The first time Lela Holiday’s parents could afford to buy property, they were in their 50s. They didn’t have much, Holiday said, and were proud of the one-story house they built down a dirt road in Scotia, a majority Black settlement in rural Hampton County.
Holiday eventually left the South but kept the land, gifted from her parents, the Badgers, after they passed away. It was “part of their legacy,” she said, “the last piece of them.”
For 40 years, she dutifully paid property taxes. But in December, Holiday received a letter at her New Jersey address. Her family land was in danger, she learned, thanks to a lawsuit filed by a well-known Bluffton real estate agent’s son and his lawyer, a South Carolina state senator.
The suit argues the Badger family plot should legally belong to someone else, employing a part of S.C. law that allows for the hostile takeover of property.
The legal proceedings shine light on how the doctrine, known as “adverse possession,” can be used to strip land away from unsuspecting, faraway property owners. In rural South Carolina, it also evokes a documented history of the rich and powerful using their resources, often through the courts, to dispossess scores of Black landowners, who often lack legal resources or clear title to property.
It raises questions for the prominent state senator, Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who has in the past advocated for African American landowners at the State House and through his own legal practice.
This suit, Davis said, is no land grab.
There’s a clear boundary dispute on the property, he said, and a lawsuit was necessary for both parties. He gave Holiday’s attorney an extension to respond to the suit so Holiday would not lose her land, he said.
Davis and the real estate agent, Nickey Maxey, merely want to clear up the title issues, they say, and have no interest in trying to take the Badgers’ family property.
But the lawsuit’s language argues just that.
Land slips away from Black family at foreclosure auction
The origins of the case date back more than 20 years, when, according to Holiday, a miscommunication between her and her siblings left a federal farmer’s mortgage unpaid, triggering foreclosure.
Holiday said a judge ordered the one-acre parcel to be put up for auction before the family even realized there was a problem.
Holiday, who then worked at Prudential Financial in New Jersey, could not be located to be notified about the case, court records say. She was instead served by a notice in the local paper hundreds of miles away, The Hampton County Guardian.
The buyer at the 2000 auction? Realtor Nickey Maxey and business partner Frank Gaston, who later sold Maxey his interest in the property. Their winning bid was $20,000.
Maxey’s purchase split the Badger plot in two. Years passed. He put up a gate. He remodeled and moved into the house, he said. He invited Bluffton’s old guard to gather and hunt there. Now, he wants it to be his son’s.
But the house he is using — built on the foundations of Holiday’s parents’ house — sits partly on property still owned by Holiday, who is now retired, and her brother, Roosevelt Badger.
Maxey offered to buy it almost a decade ago, Holiday said. She refused to sell.
Lawsuit asks for land transfer for property used as hunting lodge
Now Maxey’s 20-year-old son, Colton Maxey, and his lawyer, Davis, the GOP senator from Beaufort, have sued, asking a judge to confirm that Maxey owns the Badgers’ property, citing his occupation of the land.
The lawsuit, filed in November in Hampton County, refers to Holiday as “Lila Mae B. Holeyday,” as her name is erroneously listed on relevant public records. It asks a judge to affirm Colton Maxey’s ownership of the Badger family land through the legal doctrine of “adverse possession” — a land takeover permitted under S.C. law after 10 years of unchallenged occupation.
The lawsuit claims that between 2002 and 2019, Nickey Maxey, as an individual then as a trustee, owned both the one-acre parcel he purchased in the foreclosure sale and the 1.6 acres owned by the Badger family, according to public records.
Because Maxey’s possession of the 1.6-acre parcel was “continuous, hostile, actual, open, notorious, and exclusive to all others,” he effectively owned it, the suit says.
Davis said that Maxey, a Tennessee-born former state trooper turned entrepreneur and Realtor, has used the Hampton County land as a vacation home. Maxey said he once owned bigger tracts in the rural area near Scotia.
The green house is cut off from the road by a white fence with wrought iron gates installed by Maxey. Behind it sits a two-story garage and out-building on Maxey’s parcel.
Satellite imagery appears to show that the white fence, blocking the land from the road, was constructed on the property sometime in 2011 or 2012, about 10 years ago.
Two months before the lawsuit was filed, in September 2020, photos posted on the real estate agent’s Facebook page show a well-attended Lowcountry boil on the property. Maxey, his son Colton and a group of camo-clad guests are seen smiling and chatting in front of a wall of mounted deer heads on the property.
Davis, the state senator and former chief of staff to S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, is in two of the photos, wearing a camo shirt, blue jeans and dress shoes.
The lawsuit he filed lays out a transfer of the Badger parcel to Colton Maxey and asks the judge to confirm his ownership. The two-page complaint does not discuss compensation for the property.
Nickey Maxey said he didn’t know until a few years ago that the home he had been occupying was on the Badgers’ property. The lawsuit is just a legal formality to get “everybody to the table” and see if the Badger family will sell the land or agree to move the property line, he said.
“There’s a major problem in the property line,” he said. “We just want to settle it and move on. Nobody’s trying to take it. It’s not a big deal.”
