Justia South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Scott Ledford’s petition for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision to affirm the outcome of a Workers’ Compensation Commission hearing. Ledford was a former lance corporal with the South Carolina Highway Patrol. While employed as a highway patrolman, Ledford was injured in two separate work-related accidents: in July 2010, Ledford sustained injuries to his spine after being tasered during a training exercise; and in March 2012, Ledford was involved in a motorcycle accident while attempting to pursue a motorist. Ledford settled the 2010 claim with Respondents. Following the second accident, Ledford filed two separate claims for workers' compensation benefits. The Workers' Compensation Commission Appellate Panel declined to find Ledford suffered a change of condition; however, she found Ledford was entitled to medical benefits for injuries to his right leg and aggravated pre-existing conditions in his neck and lower back due to the motorcycle accident. Neither party appealed the Commission’s order. Months later, Ledford reached maximum medical improvement ("MMI"). Commissioner Susan Barden held a hearing on Ledford’s Form 21 in August 2014. Following the hearing, but prior to the issuance of a final order, Ledford filed a motion to recuse Commissioner Barden. According to Ledford's motion, Commissioner Barden requested a phone conference with the parties a month after the hearing during which she allegedly threatened criminal proceedings against Ledford if the case was not settled; indicated that she engaged in her own investigation and made findings based on undisclosed materials outside the record; suggested Ledford used "creative accounting" in his tax returns; and questioned Ledford's credibility regarding his claims of neck pain. Ledford contended any one of these grounds was sufficient to warrant recusal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission, finding: (1) Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself; (2) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's decision to reverse Commissioner Barden's permanency determination; and (3) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's findings that Ledford was not credible and his landscaping business remained lucrative following the injury. The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals erred in finding Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself. The Court was “deeply concerned” by the Commissioner’s conduct in this matter. “Ledford's counsel provided an opportunity for Commissioner Barden to right her wrong by moving for recusal. Instead of stepping aside, Commissioner Barden became more abusive and strident in both her ruling on the recusal motion and her final order.” The Commission’s orders were vacated and the matter remanded for a new hearing before a different commissioner. View "Ledford v. DPS" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit certified a question of South Carolina law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. The underlying case was an insurance bad faith action against an insurance company for its failure to defend its insured in a construction defect action. The insured settled the construction defect action and brought a bad faith tort action. When the insurer asserted it acted in good faith in denying coverage, the insured sought to discover the reasons why the insurer denied coverage. According to the insurer, the discovery requests included communications protected by the attorney-client relationship. The federal district court reviewed the parties' respective positions, determined the insured had established a prima facie case of bad faith, and ordered the questioned documents to be submitted to the court for an in camera inspection. The insurer then sought a writ of mandamus from the Fourth Circuit to vacate the district court's order regarding the discovery dispute. In turn, the Fourth Circuit asked the South Carolina Supreme Court whether state law supported the application of the "at issue" exception to attorney-client privilege such that a party may waive the privilege by denying liability in its answer. The South Carolina Supreme Court found that the parties, especially the insured, contended the certified question did not accurately represent the correct posture of the case. In fact, the insured conceded the narrow question presented required an answer in the negative. The Supreme Court agreed, finding “little authority for the untenable proposition that the mere denial of liability in a pleading constitutes a waiver of the attorney-client privilege.” The Court elected to analyze the issue narrowly in the limited context of a bad faith action against an insurer, and felt constrained to answer the certified question as follows: "No, denying liability and/or asserting good faith in the answer does not, standing alone, place the privileged communications 'at issue' in the case." View "Mt. Hawley Insurance Company v. Contravest Construction" on Justia Law

