South Carolina Episcopalians

not affiliated with ACNA, the Episcopal Church or any of their dioceses

An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans

August 1, 2018  (rev. July 3, 2019)

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 belonged them and not 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 do you say this is a 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."


It's a little tough to decipher the legalistic wording, but it is saying that if you mistakenly thought you owned a piece of property and made improvements on that property--  and the rightful owner took you to court and won -- you could sue the rightful owner for compensation for the investment you made in his property.


Yes, it is a crazy law and you can see why the statute is not utilized very much. 


You can also see how the Lawrencians legal status precludes it from bringing a lawsuit under this statute.  In legal jargon, Lawrence and company lack "standing" to bring a Betterments lawsuit against the Church.


1.  Losing Defendant.  The very first line of the statute states clearly that its provisions only apply in cases in which the plaintiff has won a judgment against a defendant who mistakenly made improvements to the plaintiff's property. 


In Lawrence's 2013 lawsuit, Lawrence & 29 congregations loyal to him were the plaintiffs ... but they lost. 


Interestingly, the parties in the Lawrence lawsuit that do have standing to bring a case under the Betterments statute are the defendants, the Episcopal Church and its continuing diocese known as The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.  With respect to the seven plaintiff parishes that were allowed to leave the Church, the Church and the  local diocese were defendants who lost the case because they  mistakenly thought the seven plaintiff parishes belonged to them.   Under this statute, the seven parishes could owe the Church compensation for the value of their property and buildings.


2.  Conceding Defeat.  In the first line, "final judgement" means that a lawsuit under the Betterments statute cannot be brought unless the case on which it is based has been concluded.  So by filing a lawsuit under the Betterments statute, the Lawrencians are conceding that their legal fight against the Church is over and that the final judgement in that case is the 2017 decision by the state Supreme Court. 


The Lawrencian position gets even messier because, outside the courtroom,  Lawrence and his high command continue to insist the case is not over.

3.  Standing. According to the statute, those who have standing to seek compensation under the Betterments statute by definition are agreeing that the property in question is occupied by people who are not its rightful owners.  Until their lawyers filed their claims under the Betterments statute, the Lawrencians had never admitted that they were not the rightful owners of their parish property.


Once again, outside the courtroom Lawrence is continuing to insist that he and his followers are the rightful owners of the properties in dispute -- exactly the opposite of what his legal team is doing inside with the Betterments statute.

4. Honest mistake.  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.


5.   It was never about property.  The Betterments statute was designed to provide compensation in property cases.  The problem for the breakaway legal team is that their 2013 lawsuit and the resulting 2017 ruling by the state's high court were not about the ownership of property.   From the outset of the case, Church attorneys agreed with the Lawrencians that the 29 parish properties in question were owned by the local congregations.


The lawsuit and the final judgement rendered by the high court were about trust laws in South Carolina.   The governing documents of the Episcopal Church include something known as the Dennis Canon.  It states that parishes own their own properties, but that ownership is contingent on the parishes holding them in trust for the Episcopal Church.


The central issue in the Lawrence lawsuit then was whether parishes were free to cancel that trust relationship and still maintain ownership of their properties.   The state Supreme Court said they could not.  By refusing to hear Lawrence's appeal of the case, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the decision to become settled law in South Carolina in June 2018.


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