2019 Neighbor Day

On August 17, our Charleston office held its 14th Annual Neighbor Day. Held every summer, the event is an opportunity for South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) staff and neighborhood kids and their families to get to know each other. 

This year, the kids also got a free pair of shoes, a bag of school supplies and a health screening. The shoes, along with all other giveaways, were donated by local individuals and companies. The attendees could also enjoy free hot dogs, snacks, drinks, games and more. While the children were picking out their shoes, SCLS staff had an opportunity to tell folks about the free legal services we have available at SCLS.

A little rain didn’t stop anyone from having a good time.

A special thanks to our sponsors ALL Family of Companies, Container Salvage Company Inc., Grand National Ent., Ingevity, International Longshoremen’s Association and Limehouse Produce for making this event possible.

Legal Elite 2019

Every year, regional legal publications from around the state, honor their respective local attorneys by publishing their Legal Elite features. These features highlight the top attorneys in the region as voted on by other attorneys in that region. Every active attorney is eligible to participate and be recognized by his or her peers.

From our Greenville office, Managing Attorney and Education Law Unit Head, Kimaka Nichols-Graham was named as one of Legal Elite of the Upstate in Education Law.

From our Columbia office, Probate Law Unit Head and Lead Education Discipline Law Attorney, Jennifer Rainville was named as one of Legal Elite of the Midlands in Education Law.

Business Magazine Greenville

Business Monthly Columbia

Custody in the Age of Social Media

Fighting over custody or getting divorced can be one of the hardest times in a person’s life.  There are all sorts of unknowns and stressors that can cause any person involved in a family court case to worry and be unable to sleep.   Many people involved in a custody or divorce case find themselves angry and needing to vent or talk to someone about what they are going through.  They need to be able to say how horrible their spouse is or what needs to happen in their case.   With the rise in popularity of social media, many people with an ongoing case in family law will post their thoughts or feelings online. 

As an attorney, I have seen many cases turn on the fact that one party posted something on Facebook,  Snapchat, or another social media site.  Posting something negative about your child’s other parent is never a good idea, even if it is true.  Family Court judges want to see that parents can work together, respect each other, and co-parent.  Encouraging your child to have a healthy relationship with his or her other parent will look favorable on you in court.  Telling the world how awful your ex is, will only make you look bad. 

Some people use social media to brag about their lifestyle, wealth, how hard they partied last week, their favorite illegal drug, or who they are in a relationship with.  I have used these types of posts to show the court that the other party is making more money than what they declared. This can lead to a higher child support or alimony obligation if I can prove that the other party is not being truthful about their income. I have also used posted photos showing a party waving a gun around or smoking pot which can result in the court suspending visitation with that parent. 

Many temporary and final orders will have language that may prevent one parent from talking bad about the other parent in front of the child or discussing the case with the child.  Parents should read their court orders and follow it word for word.   Posting online that you told your child something or posting something knowing that your child could read it, could result in the court holding you in contempt. 

Many people are shocked to learn that a parent could be forced to turn over everything that they have ever posted or texted during the discovery phase of the case.  Many of my clients view what they post as private.  However, in custody and divorce proceedings there is little to no privacy.  Be prepared for everything that you ever posted on Facebook or any other site to be viewed by your ex and his or her attorney, and maybe even by a judge. 

Although social media can be fun and an easy way to vent and get things off your chest, I strongly caution my clients to be very careful about what they are posting online.  Posting online that you are “going to Aruba for vacation” but then claiming you cannot afford child support can land you in hot water with the court.  You can choose to stay out of trouble by not posting. 

A Lawyer Who Cares is a Lawyer Who Asks

The mind has a unique ability of savoring delightful memories.  Summer in the South makes me think about fresh cut grass, the sound and smell of a light rain that you can see marching across fields of your neighbor’s yard. We would play outside most of the day. Those are some of my memories associated with summer.  What will this generation of students remember about this summer?

This past school year, there was a new energy and increasing camaraderie about public education in South Carolina.  Everyone expressed a desire to improve education outcomes and find a way to support teaching as a profession.  What can South Carolina Legal Services do to improve educational outcomes?  We are a statewide law firm and we meet thousands of vulnerable or fragile families each year.  We are not educators.  We are not legislators. 

We are human, and many of the clients we serve are a part of various kinds of families or communities. 

