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Delaney v. First Financial of Charleston, Inc.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

September 28, 2016

Otha Delaney, Appellant,
v.
First Financial of Charleston, Inc., Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2014-000824

          Submitted March 1, 2016

         Appeal From Charleston County Stephanie P. McDonald, Circuit Court Judge

          Philip L. Fairbanks, of Beaufort, for Appellant.

          Stephen L. Brown, Russell G. Hines, and Perry M. Buckner, IV, all of Young Clement Rivers, of Charleston, for Respondent.

          OPINION

          SHORT, J.:

         Otha Delaney appeals the trial court's grant of First Financial of Charleston, Inc.'s motion to dismiss his class action complaint for damages and equitable relief under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), alleging the court erred in (1) dismissing the complaint as time-barred by applying the incorrect statute of limitations, [1] and (2) determining the date the statute of limitations began to run. We affirm.

         On October 12, 2007, Delaney entered into a Retail Installment Contract (the Contract) to purchase a truck from Coliseum Motors. The Contract was assigned to First Financial, making it a secured party under the UCC. After Delaney failed to make payments, First Financial repossessed the vehicle. On May 2, 2008, First Financial sent Delaney a "Notice of Private Sale of Collateral" (notice of sale) advising Delaney of its intention to sell the vehicle. On December 15, 2008, First Financial sold the vehicle.

         On October 4, 2011, Delaney, as a putative member of a class, filed this class action, alleging (1) the notice of sale was insufficient under the UCC, and (2) he was entitled to relief under section 36-9-625 of the South Carolina Code (2003) (providing remedies for a secured party's failure to comply with the UCC). Delaney sought recovery on behalf of the class members.

         First Financial moved to dismiss, arguing Delaney's claim was barred under the one-year statute of limitations applicable for statutory penalties set forth in South Carolina Code § 15-3-570 (2005) (providing a one-year statute of limitations for actions based on a statute for a penalty). Delaney filed a response to the motion to dismiss, arguing the claim was not a statutory penalty, but it was a remedial claim for damages under section 36-9-625. Delaney argued that because the claim is remedial, the UCC's six-year statute of limitations in section 36-2-725(1) (2003) of the South Carolina Code governing breaches of contract for the sale of goods applied. In the alternative, Delaney argued if the recovery is a penalty rather than a compensable remedy, the action is governed by the three-year statute of limitations provided in South Carolina Code section 15-3-540(2) (2005) (applying to "[a]n action upon a statute for a penalty or forfeiture when the action is given to the party aggrieved or to such party and the State, except when the statute imposing it prescribes a different limitation").

         At a hearing on its motion to dismiss, First Financial argued the action was for a penalty because no contract was alleged to have been breached; there was no plea for compensatory damages; the complaint did not allege a tort; and the plea for relief consisted of the finance charge and ten percent of the principal amount under the Contract. According to First Financial, such a plea was governed by the one-year statute of limitations provided for in section 15-3-570, which would be triggered by the "commission of the offense." First Financial also argued Delaney's claim was time-barred under the three-year statute of limitations, which was triggered by the issuance of the notice of sale.

         Delaney argued neither the one-year nor the three-year statute of limitations applied, and even if the three-year statute of limitations in section 15-3-540(2) applied, the time had not expired at the time of the filing because the statute would have been triggered "not when the letter [was] received[, but] . . . only when the collateral was disposed of." Delaney maintained that setting minimum statutory damages of ten percent of the contract plus finance charges ensures compliance by creditors and "that[, ] in and of itself doesn't turn it into a penalty because it is clearly a substitute for actual damages."

         In an order filed April 30, 2013, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss. The court found Delaney's sole cause of action was a statutory penalty because it requested the finance charge and ten percent of the principal amount of the obligation, which is the statutorily-mandated award for a violation of the notice provision pursuant to section 36-9-625(c)(2). Noting the Official Comment 4 to section 36-9-625(c)(2), which provides the specific relief is to be awarded "regardless of any injury that may have resulted[, ]" the court found "this fixed formula is not remedial in nature but rather serves the purpose of imposing automatic liability for 'every noncompliance.'" The trial court noted our supreme court has interpreted the same provision as a statutory penalty in several cases, and it further noted other courts have similarly classified the statutory award based on the uniform UCC model statute, upon which South Carolina based its code.

         The court next rejected Delaney's argument that section 36-2-725(1) applied, which provides a six-year limitations period for a breach of contract for the sale of goods under the UCC. The court noted Delaney did not plead breach of contract; thus, section 36-2-725(1) did not apply. The court found the case concerned the sufficiency of notice prior to the disposition of collateral; thus, the case dealt "entirely with Article 9's provisions concerning secured transactions. Article 2's provisions pertaining to the sale of goods [were] wholly irrelevant." The court also found general rules of statutory construction prevented the application of the six-year limitations period. The court found the "controlling limitations period should be either S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-570 or § 15-3-540(2), respectively one or three years." The court noted general rules of statutory construction require a specific statute to prevail over a more general statute, and because Delaney's desired recovery was a statutory penalty, sections 15-3-570 and 15-3-540(2) spoke "more directly to the actual allegations in this lawsuit."

         Finally, the court found Delaney's complaint was time-barred under either section 15-3-570 or 15-3-540(2). The court found "[w]hile either statute might be reasonably applied to this matter, the Court need not decide this inquiry as [Delaney's] cause of action accrued upon receipt of the alleged noncompliant Notice of Sale and either statute would therefore serve as a bar to . . . recovery." As to section 15-3-570, [2] the statute specifically states the commission of the offense serves as the date of accrual. The court found the statute began to run in May 2008 and expired in May 2009.

         As to section 15-3-540(2), [3] the court noted the statute did not specifically delineate a date of accrual, and it found "the alleged commission of the offense should similarly serve as the commencement of the three year statute of limitations." The court continued,

Unlike an action for actual or compensatory damages, [Delaney's] action for a penalty focuses on a specific act of non-compliance . . . that awards automatic relief. The right to bring the action and thus the proper date of accrual should be determined by the date on which that alleged noncompliance occurred. However, this date of accrual would also coincide with the date on which [Delaney] either knew or should have known that a violation had occurred.
Furthermore, I find that the legislature intended [§§] 15-3-570 and 15-3-540 to have similar dates of accrual. Both govern actions for a statutory penalty and are nearly identical in language but for the length of the limitations period. Given that the legislature specifically enumerated the date of accrual for penalty actions under § 15-3-570 to be the date of the commission of the offense, this Court sees no logical purpose in creating an alternative date of accrual for penalty actions under § 15-3-540(2).

         The court granted First Financial's motion to dismiss. After a hearing, the court denied Delaney's motion for reconsideration. This appeal followed.

         ISSUES

         I. Did the trial court err in applying the statute of limitations?

         II. Did the trial court err in finding the action accrued at the time the notice of sale was received rather than at the time First Financial disposed of the collateral?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "On appeal from the dismissal of a case pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), an appellate court applies the same standard of review as the trial court." Rydde v. Morris,381 S.C. 643, 646, 675 S.E.2d 431, 433 (2009). The appellate court is required to construe the complaint in a light most favorable to the nonmovant and determine if the facts alleged and reasonably deducible inferences in the complaint would entitle the plaintiff to relief on any theory of the case. Id. The court may sustain the dismissal when the facts alleged in the ...


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