Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court

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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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Appellants Thomas and Vera Gladden appealed the trial court's order granting summary judgment to Respondent Palmetto Home Inspection Services, alleging the limit of liability provision in a home inspection contract was unenforceable as violative of public policy and as unconscionable under the facts of this case. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that contractual limitation of a home inspector's liability did not violate South Carolina public policy as expressed by the General Assembly and, as a matter of law, was not so oppressive that no reasonable person would make it and no fair and honest person would accept it. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court's order granting summary judgment to the inspector. View "Gladden v. Palmetto Home Inspections" on Justia Law

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From 2002 through 2004, George Harper and his law firm at that time, Jackson Lewis, represented EnerSys Delaware, Inc. in a variety of employment and labor law matters. Harper served as EnerSys' attorney of record in at least five employment-related lawsuits during this time. The relationship between Jackson Lewis and EnerSys deteriorated in 2004 when EnerSys brought a malpractice claim against the firm based on some labor-related legal advice that it claimed resulted in fraudulent testimony. In 2011, EnerSys filed this suit against a former EnerSys employee, Tammy Hopkins, alleging six causes of action including breach of contract based on violations of the confidentiality agreement and various computer use policies and agreements, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act. When EnerSys learned that Hopkins had retained Harper to represent her, it moved to have him disqualified pursuant to Rule 1.9(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. The circuit court denied the motion, concluding that Harper's previous assistance in developing EnerSys' litigation strategy was insufficient grounds upon which to disqualify him due to the dissimilarities of his previous representations and the current suit. EnerSys then filed this appeal. This case presented the question of whether the denial of a motion to disqualify an attorney was immediately appealable. The Supreme Court held it was not and dismissed the case as interlocutory. View "EnerSys Delaware v. Hopkins" on Justia Law

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Respondent Walter Martin was presiding over bond court when one of the defendants before him questioned the bond set. Respondent became upset with the defendant and asked the defendant whether he was calling respondent a liar. When the defendant responded, "[n]o, I'm not going anywhere," respondent replied, "[o]kay. Because I'll beat your ass if you call me a liar." Respondent immediately apologized to the defendant. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) charged Respondent with misconduct. Respondent regretted his comment, and the parties entered into an Agreement for Discipline by Consent whereby Respondent admitted to the misconduct, and consented to the imposition of a public reprimand, admonition, or letter of caution. The Supreme Court accepted the Agreement and issued a public reprimand. View "In the Matter of Greenwood County Magistrate Walter Martin" on Justia Law

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Appellant RFT Management Co., L.L.C. (RFT) brought this action against respondents Tinsley & Adams, L.L.P. and attorney Welborn D. Adams (collectively, Law Firm) based on their legal representation of RFT during the closing of its purchase of two real estate investment properties in Greenwood County. RFT alleged claims for (1) professional negligence (legal malpractice), (2) breach of fiduciary duty, (3) violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act1 (UTPA), and (4) aiding and abetting a securities violation in contravention of the South Carolina Uniform Securities Act of 2005 (SCUSA). The trial court granted a directed verdict in favor of Law Firm on RFT's causes of action regarding the UTPA and SCUSA, and it merged RFT's breach of fiduciary claim with its legal malpractice claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Law Firm on RFT's remaining claim for legal malpractice. RFT appealed, and the Supreme Court certified the case from the Court of Appeals for its review. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court with respect to all issues brought on appeal. View "RFT Management Co. v. Tinsley & Adams" on Justia Law

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Respondent Deborah Spence alleged that attorney Kenneth Wingate breached a fiduciary duty to her as a former client in its handling of her late husband's life insurance policy. Mr. Spence was a member of United States House of Representatives, and he held a life insurance policy.  Mr. Spence named Mrs. Spence and his four sons from a prior marriage as the beneficiaries of the policy, with all five to receive equal shares of the proceeds. Wingate undertook representation of Mrs. Spence with regards to the assets of her husband, her inheritance rights, and her rights in his estate.  Wingate advised Mrs. Spence that she was entitled to nothing from her husband's estate and that she was barred from receiving an elective share by a prenuptial agreement. Wingate advised Mrs. Spence to enter into an agreement with the four adult sons of Mr. Spence to create a trust to provide her with a lifetime income stream. The trust was to be created and funded from one-third of the value of Mr. Spence's probate estate. Mrs. Spence thereafter came to believe that the amount she received under the agreement negotiated by Wingate was much less than what she was entitled to under the will and its codicil or if she had opted for an elective share. Mrs. Spence thereafter brought a lawsuit to set aside the agreement creating the trust. The agreement was eventually set aside. The circuit court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Wingate and found that, "[b]y statute, [Wingate] owed no duty or obligation to [Mrs. Spence] in connection with the congressional life insurance policy or the manner in which it was paid." The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment to Wingate and remanded the matter for trial. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded Wingate owed a fiduciary duty to Mrs. Spence: "[t]his duty included, among other obligations, the obligation not to act in a manner adverse to her interests in matters substantially related to the prior representation.  … we uphold the decision of the Court of Appeals to reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand this matter for trial.  To the extent the Court of Appeals indicated whether a duty was owed was a question of fact for the jury, the decision is modified to recognize that whether a fiduciary relationship exists between two classes of persons is a matter to be determined by a court." View "Spence v. Wingate" on Justia Law