  • We can take a moment and think about what an eviction will mean for a school aged child and explain the McKinney Vento Homeless Act. 
  • We can take a breath and ask what switching a “week on and week off” custody arrangement will do to a child. 
  • If a parent can no longer pay child support because she lost her job, we can ask her how else she can be involved in their lives. Maybe she can call more often, or text if that is how they communicate. 
  • When we are preparing documents for temporary hearings, we can ask which parent reads to or with the child at night. Encourage your client to be the parent who reads with her child.
  • We can ask clients to think about their child’s future. 
  • When working with parents on an affidavit for a temporary hearing, ask them to dedicate a paragraph to their child, and start off with that paragraph. Encourage them to reflect more on why they should have custody.
  • We can ask families that are struggling with budgeting what they would like to teach their child about managing finances.
  • We can ask people that are struggling with keeping steady employment if they have thought about creating a small business or a separate source of income based on a hobby they enjoy or a skill they possess.   
  • We can ask our clients if they have noticed whether their child is aware of the stress they are experiencing, and whether have they thought about how stress can impact their child.

We cannot educate. We cannot legislate.  We cannot preach.  We can ask. After all, we are masters at carefully adding information into the record with leading questions. Never underestimate a lawyer that cares.

What Can You Do If A Car Dealer Deceived You?

Check out your rights under the Dealers Act

The South Carolina Regulation of Manufacturers, Distributors, and Dealers Act (“Dealers Act”)

S.C. Code Ann. §§ 56-15-10 to -600 (2006 & Supp. 2014).

The Dealers Act[1] is available to South Carolina consumers who have been harmed by unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices as defined in the Act. [2]  It applies to any person who engages directly or indirectly in purposeful contacts within the state of South Carolina in connection with the offering or advertising for sale of a motor vehicle or who has business dealings with respect to a motor vehicle within this State.

Specific violations stated within the Dealers Act include

  1. requiring a purchaser of a new motor vehicle to also purchase special features, appliances, equipment, parts or accessories not desired or requested—unless they were already on the car when it came to the dealership;
  2. to represent and sell as a new motor vehicle one which is used, including one that has been used and operated for demonstration purposes; and
  3. resorting to or using any false or misleading advertisement in connection with the dealer’s business

Sometimes advertising is not false or misleading, it’s just “puffing”.  According to Black’s Law Dictionary “puffing” is the expression of an exaggerated opinion — as opposed to a factual misrepresentation — with the intent to sell a good or service. Puffing involves expressing opinions, not asserting something as a fact. Although there is some leeway in puffing goods, a seller may not misrepresent them or say they have attributes that they do not possess.

What are some of the acts and practices that have been found to be arbitrary, in bad faith, or unconscionable?  First, S.C. Courts have defined those terms as follows:

  1. Arbitrary conduct is readily definable and includes acts which are unreasonable, capricious or nonrational; not done according to reason or judgment; depending on will alone.[3]
  2. Bad faith is “[t]he opposite of good faith, generally implying or involving actual or constructive fraud, or a design to deceive or mislead another, or a neglect or refusal to fulfill some duty or some contractual obligation, not prompted by an honest mistake as to one’s rights or duties, but by some interested or sinister motive.” [4]

“Unconscionability has been recognized as the absence of meaningful choice on the part of one party due to one-sided contract provisions, together with terms which are so oppressive that no reasonable person would make them and no fair and honest person would accept them.”[5]

Here are some methods employed by dealers that violate the Dealers Act:

  1. Collecting insurance premiums but then failing to apply them and failing to tell the purchaser they have no insurance;
  2. Inaccuracies in a financing application made by a dealer such as:
    1. falsely listing the purchaser’s identity;
    1. listing the wrong motor vehicle as the collateral;
    1. misrepresenting the purchaser’s monthly income to qualify them for a loan;
  3. Failure to act in good faith when a purchaser requests that the dealer correct inaccuracies in paperwork and/or assist in correcting problems caused by dealer’s bad faith actions;
  4. Promising that your payment will be lower in the future;
  5. Selling extended service contracts but calling them warranties;
  6. Making false statements about the condition of the motor vehicle;
  7. Charging closing fees that are not actual expenses incurred by the dealer.

The Dealers Act provides remedies for acts which cause damage to any of the parties or to the public.  These include a private action for money damages and injunctive relief.  In an action for money damages, the amount recovered is doubled and you can seek attorney fees and costs.  If the dealer acted maliciously, punitive damages not exceeding triple the damages can be awarded.

Under the Act, dealers are required to maintain complete and correct records of each sale transaction for at least four years and the Statute of limitations for pursuing a private action is four years. [6] 

The S.C. Attorney General has the power to investigate, issue cease and desist orders and injunctive relief on any valid abuse connected with the sale, rental or leasing of a new or used motor vehicle.  But the Act requires that reasonable attempts by the consumer have first been made with the dealer to alleviate the complaint.[7]


[1] S.C. Code Ann. §56-15-30(a)

[2] S.C. Code Ann. § 56-15-40(1) (2006).

