The Quicken decision is out

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It’s not what dirt lawyers wanted or expected

The South Carolina Supreme Court never ceases to amaze when it decides real estate cases. Dirt lawyers seldom know what to expect. We read the precedents. We attend the hearings. We listen to the Justices’ questions. We believe we get a glimpse of what they may be thinking. But we miss the mark. Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided the much anticipated Quicken case*, and if I had predicted the top five possible outcomes, I would not have come close to the actual decision.

I fully expected a 3-2 decision in either direction. But it is a 5-0 strongly written decision. It is a decision that was written to dispose of the controversy. It is a decision that was written to deny the possibility of reconsideration.

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This is an unauthorized practice of law case brought in the Court’s original jurisdiction. The case was assigned to Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein as Special Referee to take evidence and issue a report. Judge Goodstein held a two-week trial and issued a report finding, essentially, that no South Carolina licensed lawyer quarterbacked (my word) the mostly Internet-based residential refinance closings. In the facts recited in Judge Goodstein’s report, lawyers were peripherally involved in all of the steps required by State v. Buyers Service Co.** and its progeny, but no lawyer was actually involved in a way that the interest of the borrower was protected.

(Summarizing the prior decisions, the steps requiring lawyers are: (1) document preparation; (2) title search; (3) closing; (4) recording; and (5) disbursement.)

The Supreme Court somehow reviewed the same record and found that lawyers were involved and used their professional judgment in each step. The facts recited in the Court’s decision were not recognizable from the facts recited by Judge Goodstein’s report. The Court completely rejected the report and apparently decided that a finding of UPL under the circumstances would “mark an unwise and unnecessary intrusion into the marketplace”. “Simply put,” the Court stated, “we believe requiring more attorney involvement in cases such as this would belie the Court’s oft-stated assertion that UPL rules exist to protect the public, not lawyers.”

Most South Carolina dirt lawyers were hoping the Court would find a South Carolina licensed lawyer must be at the center of each closing, overseeing each step, and insuring that the consumer client’s interests were protected in each step. That is definitely not what we got.

There is, however, some good news in this decision. The Court made the clearest implication to date (without an explicit holding) that Buyers Service and its progeny may not apply in the commercial arena. The Court repeatedly stated that the context of this case is the residential refinance arena. I have discussed this case with several commercial lawyers to ascertain whether they are now comfortable to forego certifications that other South Carolina licensed lawyers are involved in the closing steps that are not under their control. They seem to feel slightly more comfortable, but not comfortable enough to let go of that step. Perhaps the passage of time will help.

Other good news is that, despite the facts recited by Judge Goodstein to the contrary, the Court clearly stated that lawyers were involved and used their professional judgment in each required step. The out-of-state entities who do business here should make sure their processes include this professional judgment in each step of the closing.

After reading this case a dozen times, I’ve decided that no law has changed. Nothing will change in our local processes. Nothing will likely change dramatically in the processes of the out-of-state entities who do business here. If I had not read Judge Goodstein’s report and if I had not attended the Supreme Court’s hearing, I would probably not be shocked with this result.

I would love hear what you think.

*Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc., South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27727, July 19, 2017

** State v. Buyers Serv. Co., 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987)

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Hot off the presses UPL case!

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(But it only affects real estate peripherally)

The South Carolina Supreme Court handed down a UPL decision in a declaratory judgment action in its original jurisdiction on February 22.*

The Court accepted the action to determine whether Community Management Group, LLC and its employees engaged in the unauthorized practice of law while managing homeowners’ associations. The Court found that the respondents did, in fact, engage in UPL. At the outset of the case, the Court had issued a temporary injunction halting the offending activities.

Community Management Group, without the involvement of an attorney, prepared and recorded notices of liens and related documents; brought actions in magistrates’ courts to collect debts; and filed the resulting judgments in circuit courts. The entity also advertised that it would perform these services “in house”.

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In a 1992 administrative order entitled In re Unauthorized Practice of Law Rules Proposed by South Carolina Bar**,  the Court had modified prior case law to allow a business to be represented by a non-lawyer officer, agent or employee. The Court had also promulgated South Carolina Magistrate Court Rule 21, which provides, “A business…may be represented in a civil magistrates’ court by a non-lawyer officer, agent or employee…”

The central question in the action at hand was whether the word “agent” in these authorities includes third party entities and individuals like Community Management Group and its employees. The Court held it does not and was never intended to.

The Court had earlier held that filing claims in probate courts does not amount to UPL, but stated in the present case that it is the character of the services rendered that determines whether the services constitute the practice of law. Filing claims in Probate Court, according to the Court, does not require the professional judgment, specialized knowledge or ability of an attorney. The Court found that the services required to represent a business in magistrates’ courts are not comparable to filing claims in probate courts.

