Settlement restores home of 4 decades sold for unpaid tax bill

Columbia couple regain their house

November 29, 2006|by a sun reporter

After almost a year of lawsuits, contentious twists and backroom negotiations, an elderly Columbia couple have regained ownership of their home of almost four decades.

"I am happy," said Arthur S. Rochee Sr., whose home had been stripped away over a delinquent property tax bill of less than $2,400. "It can only happen in America, where I am getting my house back."

Rochee's attorney, William E. Erskine, of the firm Reese & Carney, LLC, announced the settlement.

"This is an extremely fair and equitable resolution to this unfortunate set of circumstances," Erskine said.

The settlement was agreed to in principle during a meeting in September, he said. He described the deal as "truly generous" and a "humanitarian gesture."

The financial terms of the settlement, finalized Nov. 21 but disclosed only this week, are confidential, but Erskine said the deal "has the effect of putting the parties back to where they would have been had this never happened."

The cost is believed to be in the six figures, which is expected to force Rochee, 76, to borrow against the home. He said he would have to continue working for four or five years to pay off the settlement.

"I'd like to retire and move to Florida and sit on the beach," he said. "But I am pleased with the way that the attorneys worked to get to this point. It is an expensive venture."

Rochee and his wife, Doris, purchased their home on Green Mountain Circle in 1968 and raised five children there.

Technically, their problems began when Doris Rochee failed to pay a $2,372.03 property tax bill for 2002. But the real cause was her insurmountable grief and guilt over the death of a son, Sean, on April 10, 1993, after a severe asthma attack.

She had fallen into deep depression and became uncommunicative. When the tax bill arrived in the mail, she placed it, and all subsequent legal notices, into a sack and put them in a closet. Arthur Rochee was unaware of her actions.

A tax sale was held May 30, 2003. In such cases, investors bid on the lien placed on the property. A company of paper only, Mason-Dixie Tax LLC, acquired the lien and later the property for $90,000.

Several months later, Mason-Dixie transferred the lien 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. The home was sold at auction Feb. 22 to Vijay K. Manjani, director of finance of Mount Rainier in Prince George's County.

Erskine said this year that Doris Rochee's actions were never intended to cause harm, but were provoked by depression and mental frailty.

"I couldn't conceive as to why a woman who was served with these notices ... would conceal them from her husband," he said. "But she was under an incapacity as the result of the unresolved grief, compounded by her advancing years and the depression."

Erskine filed lawsuits seeking to reverse the court's decision. But once the unusual circumstances of the case became public, there were a series of on-again, off-again negotiations to settle the case.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster," Erskine said. "There were times I wasn't really sure that these folks could keep their house."

He said the case has been "emotionally taxing for everyone involved, including the attorneys."

Erskine added: "This was the most complex piece of civil ligation that I have been exposed to. There was this unending web of rights and tax implications. ... It was like a maze. Every time I went down one path, I was stopped by some legal impediment."

Erskine said all parties were "gracious" in working out a compromise.

"Very nice words were exchanged by the parties at the closing of the settlement," he said.

The Rochee family remained in the home during the legal challenge.

Arthur Rochee said he sensed his wife was ill, but was unaware of the depth of her problems.

"I saw something ... but I didn't know what," he said.

His wife, he said, "is doing better" these days.

"I handle all of the affairs now," he added.

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