Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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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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This appeal arose out of a $17 million verdict rendered in favor of Francis Maybank for claims sounding in contract, tort, and the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act (UTPA). Maybank brought this action alleging he received faulty investment advice from Branch Banking and Trust (BB&T - the Bank) through BB&T Wealth Management (Wealth Management) and BB&T Asset Management (Asset Management), all operating under the corporate umbrella of BB&T Corporation (collectively, Appellants). Appellants appealed on numerous grounds, and Maybank appealed the trial court's denial of prejudgment interest. After review, the Supreme Court reversed as to an award of punitive damages based on a limitation of liability clause. The Court affirmed on all other grounds. View "Maybank v. BB&T" on Justia Law

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Stokes-Craven Holding Corporation d/b/a Stokes-Craven Ford ("Stokes-Craven") appealed a circuit court order granting summary judgment in favor of Scott Robinson and his law firm, Johnson, McKenzie & Robinson, L.L.C., (collectively "Respondents") based on the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations. Stokes-Craven argued on appeal the court erred in applying the South Carolina Supreme Court's decision in "Epstein v. Brown," (610 S.E.2d 816 (2005)), and holding that Stokes-Craven knew or should have known that it had a legal malpractice claim against its trial counsel and his law firm on the date of the adverse jury verdict rather than after the Supreme Court affirmed the verdict and issued the remittitur in "Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding Corp.," (691 S.E.2d 135 (2010)). After review of this matter, the South Carolina Supreme Court overruled "Epstein," reversed the circuit court's order, and remanded the case back to the circuit court for further proceedings. View "Stokes-Craven Holding Corp. v. Robinson" 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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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