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    Woman can keep house, judge says

    A judge sides with the woman, citing her cancer battle, in a foreclosure over unpaid homeowners association dues.

    [Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
    Linda Hammer, right, gets a hug from next-door neighbor Pam Squitiro after a judge ruled in Hammer's favor Thursday afternoon in a foreclosure proceeding.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Linda Hammer can keep her home.

    That was the ruling on Thursday afternoon from a county judge weighing the foreclosure sale of Robert and Linda Hammer's $235,000 East Lake home because they owed several hundred dollars in homeowners association dues.

    Mrs. Hammer, who said she fell behind in paying the dues while she was battling colon cancer, was jubilant and tearful after the decision was announced. She hugged her three grown children and grandchild, as well as several neighbors and friends who had come to show support.

    "I'm ecstatic," Mrs. Hammer said outside the courtroom. "I'm relieved and so pleased. It's a wonderful victory."

    Mrs. Hammer, 58, said she is "ready, willing and able" to pay nearly $3,000 she owes to the Eagle Trace at Boot Ranch Homeowners Association to square her account. Of that, about $650 is delinquent association dues. The rest is attorney's fees and court costs related to the association's foreclosure action.

    Last March, the homeowners association filed a foreclosure suit to recoup the unpaid fees by taking her house. In February, the property was sold at auction to the highest bidders, Mark Veltre and Stephen Maisel. Veltre and Maisel paid $36,100 for the property, but also had to assume the $125,000 outstanding mortgage.

    In the hearing on Thursday, licensed appraiser Jerry Fiala testified that the market value of the home on Eagle Trace Boulevard is $235,000.

    The Hammers' attorney, Colin Vause, argued the sale ought to be overturned, in part, because the purchase price was so far below market value.

    Vause also argued that Mrs. Hammer had bigger problems on her mind than the outstanding association fees and did not understand many of the notices sent to her.

    Robert Hammer is a long-haul truck driver and was out of town for long periods at a stretch, leaving his wife to handle the finances. He was not at Thursday's hearing because he was returning from a haul to California.

    Mrs. Hammer learned last October that she had colon cancer. She had surgery the following month, followed by six months of chemotherapy.

    Asked to describe her mental capacity at that time, Mrs. Hammer said, "absolute turmoil. I was dying and I was absolutely petrified with what was going on."

    Her finances became a mess.

    "Everything got behind because I couldn't focus on it," she said.

    In addition to her homeowners association dues, the Hammers fell behind on mortgage payments. Mrs. Hammer said she took $9,870 from retirement savings to get current on her mortgage. She figured that was the end of the foreclosure threat.

    Mrs. Hammer said she understood the homeowners association had filed a lien against her property, but she never thought that lien could lead to a foreclosure sale.

    She noted that in response to a letter from the association's attorney, Michael Brudny, she made two $100 payments toward her delinquent dues and started again to pay her $35-per-month dues.

    Gary Maisel, the attorney for Veltre and Stephen Maisel, asked a series of questions to show that Mrs. Hammer was informed repeatedly of the consequences of not paying her association dues, and that a foreclosure against her was proceeding.

    Mrs. Hammer said she didn't understand some of the notices sent to her.

    Mrs. Hammer said chemotherapy treatment "causes you to lose your memory. They have an in-joke, they call it chemo-brain. . . . You go through a period, you're exhausted and you just can't function."

    In his closing, Vause argued that "everything is on the line" for the Hammers, whereas, for Veltre and Stephen Maisel, "their only interest in this case is profit."

    Gary Maisel argued the Hammers ignored numerous notices about the impending foreclosure and failed to completely pay up on the association dues.

    "The defendant can't play ostrich, stick their head in the sand and come back and ask for relief," Maisel argued.

    "I understand it's a harsh result, but that's the law," Gary Maisel said.

    After the hearing, Veltre and Stephen Maisel declined to comment.

    Senior County Judge Stephen Rushing determined Linda Hammer's failure to make payments was "excusable because so many things were going on in her life."

    He said he based his decision on a combination of factors including Linda Hammer's confusion about the foreclosure action and the wide disparity between the value of the house and what the bidders paid. He also noted that she made a number of payments during the period when the foreclosure action was proceeding.

    "Hopefully," Rushing said, "this is a valuable lesson to everyone here about the importance of court proceedings."

    Outside the courtroom, Brudny defended the homeowners association's decision to move forward with foreclosure.

    "There was plenty of notice from our standpoint," he said.

    But Brudny said the association board is glad to see the Hammers will retain their home, and that the association will get paid.

    "It was nothing personal," Brudny said.

    As for the $3,000 the association is due, he said, "I'm sure it'll be paid promptly."

    Mrs. Hammer said she hopes her case will lead to changes in the way homeowners associations pursue collections.

    "I would like to see homeowners association bylaws changed so they can't foreclose on someone's home," Mrs. Hammer said.

    Mrs. Hammer said one of the positives that emerged from the ordeal is the number of neighbors who came to her defense and lambasted the association for foreclosing on her home without making the neighborly effort of finding out why she wasn't paying.

    "I had no idea we had so many nice neighbors," Mrs. Hammer said.

    -- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

    Recent coverage

    Association fees may cost couple their home (March 18, 2001)

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