Settlement to return home to elderly couple collapses

Man who bought house after tax sale backs out of deal

July 02, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

A hard-fought settlement to return a home to an elderly Columbia couple has fallen apart, raising the prospect of eviction from the house in which they have lived for almost four decades and lost over a delinquent tax bill of $2,300.

The deal fell apart late last week when the contract purchaser, Vijay K. Manjani, director of finance of Mount Rainier in Prince George's County, backed out less than 24 hours before the settlement papers were to be signed.

Manjani declined to speak with The Sun, saying only, "I'm very busy, and I don't want to talk," before hanging up the phone.

He also refused to speak with County Councilman Ken Ulman, who offered to help bring an end to the case that has prompted an outpouring of public sympathy and donations to help Arthur S. Rochee Sr. and his wife, Doris, keep their home.

"I have been very frustrated by this whole situation," Ulman said. "I'd do anything to help. These are wonderful people who made a mistake."

Ulman said he called Manjani on Thursday "to offer myself as someone who could facilitate a settlement so these people can keep their home. He said, `I have to go quick,' and hung up."

The surprise collapse of the deal forced cancellation of a meeting scheduled for Thursday at which the settlement papers were to be signed, as well as cancellation of a court hearing Friday, when it was expected that an earlier judgment against the Rochees would be rescinded - an action that would have saved the couple thousands of dollars in property taxes.

Manjani "says he needs time to further consider it," said William E. Erskine, an attorney with the firm Reese & Carney LLC, and who is representing the Rochees. "He won't tell me if that is one day, five days for 10 days."

Benjamin F. Dennis III, an attorney representing Manjani, informed Erskine on May 1 that a settlement was set. "They have accepted as offered," the e-mail says. "I will call you to let you know."

The deal stipulated that for return of the deed, Manjani would be reimbursed $20,000 for the deposit he paid when he successfully bid for the home at auction, $2,500 for "unspecified expenses including interest on the deposited funds" and $500 for legal fees.

That was only part of the expenses facing the Rochees, both 75. The settlement involved other parties, and while the terms have not been made public, it is known that the total cost to the couple was to exceed six figures and require them to mortgage their home, which they paid off in the mid-1990s.

The Rochees purchased their home in 1968 and raised their five children in it. The couple's troubles began when Doris Rochee failed to pay county property taxes for 2002. The bill was $2,372.03. She also ignored a notification the next year that the county had issued a tax-sale notice.

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 and later the property for $90,000.

Property owners by law are entitled to buy back the liens. To clear up the matter, the property owner must pay the investors the back taxes and accumulated interest, other costs, such as legal fees, plus 18 percent.

In the Rochees' case, what began as a $2,372 tax bill had grown to more than $7,000.

Less than six months after buying the lien, Mason-Dixie transferred it to another company, Hiwan LLC, which held it until June 22, 2004, when it filed a motion in Circuit Court to strip the deed for the home from the Rochees. The court granted the motion Aug. 10 last year.

The deed then was transferred to a third company, 10671 Green Mountain Circle LLC, which took its name from the address of the Rochee home.

On Feb. 22, the company sold the house at auction to Manjani, who bid $291,000. Erskine estimates the Rochee home is worth up to $400,000.

It was not until the day before that Arthur Rochee learned of the back taxes and impending auction of his home.

His wife was suffering from severe depression over the death of their son, Sean, who died 10 years earlier at the age of 23 on the driveway of the family home from an acute asthma attack while the Rochees were out of town.

Doris Rochee has been under the care of a psychiatrist since Feb. 21.

Erskine and David A. Carney, a partner in the law firm, have been fighting for five months to get the court to vacate its judgments and to fashion a financial settlement among all the parties that would return the deed to the Rochees.

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