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Respondent Atlantic Coast Builders & Contractors, LLC brought an action against Petitioner Laura Lewis for negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, and breach of contract.  In 2003, Petitioner, acting through a leasing agent, entered into a commercial lease whereby Respondent would lease from Petitioner property located in Beaufort County.  Although Petitioner represented in the lease that the property could lawfully be used for a building and construction office, the property was zoned "rural," meaning virtually all commercial uses were prohibited. Respondent occupied the property and made numerous alterations to it. A few months later, a Beaufort County zoning official served Respondent with notice and warning of two violations for Respondent's failure to obtain a certificate of zoning compliance before occupying the premises and its failure to obtain a sign permit before erecting a sign.  Respondent vacated the property, relocated its business, and ceased making rental payments. Respondent then instituted this action. Petitioner denied the allegations and made a counterclaim for breach of contract.  The master in equity entered judgment in favor of Respondent. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the master properly granted judgment in favor of Respondent. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that Petitioner did not appeal all grounds on which the master's judgment was based.  Namely, she did not challenge the determination that Respondent was entitled to recover based on unjust enrichment.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the master-in-equity's and appellate court's decisions in favor of Respondent. View "Atlantic Coast Builders & Contractors v. Lewis" on Justia Law

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Respondent Municipal Court Judge Sheryl Polk McKinney's sister, who was the Clerk of the Town of Varnville, was arrested and charged with embezzlement of public funds, forgery, and misconduct in office.  Respondent's sister was accused of issuing checks in Respondent's name, forging respondent's name to the checks and converting the money for her personal use over an eight year period. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that by her misconduct, Respondent violated multiple Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct (Rule 501, SCACR). The Court found Respondent’s misconduct warranted a suspension from judicial duties.  Respondent was suspended for thirty days.  View "In the Matter of Municipal Court Judge Sheryl Polk McKinney" on Justia Law

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After Appellant Donald Brandt produced a fraudulent document in a civil proceeding, a circuit court held Appellant in civil and criminal contempt.  In turn, the court dismissed Appellant's legal malpractice action with prejudice and ordered him to serve six months in jail and pay the defendants' attorneys' fees. In 1998, Appellant sued Elizabeth Gooding and her law firm Gooding & Gooding, P.A. for legal malpractice based on Gooding's representation of him in a real estate transaction.  During the course of discovery, Appellant presented to his attorney a document which appeared to have been sent the lender in the transaction to Appellant on September 18, 1995.  Appellant also provided the letter to his malpractice expert.  The letter was then introduced in the expert's deposition and used by him to opine that Gooding had committed malpractice. The document, if authentic, would have imputed knowledge to Gooding of a conflict of interest related to the representation of Appellant in the real estate transaction.  Gooding, however, claimed the document was fraudulent.  As a result, Gooding requested a hearing to determine whether the document was authentic.  Additionally, Gooding requested the court hold Appellant in contempt and award costs if such authenticity could not be established. Subsequently, based on the fraudulent document, the State indicted Appellant for forgery.  After a jury found Appellant guilty of the indicted offense, the trial judge sentenced Brandt to ten years' imprisonment, suspended upon the service of four years, followed by five years' probation and payment of restitution. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Appellant contended that the trial judge erred in failing to dismiss the forgery indictment and in failing to grant his motion for a directed verdict on the ground that Double Jeopardy barred the forgery prosecution.  Upon review, the Supreme Court found that the State presented sufficient evidence to support a forgery conviction.  Because the forged document did not involve a dollar amount and the State did not present evidence of a definitive dollar amount, the Court held that the trial judge erred in sentencing Appellant for felony forgery. The Court remanded the case back to the circuit court for resentencing. View "South Carolina v. Brandt" on Justia Law