Heard June 2, 2015.
Appeal from Charleston County. The Honorable J. C. Nicholson, Jr., Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2014-001167.
Mary Leigh Arnold, of Mary Leigh Arnold, PA, of Mt. Pleasant; Justin S. Kahn and Wes B. Allison, both of Kahn Law Firm, LLP, of Charleston, for Petitioner.
Joel W. Collins, Jr., of Collins & Lacy, PC, of Columbia, and Robert F. Goings, of Goings Law Firm, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent.
JUSTICE HEARN. TOAL, C.J., PLEICONES, KITTREDGE, JJ., and Acting Justice James E. Moore, concur.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS
In this attorney malpractice case, Amber Johnson alleges her closing attorney, Stanley Alexander, 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. Johnson v. Alexander, 408 S.C. 58, 64, 757 S.E.2d 553, 556 (Ct.App. 2014). We disagree and find the trial court properly granted summary judgment as to liability. We therefore remand to the trial court for a hearing on damages.
Alexander acted as Johnson's closing attorney when she purchased a home in North Charleston on September 14, 2006. The title examination for the home had been performed by attorney Charles Feeley at the request of Johnson's previous attorney, Mario Inglese. Alexander purchased the title work from Inglese and relied on this title exam in concluding there were no back taxes owed on the property. Thereafter, Johnson learned the house had been sold at a tax sale and she did not have title to the property. In fact, the property had been sold October 3, 2005, almost a year prior to Johnson's purchase. Because of the title issue, the mortgage payments on the home ceased and the property eventually went to foreclosure.
Johnson brought this cause of action for malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract against Alexander and Inglese. Specifically, Johnson alleged the attorneys owed her a duty to perform a complete title exam on the property to ensure she received good and clear title.
Johnson moved for partial summary judgment as to Alexander's liability. At the hearing, Johnson submitted the affidavit of Mary Scarborough, the Delinquent Tax Collector for Charleston County. She attested that she " had direct and personal knowledge that information regarding delinquent taxes for real properties located in Charleston County, South Carolina, was readily and publicly available in July, August and September of 2006" in the Office of the Register Mesné Conveyance for Charleston County via a mainframe database. Furthermore, she stated that the Delinquent Tax data for Charleston County real properties has been publicly available on a mainframe database since 1997, when she helped design the system currently in use.
Alexander presented an affidavit from Feeley stating that although he could not remember the specific details of this title exam, he conducted all his examinations the same. Feeley further detailed his process at length, explaining his reliance on the Charleston County Online Tax Systems and his practice of searching back ten years of tax payments. He indicated his notes showed he found no back taxes due or owing. Feeley also attested that a prior tax sale would not have been disclosed in the chain of title for this property or made publically available in the RMC office at the time of the title examination and closing in 2006 because the tax sale deed was not recorded until December 12, 2006.
The circuit court granted Johnson's motion as to Alexander's liability. The court relied heavily on Alexander's pleadings and admissions in his deposition that as a closing attorney he had a responsibility to ensure marketable title. Additionally, the court found Alexander had proximately caused ...