(Source: Michael Pell and Johnny Edwards The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT) — Rita James, dragged into court in her 70s and forced to fight for the northwest Atlanta home she had lived in for nearly half a century, has finally prevailed.
James, 76 and a grandmother, said this week that she knew the case would go her way.
“I wasn’t really surprised because they really didn’t have any reason to take my house,” she said of the company that tried to acquire her home. “They knew in their heart they didn’t own that land.”
Her opponent, Intown Ventures of Atlanta, didn’t know any such thing, the company’s lawyer said. He said Intown simply decided it was time to get out of a long and contentious case.
James’ case is settled, but one of the reasons she wound up in court in the first placethe Fulton County tax commissioner’s practice of selling tax liens to private companies for collectionis still very much an issue.
Her saga began with a billing error by the tax commissioner’s office 18 years ago, her lawyer said. It turned into a near disaster for James when the county filed a tax lien against her, based on the billing mistake, and then sold the lien to a collection company. That company asked the county sheriff’s office to auction the property in 2002 to satisfy the tax debt; Intown Ventures claims it acquired the property then.
None of which James even knew about.
It wasn’t until just before Christmas 2007, when Intown Ventures filed suit against her demanding back rent on her own house, that James learned that her home was in peril. After more than four years of court battles, Intown Ventures lost a motion fight in the state Supreme Court in February and decided to abandon its lawsuit in June.
James’ case represents some of the most troubling aspects of Fulton County’s practice of selling tax liens. Georgia counties often file liens against late payers, but few of them sell liens to outside firms, and none of them does so as aggressively as Fulton Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand.
Ferdinand has long championed the practice as an efficient way to collect back taxes, but the two men running against him in next month’s primary say it’s bad business.
“She is the poster child for how this happens,” candidate R.J. Morris said of James. “This just shows you how the low-income people, when it happens to them, they lose their house. The white, high-income people, they pay off the mistakes.”
Ferdinand, who did not return messages seeking comment, routinely sells overdue tax bills to private third parties, which then try to collect the bills. If the company cannot collect, it can have the sheriff auction the property to satisfy the overdue bill.
Many taxpayers who discover a private company owns a tax lien on their property claim that Ferdinand’s office sent their bill to the wrong address, did not notify them of a small overdue amount or otherwise mishandled the bill.
“We need to stop this,” said developer and homebuilder John Jamont, another candidate for tax commissioner. “My mistake, your mistake, anybody’s mistake, if I don’t get paid, I’m going to feed you to the sharksthat’s his policy.”
After James paid off her mortgage in 1994, she received two tax bills. One was in her name, which she paid. The other was addressed to an Archie James, a man she had never heard of, at an address that does not exist, said her attorney, Francis X. Moore.
She ignored the second bill, and the county issued a lien. Vesta Holdings, most likely the largest purchaser of tax liens in the state, bought it.
Robert Proctor, an attorney for Vesta and sister corporations, said James should have followed up on a tax bill that had her last name on it.
“Why should we have any sympathy for this woman?” Proctor said. “When someone doesn’t pay their taxes, who has to make up for that? We do.”
Vesta sold the property at auction in 2002. An attorney representing Dan West, who owns Intown Ventures, said his client acquired the property then and decided this year not to continue the legal battle.
“We’re not saying we didn’t have the right to do what we were doing,” attorney Adam Caskey said. “We just voluntarily relinquished all our rights to the property to put an end to this, which, frankly, is what we’ve been trying to do for four years.”
West dropped his suit, but James has not dropped her counter charges, including trespass and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
James said the full weight of what she has been through did not hit her until Thanksgiving dinner last year. Traditionally, James has as many as 70 family members drop by during the day, but for the last few years, the stress from the lawsuit made her unable to host the gathering, she said.
“I didn’t think it took a toll on anyone but me,” James said. “Then last Thanksgiving my grandson came up with his family from Florida and he sat with me as close as he could and he said, ‘I’m glad you could have us over this year.’”
©2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
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