[3] Taylor v. Nix, 307 S.C. 551, 555, 416 S.E.2d 619, 621 (1992).

[4] State v. Griffin, 100 S.C. 331, 331, 84 S.E. 876, 877 (1915) (citation omitted).

[5] Fanning v. Fritz’s Pontiac-Cadillac-Buick, Inc., 322 S.C. 399, 403, 472 S.E.2d 242, 245 (1996).

[6] S.C. Code Ann. §56-15-120.

[7] S.C. Code Ann. §56-15-40(5)

A Costly Mistake in the Home Record

NOTE: All the names in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

Domenika Johnson came home from work one evening to find a For Sale sign in her front yard. Surely, this was a mistake. Maybe the realtor meant to put it on the property next to hers. It was vacant, and Domenika had not seen anyone coming or going there in years – for as long as she lived there, actually. In the mailbox, she had a letter from a real estate company. The first line made her heart sink. The property you are occupying belongs to someone else, it read. This could not be. Her property? Her home? She bought it with her own savings 15 years ago. She only had 5 years left on the mortgage. In that moment, Domenika felt panic come over her. What was going on? What could she do? Where could she turn? As she spent the next few days trying to sort out what was happening, her home was auctioned off and sold.

She came to South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) with little hope. It was too late, she thought. The closing was taking place a couple days later. Her home was gone. But she was determined to keep fighting, she just needed help. The first step for us was to ensure that the auction sale would not be finalized. We filed for a temporary restraining order, asking that the court delay the closing until a hearing could be held to determine what happened and to whom the property really belonged. Our motion was granted. Our attorneys and paralegals started working on piecing together the rest.

The “rest” soon became clearer. Domenika’s lot came from a couple who were developing their land back in the 70s. At that time, a home was to be built on Lot 13. The lot next to it, Lot 12, was to be vacant. Due to circumstances that we may never know, the home was actually built on Lot 12. This was never reflected in any records. All the records showed Lot 13 as having a house on it and Lot 12 as vacant and unimproved. In reality, Lot 13 was vacant and unimproved, and Lot 12 had a house on it. For over 20 years, despite numerous ownership changes, property valuations and surveying, the mistake was never noted or corrected. For over 15 years, Domenica had been living in and paying mortgage and taxes on a house, which according to the official records did not exist. Home Money LLC bought Lot 12 at a tax sale for less than $1,000. It was advertised as “unimproved”. Since there was a house on that lot, they were now trying to flip it for $40,000.

Domenika was in danger of losing everything, only because of a recording error four decades prior, and a predatory business that was trying to make a quick buck. Home Money LLC was trying to use every legal loophole to speed up the sale and finalize the deal. SCLS, too was trying to exhaust every legal remedy to keep Domenika in her home. Court action, legal motions, community partner involvement, settlement offers – we tried everything.

Although we were prepared for a long trial and felt confident that law and fairness were on our side, we wanted to resolve it as quickly as possible to allow Domenika a peace of mind. In the nick of time, we were able to find a buyer for the unimproved, vacant lot. With that money, we were able to settle the case with Home Money LLC. Domenika got to keep her home. The records were changed to reflect the reality. She now legally owns Lot 12 with a house on it.

Her angels, as she calls us, have helped keep Domenika in her home. We are also grateful for a grant from Bank of America, which allowed us to accept this case. Domenika was slightly above our regular income guidelines, but she was far from being able to afford an attorney. We could not have accepted her case if not for this specific grant from Bank of America which allows us to take accept some clients in certain circumstances who are over income.

Charleston Housing Court

In 2016, North Charleston experienced the highest rate of eviction (16.5 out of 100 renters) of any area in the United States.  The national  average was 6.53 per 100.  In that same timeframe, 10.03 households per day were evicted.  Low income tenants spent upwards of 70% of their monthly income on housing costs.  Eviction is closely linked to homelessness.  Up to 70% of tenants facing eviction have no access to legal knowledge or representation.  The numbers are shocking. 

 These factors prompted the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission to petition the S.C. Supreme Court to form the first ever housing court in South Carolina.  South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) and other local providers of legal and social services came together to seek the Commission’s support in submitting the petition to the Supreme Court in order to set up a viable experiment.  On May 24, 2019, that proposal took one step closer to becoming a reality when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court issued an order approving the Commission’s proposal [MF1] and creating what is officially called the Charleston Housing Court Pilot Project (Pilot Project). 