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Sentry Select Insurance Company brought a legal malpractice lawsuit in federal district court against the lawyer it hired to defend its insured in an automobile accident case. The federal court certified two questions of South Carolina law to the South Carolina Supreme Court pertaining to: (1) whether an insurer may maintain a direct malpractice action against counsel hired to represent its insured where the insurance company has a duty to defend; and (2) whether a legal malpractice claim may be assigned to a third-party who was responsible for payment of legal fees and any judgment incurred as a result of the litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose. The South Carolina Court answered the first question "yes:" "However, we will not place an attorney in a conflict between his client's interests and the interests of the insurer. Thus, the insurer may recover only for the attorney's breach of his duty to his client, when the insurer proves the breach is the proximate cause of damages to the insurer. If the interests of the client are the slightest bit inconsistent with the insurer's interests, there can be no liability of the attorney to the insurer, for we will not permit the attorney's duty to the client to be affected by the interests of the insurance company. Whether there is any inconsistency between the client's and the insurer's interests in the circumstances of an individual case is a question of law to be answered by the trial court." As to question two, the Supreme Court declined to answer the question: "We are satisfied that our answer to question one renders the second question not 'determinative of the cause then pending in the certifying court,' and thus it is not necessary for us to answer question two." View "Sentry Select Insurance v. Maybank Law Firm" on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Supreme Court accepted a declaratory judgment matter in its original jurisdiction to determine if Respondents-Petitioners Quicken Loans, Inc. and Title Source, Inc. engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). Petitioners-Respondents (collectively "Homeowners"), alleged the residential mortgage refinancing model implemented by Quicken Loans and Title Source in refinancing the Homeowners' mortgage loans constituted UPL. In addition to seeking declaratory relief, Homeowners' complaint also sought class certification and requested class relief. The Supreme Court found the record in this case showed licensed South Carolina attorneys were involved at every critical step of these refinancing transactions, and that requiring more attorney involvement would not effectively further the Court’s stated goal of protecting the public from the dangers of UPL. The Court therefore reject the Special Referee's conclusion that Quicken Loans and Title Source committed UPL. View "Boone v. Quicken Loans" on Justia Law

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The South Carolina Supreme Court accepted this declaratory judgment action in its original jurisdiction to determine whether Community Management Group, LLC; its president, Stephen Peck; and its employee, Tom Moore, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law while managing homeowners' associations. Community Management Group managed homeowners' associations and condominium associations in Charleston, Dorchester, and Berkeley Counties. Until the Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction in connection with this case, when a homeowner in an association did not pay an overdue assessment, Community Management Group (without the involvement of an attorney) prepared and recorded a notice of lien and related documents; brought an action in magistrate's court to collect the debt; and after obtaining a judgment in magistrate's court, filed the judgment in circuit court. Community Management Group also advertised that it could perform these services. After review, the Supreme Court found Community Management Group engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. View "Rogers Townsend & Thomas, PC v. Peck" on Justia Law

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Amber Johnson filed suit against her closing attorney, Stanley Alexander, arguing he breached his duty of care by failing to discover the house Johnson purchased had been sold at a tax sale the previous year. The trial court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Johnson as to Alexander's liability. On appeal, the court of appeals held Alexander could not be held liable as a matter of law simply because the attorney he hired to perform the title work may have been negligent. Instead, the court determined the relevant inquiry was "whether Alexander acted with reasonable care in relying on [another attorney's] title search"; accordingly, it reversed and remanded. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals: even absent Alexander's admissions, the Court found it was error to equate delegation of a task with delegation of liability. The Court therefore agreed with Johnson that an attorney was liable for negligence in tasks he delegates absent some express limitation of his representation. Applying this standard to the facts, the Court found the grant of summary judgment was proper because there was no genuine issue of material fact as to liability. The case was remanded back to the trial court for a determination of damages. View "Johnson v. Alexander" on Justia Law

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Georgia citizen George Skipper was involved in a motor vehicle accident with a logging truck that was driven by Harold Moors and owned by Specialty Logging, LLC. Specialty had a commercial automobile insurance policy with a $1,000,000 per occurrence limit, which was issued by ACE Property and Casualty Insurance Company (ACE). Following the accident, Skipper retained an attorney who wrote a demand letter to ACE offering to settle the case for the limits of the Policy. ACE retained two lawyers from Atlanta, Brantley Rowlen and Erin Coia, to represent Specialty and Moors. Specialty and Moors offered Skipper $50,000. Not satisfied with that offer, Skipper and his wife filed a lawsuit in the Allendale County Court of Common Pleas against Specialty and Moors. Unbeknownst to ACE or its attorneys, the Skippers entered into a settlement with Specialty and Moors, agreeing to execute a Confession of Judgment for $4,500,000, in which they admitted liability for the Skippers' injuries and losses. The Specialty Parties also agreed to pursue a legal malpractice claim against ACE and its attorneys Rowlen and Coia, and assigned the predominant interest in that claim to the Skippers.1 In exchange for the Specialty Parties' admission of liability, the Skippers agreed not to execute the judgment as long as the Specialty Parties cooperated in the legal malpractice litigation against Defendants. Armed with the assignment, the Skippers and Specialty Parties filed a legal malpractice action against the attorneys, also with the Allendale County court. The case was removed to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. In federal court, ACE and its attorneys argued that the assignment of the malpractice claim was invalid and that the Skippers had no valid claims to assert. Because the question of whether a legal malpractice claim could be assigned between adversaries in litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose was a novel question in South Carolina, the South Carolina Supreme Court accepted a certified question South Carolina law from the federal district court. After review, the South Carolina Court held that in South Carolina, the assignment of a legal malpractice claim between adversaries in litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose was prohibited. View "Skipper v. ACE Property" on Justia Law