But Maxey’s stature in the community and Davis’ position in the state legislature worry Holiday, who has retained an attorney to fight the suit.
“I’m just a small fish in this pond,” Holiday said. “I’m just hoping and praying that we maintain the rights to that property.”
Maxey, who filed in 2019 to run for Bluffton Town Council before dropping out of the race, serves on the S.C. Department of Natural Resources law enforcement advisory board. He simply wants a settlement that makes “both parties whole,” Davis said.
Lawsuits like this that attempt to remove the cloud surrounding the title of a property are necessary, “common and unremarkable,” Davis said.
“It isn’t fair to characterize it as something sinister,” he added.
After filing the suit, Davis said he proposed a lot-line adjustment that would give Maxey clear title to the house on the property and give Holiday and Badger a larger portion of the wooded land nearby.
Davis said the aggressive language in his lawsuit is necessary in a case proving adverse possession. He said he’s sympathetic to the Badger family and has gone “above and beyond” to show their attorney that Maxey is just trying to clear up the property dispute.
“A lot of people don’t understand what adverse possession is, and they don’t understand boundary disputes,” he said. “In cases like this, where you’ve got a clear title discrepancy to clear up, the only thing you can do is go to a court and plead your case.”
Cherese Handy, Holiday’s lawyer, said she’s open to the property line adjustment, but first wants the land surveyed to see how much of the home encroaches on Maxey’s property.
The house, Handy said, is important to the Badger family. Roosevelt Badger, Holiday’s brother, has plans to move back to the property and make it his home, she said.
Accusations of trespassing
On Feb. 13, Handy filed a blistering response to the lawsuit, refuting Colton Maxey’s claim to the property.
Handy’s answer, which enjoins Nickey Maxey and the family’s trust in the suit, accuses the Realtor and his son of trespassing on the Badgers’ property.
The counter-suit asks a judge to force the Maxeys to remove the fence around the property and prohibit Colton, Nickey and any guests from “entering, accessing, encroaching, or otherwise using” Holiday’s and Badger’s land.
The transfer of the land to Colton Maxey last year is invalid, it says.
Handy wants the court to rule that the Maxey family does not own Holiday and Badger’s land and order the family to remove the fence on the property, she said.
Cases like this, in which a family is in danger of losing inherited land through the courts, happen all the time, she said. Longtime property owners sometimes face intimidation or are unaware of their rights and end up losing their land, she said.
“Legal representation is expensive, and most property owners who have inherited property simply do not have the means to defend against allegations,” she said. “They end up not responding to the complaint” and lose the land without even realizing what happened.
This fight is wearing on Holiday.
“It’s been stressful. I didn’t think a lawsuit like this was possible,” she said. “That property meant so much to my parents.”
She said she would be open to a property line adjustment, but emphasized that Maxey’s lawsuit isn’t asking to realign the land. It’s asking for all of it.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I know what I read,” she said. “It didn’t say anything about property alignment.”
The businessman and the senator
Holiday and her family worry that they are at a disadvantage in this fight.
Maxey’s real estate listings online feature sprawling mansions and waterfront properties in some of Hilton Head’s priciest areas. Maxey himself lives in an upscale home off Bluffton’s May River Road.
“I’m not prominent like Mr. Maxey,” said Holiday, who lives in a modest single-family home in a suburb of Newark. “I know that sometimes money wins. Money has a way of buying things.”
And then there is the opposing attorney, the state senator.
Asked about the photos on Facebook, Davis said he attended a party on the property hosted by Maxey but said it had no weight on his decision to take Maxey’s case.
“I’m a real estate lawyer, and Nickey’s a client,” he said, adding it’s likely the suit will be resolved out of court.
Cynthia Maxey, Nickey’s wife, has worked as the liaison for the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation since 2015, according to her Linkedin profile. The delegation comprises the nine elected state legislators in the county, including Davis.
Asked about this, Davis again said his connections with the Maxey family didn’t cause him to take the case. He’s doing his job, he said.
In addition to serving as a state senator, Davis has handled real estate claims for over 35 years. His track record shows a history of supporting the preservation of Black families’ land.
Almost 30 years ago, he worked pro bono with the 255 heirs of 47 Black farmers who fought to keep their family’s land on St. Helena.
“That remains the most satisfying piece of work I’ve done in over 35 years of practicing law,” he wrote on Facebook of the case.
Last year, Davis co-authored legislation that extended the redemption period for people who lost property in 2019 at delinquent tax sales, one of the most prevalent ways Black landowners in the Lowcountry lose property each year.
Asked why he would take on a case that appears an attempt to dispossess a Black family of its land, Davis said he realizes how it may look, but promised that Maxey intends only to clear the property title.
Holiday isn’t so sure.
“I want them to know this was a gift from my parents,” she said. “I would like to keep it as part of their legacy and my legacy. Let me make the decisions about what happens to it, not them.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that misspellings of Lela Holiday’s name in some lawsuit documents originate with errors on public records.