Under the Pilot Project, three Charleston County magistrates have been appointed to serve as judges of the housing court.  Besides SCLS, other partners in the project include One80 Place Legal Services, Charleston Legal Access, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, Charleston County Magistrate Courts, the Charleston School of Law, Trident Urban League, 2-1-1 Hotline, the City of Charleston and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP. 

The magistrate courts and the project partners will draw up criteria to determine who is eligible to participate in the Pilot Project.  Under the Commission’s proposal, the process for connecting potential eligible tenants with attorneys is two-fold.  For tenants who contact the magistrate courts to request an eviction hearing, one will be scheduled for a designated housing court day.  The tenant will then call 2-1-1, which can screen the tenant for income eligibility and connect the tenant with a local legal services provider such as SCLS to meet with the tenant and determine whether representation will be provided. 

For tenants who do not call 2-1-1 ahead of their scheduled hearing, One80 Place will coordinate with the Charleston School of Law and other pro bono attorneys to place someone at the relevant magistrate courts on the days designated for housing court.  For tenants that desire representation, they will meet with the legal counsel and, depending on the facts of the tenant’s case, the attorney will try the case or attempt to mediate it or otherwise resolve the matter with the landlord outside of trial. 

The Chief Justice’s order delineates several data points that must be kept in order to track the Pilot Project’s effectiveness.  These include the  

  1.   number of tenants represented and by whom
  2.   number of evictions filed
  3.   number of hearings requested
  4.   number of evictions that were settled or dismissed
  5.  number of tenants provided financial support
  6. number of evictions averted by mediation, hearing, or financial support
  7. number of evictions with writs of ejectment issued; and
  8. a comparison of number of evictions filed and the number of writs of ejectment in the three pilot project Magistrate Courts with the number of evictions of the other Magistrate Courts in Charleston County.

There is no official start date for the Pilot Project, which may take time to set up.  However, the May 29th order was a necessary and powerful signal that evictions in Charleston County will start getting the attention they deserve while tenants get the legal services they need.


 [MF1]Can we turn this phrase into a hyperlink to the order at https://www.sccourts.org/whatsnew/displayWhatsNew.cfm?indexId=2391

Helping Victims of Stalking

I watched the episode below of the television series, Stalked, several years ago and it forever changed my understanding of stalking.

This episode is based on real life events. The print from the mirror being licked, in particular, helped me better understand the fear and the invasion of privacy that stalking victims experience. The constant fear of being watched and repeated acts of unwanted conduct is psychological torment. Whereas an incident of physical abuse is limited in time to the actual act itself, even if it recurs, stalking, and the anxiety it produces, takes place on a 24 hour, never ending continuum. For example, the opposing party in one of my recent divorce cases was physically abusive towards my client, but his repeated phone calls to her after the separation disturbed her even more than the hitting and shoving. He would repeatedly call and text client, as often as ninety times within a 90-minute period. His contact would occur all throughout the day, as early as 9 a.m. and as late as 2 a.m. He would show up in places where he knew she would visit, like the gym. To make matters worse, it can be difficult to get legal relief as a stalking victim because the harassment is harder to prove than physical abuse. There is usually less evidence and stalkers often use technology to conceal their identity.

I recently participated in a webinar, SPARC: Identifying and Responding to Stalking, presented by the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center. Here are three tips from the webinar that I find helpful when serving our South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) clients who are victims of stalking:

  1. A web-based service that lets you know who is behind an anonymous blocked Caller ID: www.trapcall.com.  When a call is declined, the phone rings back and unmasks the calling number, providing you with information about who is calling and where they live, even before the call is answered. It stops spam callers and automatically blocks spam, telemarketing and robocalls. Stalkers often call victims from apps that assign them different phone numbers. It also allows the person who was called to record incoming calls, which can be used to provide police and attorneys with proof of harassment. Note that this is a paid service.
  2. Stalkers often use apps to change the number shown on the Caller ID to make it appear that it is a friend or family member of the victim that is calling. This is known as spoofing. One way to prove spoofing is to obtain the phone records from the victim, the supposed calling friend or relative, and the suspect. The victim’s record will show the “friend” called, the friend’s records will show that no call was placed. The suspect’s records will show a call to a spoof service. Financial records or a review of the suspect’s app store on a cell phone can reveal the purchase of apps used to stalk victims.
  3. Victims should usually be advised to have no contact at all with the offender. If a stalker calls the victim 59 times, and the victim answers the 59th call, it reinforces to the stalker that they only have to call 59 times the next time and they will be rewarded by the victim’s answering. However, stopping all contact may not be the best advice in all situations. Victims are in the best position to know how to keep themselves safe. It may be safer for them to have limited contact to minimize the threat. Telling a client to change their phone number may escalate the threat of physical harm if the stalker then acts out due to a loss of control or contact. Telling a victim to move or change their number may put them at more risk if they can still be found at their place of employment or a relative or friend’s home.

