Couple fight to keep home in Columbia

Possible loss is tied to tragedy, depression, legalities


Family members took turns for years staying with Sean Rochee, knowing he would need assistance when another bad bout of asthma struck. That was impossible, though, on April 10, 1993. His parents were visiting relatives in Atlanta, and his sister had to leave the home. Shortly after her departure, Rochee suffered a violent attack. He managed a call to his sister, pleading: "I can't breathe. Call 911."

He then stumbled out the front door, collapsed and died on the driveway.

Sean Rochee was 23, eight months from graduating from American University with a master's degree in public administration. His death ignited a fuse that, almost 10 years to the date, would compound the family's tragedy by snatching the Columbia home in which his parents lived for almost four decades and raised five children.

Technically, the crisis was prompted when Doris Rochee failed to pay property tax for the year 2002. The tab: $2,372.03. But the real offender was her insurmountable grief and guilt over her son's death, which left her emotionally debilitated.

Doris Rochee placed all the legal notices -- beginning with the 2002 bill and, more important, the subsequent tax sale notice -- into a sack and put them in a closet.

Her actions, says her son, Arthur Rochee Jr., were prompted by Sean's death. "There was total withdrawal," he says. "It's like she died that day, too. She crawled into the casket with him."

Only the intercession of the law firm of Reese & Carney LLP prompted a last-minute settlement in principal to prevent the eviction of Doris Rochee and her husband, Arthur S. Rochee Sr., and return ownership of their home to them.

The terms of that settlement, subject to approval by other parties and the Circuit Court, are confidential, but it will require the Rochees to mortgage their home to satisfy the financial demands of investors.

The family's case transcends the mere nonpayment of one year's property tax. It illustrates the danger of not treating acute depression promptly. It also spotlights a little-known type of real estate investment that is difficult to unscramble because of the use of multiple layers of companies.

And for the lawyers who handled the Rochees' case, it raises the question of whether state law protects all deed holders, even when the mental capacity or intentions of one are in serious doubt.

"As we have an aging population, we need to take care of them," says William E. Erskine, a lawyer with Reese & Carney who shared the case with David A. Carney, a partner in the firm who did his work pro bono. "They become vulnerable, and we can't take advantage of that vulnerability."

Vulnerability is at the heart of the Rochees' case.

It officially began July 1, 2002, when the Howard County Department of Finance mailed tax bills to all homeowners.

The Rochees, now both 75, bought their home in 1968, moving from Washington, in part, because of Columbia's promise of a retreat for all ethnic, racial, social and economic backgrounds.

Works two jobs

Although Arthur Rochee Sr., a former vice principal of Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia, is a retired federal employee, he still works two jobs to make ends meet -- as an adjunct professor at Baltimore City Community College and as a science and math teacher at Dr. Nathan A. Pitts Ashburton Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore.

He relied, until recently, on his wife to handle the bills.

When the 2002 tax bill arrived, though, Doris Rochee did not send a check to the county, as she had always done. She further ignored a letter sent in March the following year notifying the Rochees that the county had issued a tax sale notice.

Doris Rochee is unable to explain her actions, especially the decision not to respond to the county's notice of a tax sale. "I don't know the answer to that," she says. "Maybe because it connected to 1993," referring to the 10th anniversary of her son's death. "But I don't know."

The tax sale was held May 30, 2003. In such cases, investors bid on the lien placed on the property. A company on paper only, Mason-Dixie Tax LLC, acquired the lien on the Rochee home. It bid $90,000 for the tax certificate, but only paid in cash $2,634.52, which covered the tax bill and interest.

Erskine says the Rochee home is worth between $375,000 and $400,000.

Mason-Dixie was formed two days before the tax sale, according to Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation records.

"Very, very rarely will it result in the actual acquisition of the title to the house," says Erskine. "Who is going to allow their house to go this way?"

Property owners by law are entitled to buy back the liens, and that typically means easy money for the investors. To clear up the matter, the property owner must pay the investors the back taxes and accumulated interest, other costs, such as legal -- which typically are $3,600 or more -- plus 18 percent. In the Rochees' case, what began as a $2,372 tax bill grew to more than $7,000.

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