may reflect an improvement in the economy, better credit histories from buyers and an improvement in loan evaluation processes.

But the article does report that appraisals are becoming a growing concern. Real estate agents indicated that a shortage of appraisers, valuations that are not in line with market conditions and “out-of-town” appraisers who are not familiar with local markets create the difficulties.

And for the first time in eleven years, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac conforming loan limit has increased to $424,100, allowing more home buyers to avoid jumbo loans, obtain lower interest rates and deliver lower down payments. The non-conforming loan limit had previously been stuck at $417,000. Read the article from INFOGRAPHIC here.

The economic news surrounding real estate closings is generally positive nationally. And the news is good in South Carolina, too. I’ve traveled around the state a good bit since the beginning of the year, and everywhere I go, I ask lawyers about business.

Early in the year, it seemed residential practices were sluggish in some markets while commercial practices were extremely busy statewide. In the last few weeks, I’m hearing much more encouraging news about residential practices, and commercial lawyers continue to report that business is excellent.

Our office is in the middle of a seminar series we have entitled “The future’s so bright, we have to wear shades.” We’re drinking the Kool-Aid and enjoying these economic good times. Those of us who weathered 2008 – 2012 deserve it!