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Every once in a while, a decision handed down by the D.C. Court of Appeals makes for a good yarn. Such was the case last Thursday, when the court rendered a 53-page opinion in the case of Maria-Theresa Wilson, an old lady who had her house stolen out from under her by some real estate scammers—and after five years in court, finally came out on top.
Wilson bought her house at 1360 Taylor Street NW in 1981, and lived in it continuously for nearly two decades. She suffered a head injury in 1997, causing epilepsy and seizures. After the death of her father, she spent much of her time caring for her mother a few blocks away, and in 2001 rented out part of her house to help make the mortgage payments. In 2003, though, she owed enough on the house for it to go into foreclosure.
Five days before the foreclosure date, Calvin Baltimore came knocking on Wilson’s door, offering to loan her enough money to keep her in her house. His card read:
Baltimore Company, Money Lenders, Buy and
Sell Homes, 24 Hours, Seven Days a Week,
Foreclosures Specialists, Calvin Baltimore,
President, CEO, CPA.,
The back of the card read:
We will help you to save the equity in your home.
We will buy your home, pay off your mortgage,
pay you your equity. We will also pay your
mortgage current, stop foreclosure, lease the home
back to you, give you some money and give you a
chance to buy back when you continue to live in
your home. Please call immediately for help.
But Baltimore wasn’t a money lender or a certified public accountant (he claimed in trial that “CPA” was printed in error). Instead, he prepared pre-foreclosure contracts for Vincent Abell, who ran a company called Modern Management. Wilson didn’t want to sell her home, and Baltimore assured her she wouldn’t have to, but rather could lease it back at $1,800 per month.
Baltimore took Wilson to a law office to meet Abell, and the pair snowed her paper—she effectively signed over her house, while they told her the property documents were only a “legal fiction” to help escape foreclosure. In the end, Wilson was still liable for her mortgage, but also a tenant in her own home. When she failed to make the rent payments, Abell evicted her.
After hearing the story, the lower court awarded Wilson $60,000 in compensatory damages, and hit Abell with $2 million in punitive damages, on top of $1.1 million for his company. Baltimore got $200,000. The duo protested that the court shouldn’t have allowed Wilson to submit evidence that they had completed one hundred similar transactions, which persuaded the jury to inflate the punitive damages. The appeals court dismissed all their complaints save one, a technical distinction about the calculation of damages, which knocked off $40,000.
Wilson’s case actually isn’t that uncommon: Washington Legal Counsel for the Elderly has a staff attorney devoted solely to foreclosure defense cases for low-income old folk. They’re especially vulnerable to sudden foreclosure—like Wilson, they might live somewhere else and not check for a 30-day foreclosure notice in the mail every day, or avoid it if they see it.
“If you’re behind on your bills, no good news comes via certified mail,” says LCE staff attorney Amy Mix. The organization tries to respond as rapidly as possible when they hear of these cases, and is working with the Recorder of Deeds to get lists of foreclosure notices as they come out.