A ground rent holder can file an ejectment lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court to seize a house if payments are more than six months overdue, and if the holder received no response to a certified letter to the property owner's "last known address."
Susan M. Marzetta, the general master for the Circuit Court's civil docket, and her staff have the job of determining whether ground rent holders and their lawyers have made reasonable efforts to find people at risk of losing their homes.The court looks for compliance with a specific list of rules, though neither Marzetta nor Evelyn Omega Cannon, judge in charge of the civil docket, would provide The Sun with a copy of the list.
"The court makes them go through the hoops," Marzetta said. "The court checks that very carefully."
Often lawyers list steps ranging from Internet searches and sending certified letters to checking Social Security Administration death records, estate filings, Department of Motor Vehicle records and lists of prison inmates.
But they often do not make use of online search tools that could more accurately track down homeowners.
Court records don't make clear how frequently Marzetta asks ground rent attorneys for more information or recommends that a judge deny a request. But R. Marc Goldberg, a Baltimore lawyer who speaks for the ground rent owners association, said that the judges and Marzetta are "not looking to give ground rent owners houses."
Requests to seize houses are "kicked back all the time," he said. "[Court officials] say, `It's not enough, we're not going to grant it.'"
When Marzetta finds the paperwork in order, she recommends that the court allow the ground rent owner to post notice of the lawsuit on the property and on a glass-encased bulletin board just inside the entrance of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in downtown Baltimore.
Many cases are settled before a court hearing if homeowners pay the overdue ground rent plus all or most of the fees that rent owners can charge under the law.
The law allows two sets of fees:
--"Actual expenses," up to $500, of collecting back rent before an ejectment lawsuit is filed. This includes title fees, photocopying and postage fees as well as attorney fees.
--"Reasonable expenses" of preparing and filing the suit. This includes attorney fees of up to $700; title fees of up to $300; filing fees, court costs, expenses of process serving "or otherwise providing notice," plus taxes, interest and penalties that have been paid by the ground rent owner. No limit is placed on these latter categories.
Judges sometimes broker settlements at the hearings. If there is no settlement and a judge finds that the ground rent holder complied with the law, he can grant a judgment giving the ground rent holder the title to the house.
Within six months, the property owner can regain the house by paying all current and overdue rent, plus all legal and other costs. Otherwise, the house belongs to the ground rent holder.