Kilpatrick Stockton



Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
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Kilpatrick Stockton (100)


Since 1855, when a freed slave named Alexander Freeman bought land on the coast of North Carolina, people have used the land—known as Freeman Beach—for recreation and tourism. During the Jim Crow era, Freeman Beach was the only beach open to local African Americans. Now a park operated by the City of Carolina Beach, the beach still belongs to many of Freeman's descendants, but The Am Law Pro Bono 100they're in danger of losing it: A developer has claimed majority ownership interest in the land and has petitioned for it to be auctioned off in a partition sale, which could result in the land going to the developer for far below market value. Pro bono lawyers from Kilpatrick Stockton's Raleigh office, including partners Gregg McDougal and Gary Joyner and associate Marina Carreker, are representing Freeman family members as they attempt to preserve what they say is a historic part of their family's legacy.

"This property has significant historical meaning," McDougal says. "They wouldn't be paid market value, and more importantly, they'd lose their family land."

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Land Rich, an initiative that helps poor landowners derive greater value from their land, brought the Freemans' case to Kilpatrick two years ago. The attorneys interviewed dozens of Freeman descendants, uncovering a complex history. After Alexander Freeman died, the land passed to his son Robert Bruce Freeman, who died without a written will. As a result, the land passed to his descendants as "heirs' property," meaning that ultimately hundreds of descendants inherited the property as tenants-in-common, each with an undivided interest in the land. It's unclear which Freeman descendants have title to the land, or whether a legal title was ever made, and the family lacked the resources to obtain legal help on their own.

In an October 2008 petition filed with the Superior Court of New Hanover County, developer Freeman Beach LLC laid its own claim to the beach, saying that it owned 72 percent interest because of a 1940 judgment on a defaulted loan by some of Robert Freeman's heirs, and through buyouts of current heirs. It wants the court to order a partition auction sale of the remainder. In partition sales, other developers often don't have enough time to thoroughly inspect the land, and the original heirs lack cash, so the first developer can acquire the land at a fire sale price, McDougal says.

Kilpatrick attorneys filed a response to the petition in December, arguing that the developer does not have rights to the land, paving the way for hearings on the dispute. But because a Freeman heir died recently, the hearings have been pushed back indefinitely.

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