Family gets 3-week reprieve in city ground rent dispute

Sun Follow-up

December 16, 2006|By June Arney and Fred Schulte | June Arney and Fred Schulte,Sun Reporters

A Canton family that faced loss of its home yesterday over a ground rent lawsuit was allowed to stay there when a City Council member brokered a last-minute reprieve.

Two sheriff's deputies arrived at the home yesterday morning with court papers stating that the family had no right to remain. But the deputies left after hearing from City Councilman James B. Kraft that he had secured the family more time from the corporation that had sued to obtain the property over a ground rent debt that started at $24.

The plight of the family, described in an article in The Sun yesterday, prompted numerous offers of financial assistance from the public. Kraft and Vernon Onheiser, who lives in the rowhouse in the 500 block of S. Milton Ave. with his two teenage sons, said they are optimistic that the obligation to the company can be satisfied, allowing the family to remain in the house indefinitely.

John H. Denick, an attorney representing the company holding the ground rent, Neighbor Saver LLC, declined to discuss specifics about negotiations related to the home.

"We have agreed to defer any proceeding until Jan. 5," Denick said.

Onheiser said he thought he would move back the clothes, televisions, Christmas decorations and other belongings that he removed hastily late Thursday after a reporter told him he was scheduled to be ejected from his home yesterday.

"I think it's going to work out," said Onheiser, 46, who is unemployed. "It's looking good. It's a big relief that people want to help. It makes you feel good - people you don't even know."

Court records show that Neighbor Saver LLC bought Onheiser's ground rent for $400 in July 2004 and in November of the same year filed suit against Joseph and Mary Onheiser, Vernon Onheiser's parents, who had been dead for years.

The suit claimed $7,831, including $6,652.34 in property taxes Neighbor Saver alleges it is owed, attorney fees and other charges. Legal papers filed by the company assert that Vernon Onheiser was left with a copy of the lawsuit shortly after it was filed, but he said he does not remember that.

The home was recently valued at $161,000. There is no mortgage on the property.

The Sun reported in a three-part series this week that about 4,000 lawsuits have been filed in Baltimore in the past six years over small amounts of unpaid ground rent, seeking the houses or fees that can reach thousands of dollars. In more than 500 of these cases, ground rent owners were awarded the right to take possession of the house.

Onheiser's case is one of at least 10 ground rent lawsuits filed against deceased homeowners by entities associated with or represented by Heidi Kenny, an attorney in Baltimore County. She is listed in records as resident agent for Neighbor Saver LLC, and she filed its lawsuit involving the Onheiser home. In each of the 10 lawsuits, Kenny has submitted records of the homeowner's death to judges as evidence that her firm was taking adequate steps to locate the defendants.

Two local legal experts questioned how lawsuits could be successfully pursued against dead people, unless the suits name the estate of the deceased. No estate existed for Joseph and Mary Onheiser.

"You can't sue a dead man," said Andrew Levy, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "If a default judgment is entered against a dead person, it should have no legal effect."

In cases in which no estate is filed, the ownership rights of relatives living in a house owned by deceased parents also might be in question.

"I suspect that what's happening is the parents die and the children don't get title because they haven't gone through probate," said Michele Gilligan, an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "They don't have a legal claim."

These sorts of questions can "create traps for the unwary," Gilligan said.

While Baltimore courts don't track how many ejectment actions have claimed the homes of dead people, court data analyzed by The Sun shows that about 60 percent of these judgments are won by default - meaning that no party came forward to contest the suit.

Baltimore court officials have stepped up efforts to ensure proper handling of cases in which the court knows that a homeowner has died. Judge Evelyn Omega Cannon, who is in charge of the Circuit Court's civil docket, said this week, "I do not think it's appropriate to send notices to dead people."

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who is among several legislators vowing to reform the ground rent system, said yesterday, "Somebody shouldn't have their home taken out from under them without adequate notification."

Denick, the attorney for Neighbor Saver, said he thinks Maryland's "ground rent laws are something that needs to be reviewed. It's definitely confusing. It's obviously a situation crying out for reform."

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