Community Management Group conceded that it prepared a lien document for the purpose of putting a cloud on title so property could not be sold unless the homeowner paid overdue assessments. This stated purpose demonstrated to the Court that the lien documents were “instruments”, that is, written legal documents that define rights, duties, entitlements or liabilities.

Citing a 1987 case near and dear to the hearts of all South Carolina dirt lawyers, State v. Buyers Service***, the Court reminded us that preparing and recording legal documents is the practice of law.

This current case is a Per Curiam decision, but acting Justice Pleicones did not participate. We are holding our collective breath to learn the results of a Quicken Loan case pending in the original jurisdiction of the Court, and the present case may give us at least a small hint.

stay tunedWe have already received an underwriting question about this case in our office. We were asked whether our attorney agents can ignore the liens filed in contravention of this case. The answer is that we can discuss the specifics on a case-by-case basis, but it appears that although the liens may be invalidated by a court, dirt lawyers and title companies should not generally take this risk without the involvement of a court. If you run into this issue in connection with your closings, call your title insurance underwriter to discuss your options!

*Rogers Townsend & Thomas, PC v. Peck, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27707 (February 22, 2017)

**309 S.C. 304, 422 S.E.2d 123 (1992)

***292 S.C. 286, 468 S.E.2d 290 (1987)

Could Efforts to Modernize Mortgage Practice Lead to Changes in SC Law?

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Reuters reports on a “patchwork of state laws” that hinder efforts.

In an article dated September 9, Reuters reports that the practice of notarizing documents, which dates back “at least to Ancient Rome” is becoming “passé” in the era of FaceTime, Skype and live-streamed social media. South Carolina real estate lawyers might want to take deep breaths and read the article, which is linked here

South Carolina practitioners are banking on State v. Buyers Service, our seminal case from 1987 holding that closings are the practice of law, to keep us in the closing business. Buyers Service is still good law in South Carolina and has been cited favorably many times and as late as this year.

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There have been some hints, however, in our long line of “UPL” cases that some of our current Supreme Court Justices may not be as committed to our strong rule as some of the prior Justices have been. (I hope that comment was vague enough to keep me out of trouble if I encounter any of the current or former Justices at a cocktail party. Please notice citations are purposefully missing.)

The South Carolina Supreme Court has repeated in almost every case on point that the purpose of requiring lawyers to be involved in closings is to protect consumers. The Reuters article suggests that the effort to modernize mortgages would also protect consumers. One borrower in the story, a civilian paramedic at a military base in Kuwait, was forced to fly 6,500 miles to buy a house in Virginia. Webcam notaries would cut expenses for lenders, notaries and borrowers, the article suggests.

Are the two efforts to protect consumers diametrically opposed? No doubt, South Carolina lawyers could be on one end of the webcams. I encourage all of us to read the news and to pay attention to how closings happen in other parts of the country and to continually think of ways to modernize our practices.  Keeping up with technology can only contribute toward keeping a real estate practitioner in the closing game.

Georgia On My Mind

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GA Supreme Court takes a page from our playbook and prohibits “witness only” closings

On September 22, 2014, The Supreme Court of Georgia issued an opinion approving the State Bar’s Formal Advisory Opinion No. 13-1, which states that a Georgia licensed lawyer may not ethically conduct a “witness only” closing.

georgia with flagThe Court indicated a “witness only” closing occurs when an individual presides over the execution of closing documents but purports to do so merely as a witness and notary and not as someone who is practicing law. In order to protect the public from those not properly trained or qualified to render these services, lawyers are required to “be in control of the closing process from beginning to end,” according to the opinion.

The opinion also requires the closing attorney to review the closing documents, resolve errors in the paperwork, and detect and resolve ambiguities in title and title defects, indicating, “A lawyer conducting a real estate closing may use documents prepared by others after ensuring their accuracy, making necessary revisions, and adopting the work.”

The closing lawyer must “review and adopt” the work used in a closing, even if he or she didn’t prepare that work.  Georgia law allows title insurance companies and others to examine title records, prepare abstracts and issue related insurance.  And other persons may provide attorneys with paralegal and clerical services, so long as “at all times the attorney receiving the information or services shall maintain full professional and direct responsibility to his clients for the information and services received.”

The obligation to review, revise, approve and adopt documents used in closings applies to “the entire series of events that comprise a closing.”

I’m a South Carolina dirt lawyer, so I don’t have the background to comment at length on this opinion, but from my bank of the Savannah River, it seems this opinion places closing lawyers in a precarious position, not unlike the position of our Bidding on a homepractitioners. We don’t necessarily have to perform all aspects of closings, but we do have to supervise and take professional responsibility for the entire closing.  We have learned how difficult it is to supervise third parties and take responsibility for their work.  The Georgia Bar asked for this opinion.  I hope they like it!

Surely Dave Whitener is smiling down from heaven at this effort to rein in the unauthorized practice of law!