Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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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

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On February 14, 2013, the Attorney General received an ethics complaint, alleging possible violations of the Ethics Act by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Robert W. Harrell, Jr. The complaint was originally submitted by a private citizen to the House Legislative Ethics Committee. That same day, the Attorney General forwarded the complaint to South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and SLED carried out a 10-month criminal investigation into the matter. At the conclusion of the investigation, the Chief of SLED and the Attorney General petitioned the presiding judge of the state grand jury to impanel the state grand jury on January 13, 2014. Acting presiding judge of the state grand jury, the Honorable L. Casey Manning, subsequently impaneled the state grand jury. On February 24, 2014, the Speaker filed a motion to disqualify the Attorney General from participating in the grand jury investigation. On March 21, 2014, a hearing was held on the motion after which the court sua sponte raised the issue of subject matter jurisdiction. Another hearing was held, and the court found, as presiding judge of the state grand jury, it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear any matter arising from the Ethics Act, and refused to reach the issue of disqualification. The court discharged the grand jury and ordered the Attorney General to cease his criminal investigation. The Attorney General appealed that order to the Supreme Court. After its review, the Supreme Court concluded the circuit court erred in concluding that the House Ethics Committee had exclusive jurisdiction over the original complaint. While the crime of public corruption could include violations of the Ethics Act, the state grand jury's jurisdiction is confined to the purposes set forth in the constitution and the state grand jury statute, as circumscribed by the impaneling order. While the Court reversed the circuit court's order, it "in no way suggest[ed] that it was error for the presiding judge to inquire whether the state grand jury was 'conducting investigative activity within its jurisdiction or proper investigative activity.'" The case was remanded for a decision on whether the Attorney General should have been disqualified from participating in the state grand jury proceedings. View "Harrell v. Attorney General of South Carolina" on Justia Law

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Appellant Cynthia Holmes, M.D. appealed a circuit court's grant of a directed verdict on her malpractice claim in favor of respondents Haynsworth, Sinkler & Boyd, P.A., Manton Grier, and James Becker, and award of sanctions against her. Appellant, an ophthalmologist, was previously a member of the consulting medical staff of Tenet HealthSystem Medical, Incorporated, d/b/a East Cooper Community Hospital, Inc. In 1997, appellant lost her privileges to admit patients and perform procedures at the Hospital. Appellant hired respondents to represent her in a legal action against the Hospital in 1998. Respondents pursued an unsuccessful appeal for reinstatement of full admitting privileges through the Hospital's administrative process. In 1999, Respondents filed a lawsuit in federal court on Appellant's behalf. As a result of that suit, the federal district court granted a temporary injunction reinstating Appellant's admitting privileges based, in part, on Appellant's averments in an affidavit that her patients needed urgent surgeries and her inability to perform surgery at the hospital was causing her to lose patients. However, because Appellant did not perform a single surgery in the wake of the temporary injunction, the district court dissolved the injunction in 2000, because "the alleged harm suffered by [Appellant's] current patients had not materialized." Appellant blamed Respondents for the dissolution of the injunction, claiming that Respondents did not act with due diligence on her behalf because she disputed their fees and refused to pay her legal bills. Respondents, however, attributed the dissolution of the injunction to Appellant's failure to utilize the injunction to perform surgery while it was in place and her lack of cooperation during discovery. On January 31, 2000, Appellant filed a pro se motion requesting the district court reconsider the dissolution of the preliminary injunction. In this motion, she also indicated she was dissatisfied with Respondents' representation and was critical of how Respondents had handled her case to that point and sought additional time to obtain substitute counsel and complete discovery. Because Appellant still refused to pay her legal bills, Respondents filed a motion to be relieved as counsel. A few months later, the district court granted summary judgment in the Hospital's favor, and dismissed the pendant state law claims without prejudice. After Respondents and Appellant ended their professional relationship, Appellant sought the return of the $43,000 in attorney's fees she paid pursuant to an addendum to their fee agreement. Respondents refused, and subsequently Appellant filed a Complaint alleging professional malpractice in handling her federal antitrust claims. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "Holmes v. Haynsworth, Sinkler & Boyd" on Justia Law

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This case involves the payment of attorney's fees and expenses to attorneys, Appellant Tara Dawn Shurling and co-counsel, who were court-appointed to represent an indigent charged with multiple criminal offenses. Shurling was appointed to represent an indigent defendant in a criminal prosecution for murder, assault with intent to kill, criminal conspiracy, possession of a weapon during a violent crime, and possession of marijuana. Shurling sought approval for her fees and expenses to exceed the statutory caps provided by the South Carolina Indigent Defense Act. The trial court determined that the initial funding order precluded an award for the fees and expenses sought by appointed counsel, which total $46,388.66. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "South Carolina v. Hackshaw" on Justia Law