South Carolina Episcopalians

An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans

not affiliated with ACNA, the Episcopal Church or its dioceses

August 1, 2018

Returning Parishes Wasting Time and Money on Nuisance Lawsuit under 'Betterments' Statute

By bringing an action under the obscure law, former breakaway parishes have conceded defeat and accepted the August 2017 Supreme Court decision

Last fall lawyers for Mark Lawrence and 29 former breakaway parishes reacted to their August 2017 loss in the state Supreme Court by filing a nuisance lawsuit against the Episcopal Church, demanding unspecified reimbursement for improvements to parish properties they claim they mistakenly thought were not part of the Episcopal Church. 

The lawsuit was filed under an obscure law known as the "Betterments Statute" (Section 27-27-10 of the S.C. Code of Laws) and was one of several signals that the group planned to stall implementation of the landmark ruling rather than letting everyone get back to proclaiming the Gospel.

Why it is a classic nuisance lawsuit

Here's how the statute reads...

"After final judgment in favor of the plaintiff in an action to recover lands and tenements, if the defendant has purchased or acquired the lands and tenements recovered in such action or taken a lease thereof or those under whom he holds have purchased or acquired a title to such lands and tenements or taken a lease thereof, supposing at the time of such purchase or acquisition such title to be good in fee or such lease to convey and secure the title and interest therein expressed, such defendant shall be entitled to recover of the plaintiff in such action the full value of all improvements made upon such land by such defendant or those under whom he claims, in the manner provided in this chapter."

Here are a few reasons why the returning parishes' lawsuit is ridiculous:

--  In the very first line of the statute, it says it only applies in cases in which the plaintiff wins.  In this case, Lawrence & Company were the plaintiffs and they lost.  Therefore, they do not have legal standing to even bring an action under this statute. 

--  In the first line, "final judgement" means that such an action cannot be brought unless the case in question is over.  Lawrence's attorneys maintain the case is not over and won't be for years.

-- Paraphrasing Professor Ron Caldwell, whose analysis was echoed by online legal advisors to SC Episcopalians, those seeking compensation under the Betterments statute assume the property in question is occupied by people who are not its rightful owners.  Plaintiffs seeking monetary compensation under these laws are, in fact, conceding that the property is owned by someone else.

-- Even more compelling, the hardline leadership in many former pro-Lawrence parishes have already announced that they are leaving their parish properties and have taken steps to establish new worshiping communities in new locations.  This too appears to be an explicit admission that they accept the ruling of the state Supreme Court that they were never sole owners of their parish properties. 

Finally, by seeking compensation under the Betterments law, the returning parishes not only admit they were wrong when they claimed to be the rightful owners of their properties, they are saying it was an honest mistake made in good faith. 

That, of course, is a non-starter.  None of the pro-Lawrence parishes has ever suggested they were not part of the Episcopal Church or sole owners of their property until Lawrencian attorneys told them it would be a clever way to leave the Church and get free stuff on the way out the door.  In addition, they were sufficiently aware that their claim to owning their parishes properties was at least somewhat sketchy since they filed a lawsuit asking the state courts to tell them who the rightful owners actually are.

(Interestingly though, the Betterments statute would apply if the Church wanted to go after reimbursement from the seven pro-Lawrence parishes that were allowed to leave under the 2017 ruling by the high court since they were plaintiffs in the Lawrence lawsuit and won.  Most likely they would have to pay the Church the fair market value for the property and financial assets of their parishes.)

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