DETROIT – A federal case set for a class action certification hearing Oct. 14 at 2 p.m., before U.S. District Court Judge Marianne Battani, could invalidate the foreclosures of more than 80,000 Wayne County residents while Warren Evans was Sheriff. So says attorney Chiketa Palmore, who along with Attorney Paul Nicoletti is representing 46 plaintiffs who say Evans’ office issued legally invalid sheriff’s deeds to take their homes.
The suit, Sherie Williams, Yvonne Cross, et. al. v. Wayne County Sheriff, has gained the support of Rev. Edwin Rowe of Central United Methodist Church, Rev. David Bullock, Detroit Rainbow:PUSH leader, and others who held a press conference at Rowe’s church Sept. 10.
It contends that Evans never authorized six Wayne County employees to act as Deputy Sheriffs in certifying the sheriff’s deeds. In some cases, no auctions leading to the deeds were conducted. The defendants are Evans, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, the County Board of Commissioners, and Wayne County itself.
“Our case is based on a hypertechnicality, but we are saying that if homeowners and taxpayers are held to the black letter of the law, public officials should be held to the same standard,” Palmore said.
“If a homeowner goes one day past the six-month redemption period to pay taxes to reclaim their home, they lose their home. There’s no gray area, no wiggle reoom. Evans ignored a provision of the law which says that he himself must authorize the deed. Allegedly, he verbally told his undersheriff to appoint six or employees to do so, but there are no written documents to that effect. He issued a written affidavit after we filed suit, but that is after the fact.”
The lawsuit specifies that Evans did not sign or authorize appointments of Deputy Sheriff, record them with the Wayne County Clerk, issue oaths of office to the erstwhile Deputies, or post the statutory bonds required.
In some cases, says the suit, “The Sheriff’s sale was not conducted at the time and place stated in the Sheriff’s Deed that was subsequently recorded with the Wayne County Register o Deeds.”
Palmore said District Court judges and a bankruptcy judge have issued decisions on their side in other areas of the country, while there have also been decision to the contrary. But she said, these are non-precedental decisions. U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani, who is hearing the case, will have the opportunity to render her own opinion Oct. 14.
Palmore said the county is claiming “harmless error” in the case.
“But you can’t get to ‘harmless error’ until you get past the point of the sheriff’s deed being invalid,” she contended. “How do you unring the bell?”
The lawsuit charges fraud, gross negligence, taking without just compensation, and civil conspiracy, among other allegations. Under terms of the Michigan Consumers’ Act, Nicoletti said earlier, property owners may be awarded compensatory damages, including costs of loss of the home’s contents and subsequent vandalism of the homes.
In some cases where homes have not been damaged or vandalized, Palmore said, the plaintiffs may be able to move back into their properties pending re-institution of foreclosure proceedings.
The county filed a motion to dismiss the case in July, claiming “that plaintiffs have either (1) failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted;(2) defendants are entitled to judgment on the pleadings; or (3) there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
The motion to dismiss was denied in part by U.S. District Magistrate Steven Whalen. He ordered plaintiffs who had not shown up at various hearings to pay $500 in sanctions. He granted in part a motion by the plaintiffs to compel discovery, ordering that five “deputy sheriffs” and eleven notaries show up for scheduled depositions, which they had ignored, within 21 days.
Yvonne Cross, who has faced foreclosures on several properties, initiated the proceedings several years ago after combing through county documents pertaining to hers and other cases.
In an individual action, Cross won back ownership of her home on Atkinson, which originally belonged to her grandmother. She obtained an affidavit from Attorney Kate Ben-Ami of the sheriff’s office stating that no sheriff’s auction had been held on the date and time specified in the sheriff’s deed. She has obtained similar affidavits regarding other properties, including one in Macomb County. Cross has also filed actions with the state’s attorney grievance commission against six attorneys from the law firm of Trott and Trott who were involved in the sale of her grandmother’s home.
“Trott and Trott is king of the foreclosure business,” said Cross. In the case of at least one plaintiff, Anthony King, the bank gave authority to Trott and Trott to sign for it and conduct all foreclosure proceedings in its name, according to a document filed with the Wayne County Register of Deeds.
Yet, said Palmore, Trott and Trott and other firms frequently delay resolutions of cases by claiming they have to go back to the lenders to discuss the matter.
“It makes no sense,” said Palmore. “It’s an insurmountable vicious circle. People holding the mortgages have the power. They get paid through insurance with Fannie Mae if the homeowner defaults. They got billions in TARP money, so what reason do they have to negotiate?”
The Troubled Assets Relief Program instituted by President Barack Obama required that companies receiving bail-outs be required to negotiate lower, affordable monthly rates on mortgages to keep people in their homes. However, said foreclosure attorney Jerome Goldberg, they have approved only six to seven percent of requested loan modifications nationally.
Palmore said all attorneys currently dealing with the massive foreclosures facing Detroit and Wayne County should unite in a consortium to share their resources and expertise. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and UAW President Bob King are calling for a national moratorium on foreclosures to stem the growing decay of cities like Detroit.
To contact attorney Paul Nicoletti, call (248) 203-7800; attorney Chiketa Palmore can be reached at 313 613-0938. Yvonne Cross can be reached at 313-221-4102.