Because of the challenges facing the staking victims, it important for those of us who represent and assist them to stay informed on the dynamics of stalking and ever-evolving tactics that stalkers use. If you are a victim of stalking, South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help. To apply, please call our statewide Intake Office at 1-888-346-5592. You can call between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm, Monday through Thursday. We also have an Apply Online option for a limited number of legal issues: http://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.

Judgment Proof

NOTE: All the names in this article have been changed to protect their identity.

Veronica Blake thought she needed to file bankruptcy when she was sued by Sunshine Finance.  South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) clients are often fearful that bankruptcy is the only answer, because debt buyers and finance companies often tell them that. However, when you are on a fixed income and have no assets to protect (such as a house or a car), the creditor has no remedy against you other than to get a judgment that they cannot collect.  We call this the bankruptcy bypass or being judgment proof, because South Carolina law prohibits garnishment of wages for consumer debt. Additionally, if a consumer has a house or a car to protect, the property exemptions found in S.C. Code 15-41-30 usually protect them without the necessity of filing bankruptcy.  You can find our brochure about being judgment proof here.

As for Ms. Blake, SCLS accepted her case and filed an Answer denying the alleged debt.  That kind of Answer is called a general denial.  In response to the general denial, Sunshine Finance voluntarily dismissed its case against Ms. Blake.  It turns out that there was no need for the client to file for bankruptcy. SCLS often has clients who are sued for collection by a debt buyer like Sunshine Finance.  A debt buyer is an entity that is in the business of buying a debt for “pennies on the dollar” and then trying to collect the entire amount from the consumer.  They most often have no way of proving the underlying debt, so, if they sue a consumer, they rely on the consumer not responding.  In that case, the debt buyer gets a default judgment and the requirement of proof is very limited or, in some cases, nonexistent. 

When SCLS represents the consumer, the debt buyer or other creditor is forced to present evidence with a live witness. This usually results in a dismissal, as in the case of this client, or in a settlement. As of the date of this article, SCLS had over 100 pending cases to defend consumers from debt collection and unconscionable collection practices. The S.C. Consumer Protection Code and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act are 2 of the tools we use most often to protect clients from these practices.

Student Loans and You

Over 40 million Americans have an average student loan debt of $30,000.00. Because they are unemployed or have income below the poverty line, 28% of borrowers are unable to make payments on their student loans. It is important to be aware of all the effects, advantages and disadvantages of taking out a student loan.

If you are only thinking about attending college, think carefully about whether your degree is likely to land you a job with a high enough salary to be able to repay your student loans. If you are already in college, having a part-time job may allow you to set some money aside to help pay for the loans after you graduate or pay some of the interest on the loans while in school. Consider other options to save money while in school: cook at home instead of eating out, look for more affordable housing, buy or rent used textbooks. Finally, stay in touch with your financial aid office to see if you qualify for any grants and financial aid.

If you are already out of college and have student loans, here is some important information to keep in mind. Your lenders are ready to collect on the loans as soon as you are out of school, and they will. The Federal government can garnish up to 15% of your weekly pay or 30 times the hourly minimum wage – whatever is less. The government can also capture your tax refund or send your loan to a collection agency.

If you need to delay repayment or temporarily stop making payments on your federal student loans, check here to see if you are eligible for a deferment or forbearance. If you have other loans, contact the lender about income-based repayment programs to help you set up a more appropriate payment plan. They are required to set you up for whichever repayment plan you qualify.

If you are struggling with making regular payments on your student loans, here are some resources to help educate you on your options.

  • Equal Justice Works offers a free informational webinar that explains how you can reduce your monthly student loan payments and qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. You can register for the webinar here. They also offer a free e-book entitled “How to Manage Your Student Loan Debt While Pursuing a Public Interest Career” which can be downloaded here.
  • Visit the Federal Student Aid website for information on how to repay your loans, loan consolidation, forgiveness and discharge, and more.
  • Check out our free resources on student loans, financial education, financial aid scams and more.

Remember, with very few exceptions, both federal and private student loans must be repaid. In many cases, you cannot fully discharge them in bankruptcy. It is important that you make timely payments, and if you are unable to do so, that you seek help. South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help. To apply, please call our statewide Intake Office at 1-888-346-5592. You can call between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm, Monday through Thursday. We also have an Apply Online option for a limited number of legal issues: http://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.

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