Federal jury awards $115,030 to two tenants evicted without notice

Landlord had bought lien on city house at tax sale

June 04, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A federal jury in Baltimore awarded $115,030 yesterday to two people evicted from the home they were renting, because they were never given adequate notice by a local investment company that had foreclosed on the property after purchasing a city tax lien at auction.

The jury award against Tax Sale Investors Inc. included compensatory damages of $40,000 each to Elbert Sallie, 70, and his cousin, Diana Marshall, 53, who lost jewelry, electronic equipment and mementos after the company had their possessions put on the street outside the Northeast Baltimore home.

They also were awarded $35,000 in punitive damages from the company, which has purchased thousands of liens at the city's annual tax sales over the past few years. A $30 assessment -- unpaid interest on the damage deposit -- will also go to the two tenants.

"The only words I have to say that will sum this up is that justice was done," Marshall said after the jury's award.

"Maybe this won't happen to anybody else," added Sallie.

The president of Tax Sale Investors, Nicholas A. Piscatelli, apologized to Sallie after the two-day trial before U.S. Magistrate William G. Connelly and called the August 1996 incident "regrettable."

"There was never any intent to do any harm to these people," said Piscatelli, who was not held personally liable for the eviction. "When I found out what happened, I did what I could do -- I put them back in the house." The couple, who were out of the house for several hours after the eviction, have lived in the home since.

Andrew D. Freeman, the attorney for Sallie and Marshall, said there was no evidence that his clients got "any warning at all" about the eviction.

Freeman and housing advocates said the jury's verdict might help ensure that landlords, especially those who take over properties in foreclosure, do not ignore the rights of tenants.

"The message is that illegal evictions are indeed illegal and there are ramifications," said Lorinda Riddle, program manager with the tenant-landlord counseling service of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc.

The U.S. District Court jury award follows by a week a $100,000 settlement of a case brought in Baltimore Circuit Court by an impoverished couple illegally evicted in East Baltimore by George A. Dangerfield, a convicted drug dealer and housing scofflaw.

The federal case stemmed from the brief eviction of Sallie and Marshall from the house in the 4800 block of Claybury Ave. They had rented the home since 1989.

Sallie and Marshall did not know that the Florida owner of the house was behind on city tax payments, or that Tax Sale Investors had purchased the lien and foreclosed on the property. The investment company then obtained an eviction notice without properly informing the tenants.

Sallie and Marshall claimed that Tax Sale Investor's failure to provide adequate notice violated their rights to due process under the U.S. Constitution.

Tax Sale's lawyer, Selig Solomon, argued that the company complied with state law at the time, which specified that notice be given to property owners, not renters. That law has been changed. Connelly told the jury the Constitution superseded state law.

The lawsuit had also named as defendants Baltimore Sheriff John W. Anderson, whose office helped carry out the eviction, and city finance director William R. Brown Jr., whose office runs the annual tax sale. Both were dismissed from the case.

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