Westbrook v. Murkin GroupAnnotate this Case
The issue this case presented for the South Carolina Supreme Court's review centered on whether Respondent, the Murkin Group, LLC (Murkin), engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). In April 2017, the Wando River Grill (Restaurant) became dissatisfied with the service of its linen supplier (Cintas) and Cintas' ability to supply the type of linens Restaurant needed. Restaurant contacted another supplier to secure some or all of its required linens and notified Cintas of its need to suspend at least a portion of Cintas' services. Cintas claimed Restaurant's suspension of service constituted a breach of the parties' contract, invoked a liquidated damages provision in the contract, sought more than $8,000 in damages, and hired Murkin to collect the outstanding debt. Petitioner, a South Carolina attorney, represented Restaurant in the resulting dispute. In April 2018, Murkin sent a demand-for-payment letter to Restaurant. Because a Murkin-prepared reinstatement agreement materially altered the terms of the parties' original contract and imposed new obligations on Restaurant and because the agreement's terms were contrary to discussions Cintas personnel had directly with Restaurant, Restaurant sent the proposed reinstatement agreement to Petitioner. All further communications were handled through Murkin. Ultimately, Restaurant did not sign the reinstatement agreement, and no South Carolina counsel for Murkin or Cintas contacted Petitioner. Further, Murkin threatened litigation of the dispute was not resolved. Petitioner then asked Murkin for the South Carolina Bar numbers of several Murkin employees, but Murkin felt Petitioner's desire to deal with Murkin's local counsel "means nothing, since that is a decision made between our client and our office." Murkin further claimed authority to bind any attorney to whom Murkin referred the matter to settle for no less than Murkin demanded. Petitioner lodged a petition with the Supreme Court, alleging UPL. A special master appointed by the Court determined Murkin went beyond the "mere collection of debt" and crossed into UPL by negotiating the contract dispute; purporting to advise Cintas as to what legal action it should take; advising the parties as to whether to take a settlement offer; and purporting to control whether and when the case would be referred to an attorney. The Supreme Court concurred Murkin's actions constituted UPL.