Two women beset with health and financial problems were facing imminent foreclosure on their Ellicott City homes when they thought rescue was at hand.
Betty J. Bullock, 63, had poor eyesight and diabetes for years and lived on about $800 a month in Social Security. She had no savings and hadn't worked since 1997.
Griselda Mason, 68, also had vision problems and trouble walking, which limited her ability to work. She fell behind on mortgage payments, which ruined her credit and brought the threat of foreclosure.
Then the promises of help came in the mail.
"Your Best Hope has just arrived," read the text on an envelope from Bay Capital of Owings Mills.
But instead of a rescue, the result was a story of personal tragedy, alleged greed and merciless practices that county government lawyers refer to in court filings as "predatory lending."
According to lawsuits filed by county lawyers and the women's attorneys, Bullock and Mason embraced a mailing that promised a last-ditch solution that would enable them to stay in their homes. The women thought they were refinancing their loans and could get out of debt in two years. Instead they sold their homes, got no cash and became renters at rates they couldn't afford. An eviction attempt followed.
Now county lawyers are trying to get the homes back and the women's attorneys are asking for $6 million in damages and compensation.
"This is one of the most egregious cases I have ever come across," said Peter A. Holland, the Annapolis lawyer who filed suit on behalf of Bullock in Howard County Circuit Court. "She was legally blind, and the settlement took place in her home the night before the foreclosure."
Bullock died last week from the effects of a stroke, according to Holland, though the legal struggle over the home she shared with a 21-year-old granddaughter continues.
Mason sold her home for $131,049, a bit more than she owed though it was worth $330,000, according to the suit. The deal included heavy settlement fees that the suit claims were unjustified. The second mortgage was not satisfied by the mortgage team that bought the property. Mason's rent was $1,950 a month, more than $600 a month higher than her previous mortgage payment. The rent rose to $2,750 months later, when the second mortgage had to be paid off.
The suit claims that although the property title was supposedly transferred to a corporation created by the mortgage team, no such corporation existed until later, and no required county rental license was obtained for either home. Mason and her son, Oliver, who had obtained mortgages on the house, didn't realize they no longer owned the home for several months after the transaction. Nor did the Masons or Bullock realize there was a binding-arbitration clause in the packet of papers they were presented, the suits said.
"We really think these two women were duped," said Katherine L. Taylor, one of two lawyers representing the Masons. "They were easy victims."
Griselda Mason declined to comment about the suit.
"We believe she was defrauded," Taylor said, a charge denied by the defendants in the suit, who argued in filings that the women agreed to binding arbitration.
The defendants are Stewart Sachs, Bay Capital Corp., Susan A. Sinrod, Gregory Brian Davis, Robert Pukall, Jason Sklar and Heavy Weight Title Co., all operating from offices at 10811 Red Run Blvd. in Owings Mills.
Their lawyer, James M. Connelly, declined to comment on the case, which is scheduled for another in a two-year-long series of preliminary hearings Nov. 7.
Carol Saffran-Brinks, an assistant county solicitor for the county government's Consumer Affairs Office, said in her most recent filing that "Heavy Weight seems determined to fill the courthouse with preposterous filings, interposed merely to stall this suit."
She also called the settlements on the women's homes "highly irregular."
The women were shown signature lines to sign without being able to see the headings on the page, and without time to get help in reading the paperwork, the suits allege.
"The scheme was designed to induce the Masons to default on the 'lease,' so that the defendants could summarily evict Mrs. Mason from her home and steal the substantial equity that had accumulated on the property," the Masons' lawsuit said. The suit characterized the actions of Heavy Weight Title and Bay Capital as "unconscionable" and "illegal."
It was all part of a pattern of deception that began with the first toll-free call Bullock and Oliver Mason made in response to the mailed solicitations they got, the lawyers said.
That first call went to Robert Pukall, who said he was in Florida, the lawsuits said. The response was a quick visit to each woman from Brian Davis, followed quickly by a raft of papers to sign.
The settlement agent got Bullock, who said in an affidavit that she was legally blind, to sign a provision that seeks to protect the company and its employees from any lawsuits or legal actions, public or private, including the legal costs of defending the firm. Bullock further alleged that while she recuperated from an amputation linked to her diabetes at Howard County General Hospital, a mortgage employee contacted her there about the deal on her house.
"They always told me they were helping me keep my house," she said in the affidavit. "I relied on these people."
Alerted by the county's Office on Aging, the Consumer Affairs Office stepped in and stopped the evictions of Bullock and Mason in May 2006. But the county's attempts to reverse the transactions and separate civil suits filed by the women's own attorneys are still tied up in what the lawyers charge are delaying tactics by the other side.
The court documents describe difficult times. Bullock's daughter died at age 11 in 1976. Her other child, a son, died at 24 in 1991 of complications from diabetes. Her husband, Joseph, died of a stroke five years ago. Her 21-year-old granddaughter, a student in nursing school, lived with her and cared for her.
She owed $130,000 on the house, which was worth over $300,000. She said Davis later told her she could buy the house back for $400,000.
"When he said he planned to evict me, I couldn't believe what he was saying," Bullock said in an affidavit accompanying the suit.