The Columbia taxi driver who lost his house despite never missing a mortgage payment suffered another setback yesterday when Maryland's highest court dismissed his challenge to the foreclosure, quashing housing advocates' hope that a successful appeal would have prompted change in state law.
The Court of Appeals yesterday dismissed Kwaku Atta Poku's case, agreeing with lower court rulings that turned on his failure to post a required cash bond in earlier legal proceedings.
"It is beyond my comprehension," said Atta Poku, a Ghanaian immigrant and naturalized American. "Is the law made for people to commit crimes against innocent people? Where do I get justice?"
Atta Poku now has been rebuffed at four levels of the Maryland court system. Though housing advocates had hoped the case would prompt court-ordered changes in Maryland foreclosure law, they say the possibility of court action that could affect the law still exists. The Court of Appeals heard two other foreclosure cases this week, one involving a Pasadena woman who said the first notice that she'd lost her home was a handwritten note tacked to the door by the new owner.
One advocate said the dismissal of the Atta Poku case could prompt action from the General Assembly, which began its annual 90-day session this week.
"This is something to send a message to the General Assembly that there needs to be a bond procedure," said Robert Strupp, director of research and policy at the Community Law Center, a Baltimore non-profit that advocates for legal reform.
"The court is saying, `We can't do anything ... but if there was something clearer coming from the legislature, we'd have something to go with," Strupp said.
Atta Poku's lawyers vowed to file more suits seeking redress. And he has another court action pending against Washington Mutual, the national mortgage company that foreclosed on the family's house, in Howard County Circuit Court. A ruling in that case was delayed pending the Court of Appeals decision.
Shane A. Winn, spokesman for Washington Mutual, declined comment.
The company's attorneys had argued they were owed money to satisfy the first mortgage after a refinancing and so pursued foreclosure, a permissible remedy under state law. Maryland allows foreclosures in 15 days without requiring proof that the homeowner had been notified.
Supporters had hoped that the court might have changed Maryland law, giving guidance to the General Assembly on how to protect hundreds of other homeowners facing foreclosure.
"I think the legislature will make some changes, but that will be independent of us," said Gerald M. Richman, a lawyer for Atta Poku.
The 10-page decision dismissed the case based on the specific circumstances of the cab owner's situation.
His family's townhouse was refinanced in 2001, and several years later, Washington Mutual claimed the original mortgage was never paid off. The company foreclosed in 2005, and the family was evicted in 2006. The house has been resold twice and Atta Poku's lawyers agreed during the Dec. 3 court hearing that the court had no power to return the home to him. They sought a new legal avenue for a civil damage suit.
Attorney Scott Borison argued that Atta Poku had done nothing wrong and shouldn't suffer for the errors of financial institutions.
But the court said Washington Mutual had tried to collect on the unsatisfied mortgage for eight months before foreclosing, and Atta Poku never tried to post a cash bond high enough to protect the parties he was suing, as required in Maryland law. He has said he didn't realize at first the seriousness of his predicament because he had never missed a mortgage payment, and his initial attempts to find legal help were misguided.
The law allows foreclosure to occur so quickly that many homeowners don't understand their peril until it's too late, legal advocates argue.
"We decline to create another exception to the general requirement for the filing of a supersedeas bond, or the posting of other security," the ruling, written by Judge Dale R. Cathell, concluded.
Atta Poku said his debt totals about $100,000. That's not counting lost equity or income from his damaged taxi business. A Howard County nonprofit, Congregations Concerned for the Homeless, helped the family of five find a house to rent and are helping Atta Poku rebuild his business. Customers have donated money through a fund administered by the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the county's homeless shelter.
"All that money could have been used for my childrens' education. I don't have that money," he said. "My credit is ruined, my business is ruined. My whole life has been ruined."