Search This Blog

Thursday, October 14, 2010

To Heir Is Human, To Do It Too Late Is Fatal

By Stephen P. Groves, Sr.

In a series of four cases, released on 16 August 2010, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ prior decisions to uphold a summary judgment in four 2005 actions to set aside a 1966 quite title decision. See Robinson v. Estate of Harris, ___ S.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (2010) (Four cases) (Opinion Nos. 26862, 26863, 26864, and 26865).

Simeon B. Pinckney died intestate in 1921. He was survived by his wife, Laura, and his two sons, Herbert and Ellis. At the time of his death he owned 20 acres of land on James Island in Charleston County. For various reasons, not important herein, the relevant property was “whittled down” to 4.3 acres and deeded to Mr. Pinckney’s son, Herbert Pinckney, in 1946. After Herbert passed his wife, Laura Pinckney Heyward, filed a quiet title action in 1966. None of the appealing parties to this action or any of their predecessors-in-interest responded to the 1966 action and the title was resolved in Ms. Heyward’s favor.

Due to a number of subsequent conveyances, the 4.3-acre tract was eventually divided into four separate lots owned by (a) The Converse Company, (b) Martine A. Hutton, (c) David Savage and Lisa M. Shogry-Savage, and (d) Debbie (Shogry) Dinovo. Each lot owner was a Defendant-Respondent in one of the four Robinson v. Estate of Harris cases.

In February 2005, Sara Mae Robinson and others (“Petitioners”) filed their own quiet title action involving several tracts of land located on James Island, including the 4.3-acre tract. They sought “ ‘to establish their legitimate relationship as lineal descendants and heirs’ " of Mr. Pinckney. The first 25 named Petitioners claimed they were Mr. Pinckney’s heirs and “the remaining Petitioners claimed they purchased interests in the property and were the legitimate owners of those interests.”

In bringing the cases, the Petitioners asserted the 4.3 acre tract was fraudulently transferred to Herbert and, in turn, Ms. Heyward fraudulently obtained the property deed through the 1966 action. Moreover, the Petitioners asserted they did not learn of the 1946 deed or the 1966 quiet title action until 2004. After the issues were joined the Lot Owners all moved for summary judgment. The Petitioners countered with several detailed affidavits delineating their alleged evidence of extrinsic fraud. The Trial Court granted the Lot Owners’ motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed. On certiorari appeal, the Supreme Court agreed.

In order to resolve these cases, the Supreme Court was required to determine if S. C. Code Ann. § 15-67-90 constituted an "absolute bar" to Petitioners' action or whether their claim of extrinsic fraud superseded the applicable statute of limitations set forth therein. This provision contains a three year statute of limitations after which a court is prohibited from setting aside a quiet title action “for any reason”.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Petitioners that S. C. Code Ann. § 15-67-90 gave either the trial court and/or the appellate courts “the inherent authority to set aside the 1966 quiet title action and the underlying 1946 cross-deeds if in fact they were procured as the result of extrinsic fraud.” Nevertheless, since the Petitioners waited 39 years to challenge the 1996 action, the doctrine of laches applied to bar their claims. Moreover, notwithstanding the laches bar, the Supreme Court, in a “it just ain’t fair” moment, noted the innocent purchasers would be significantly prejudiced since they had (a) purchased the lots for significant monetary consideration, (b) generally been in possession of the property for a number of years, and (c) some of the Respondents had even constructed family residences thereon.

The united Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals in all four cases.

No comments:

Post a Comment