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After prevailing in a condemnation action, petitioners-landowners moved for an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to section 28-2-510(B)(1) of the Eminent Domain Procedure Act. Contrary to petitioners' view, the circuit court determined attorneys' fees should be awarded based on an hourly rate via a lodestar calculation rather than the contingency fee agreement between Petitioners and their attorney. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court interpreted section 28-2-510 and concluded the General Assembly intended for attorneys' fees to be awarded based on a constellation of factors. Specifically, section 28-2-510(B)(1) mandated that in order for a prevailing landowner to recover reasonable attorneys' fees he or she must submit an application for fees "necessarily incurred." Therefore, by implication, the General Assembly precluded a landowner from recovering attorneys' fees based solely on a contingency fee agreement without regards for section 28-2-510. The Court explained that even though the contingency fee agreement is not the sole element in the calculation, it is still a significant component as it may be used to explain the basis for the fee charged by the landowner's counsel. "Our decision should not be construed as somehow condemning or eliminating an attorney's use of a contingency fee agreement. To the contrary, we recognize that the use of these agreements is a legitimate and well-established practice for attorneys throughout our state. This practice may still be pursued. Yet, it is with the caveat that the terms of the agreement are not controlling. Rather, they constitute one factor in a constellation of factors for the court's consideration in determining an award of reasonable litigation expenses to a prevailing landowner under section 28-2-510(B)(1). The court may, in fact, conclude that the contingency fee agreement yields a reasonable fee. However, the court is not bound by the terms of the agreement. " For this case, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals misapplied case law precedent. Furthermore, the Court concluded the circuit court failed to conduct the correct statutory analysis, and remanded this matter to the circuit court. Petitioners' counsel was instructed to submit an itemized statement in compliance with section 28-2-510(B)(1) as counsel's original affidavit failed to identify the "fee charged" and the actual number of hours expended. View "South Carolina Dept. of Trans. v. Revels" on Justia Law

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Appellant Erika Fabian brought this action for legal malpractice and breach of contract by a third-party beneficiary, alleging respondents attorney Ross M. Lindsay, III and his law firm Lindsay & Lindsay made a drafting error in preparing a trust instrument for her late uncle and, as a result, she was effectively disinherited. Appellant appealed the circuit court order dismissing her action under Rule 12(b)(6), SCRCP for failing to state a claim and contended South Carolina should recognize a cause of action, in tort and in contract, by a third-party beneficiary of a will or estate planning document against a lawyer whose drafting error defeats or diminishes the client's intent. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Fabian v. Lindsay" on Justia Law

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In this judicial disciplinary matter, respondent Former Abbeville County Magistrate George Ferguson and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel have entered into an Agreement for Discipline by Consent. Respondent was indicted on two counts of Misconduct in Office: the first indictment alleged respondent offered and gave Jane Doe #1 money and/or other benefits for the handling and disposition of legal matters involving Jane Doe #1 before him in his official capacity as Magistrate in return for sexual contact with her from 1996 to 2009; the second indictment alleged respondent offered and gave Jane Doe #2 money and/or other benefits for the handling and disposition of legal matters involving Jane Doe #2 before him in his official capacity as Magistrate in return for sexual contact with her from 2001 to 2011. In the Agreement, respondent admitted misconduct, consented to the imposition of a public reprimand and agreed never to seek nor accept a judicial office in South Carolina without the express written permission of the Supreme Court after written notice to ODC. The Supreme Court accepted the Agreement and publicly reprimanded respondent, the most severe sanction it was able to impose under these circumstances. View "In the Matter of Former Abbeville County Magistrate George T. Ferguson" on Justia Law