North Versailles homeowner contests attorney fees for debt
By Rachel Weaver and Bill Vidonic
Published: Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 11:49 p.m.
A $10.88 bill threatened to cost Carol Carter her home.
Carter, 72, of North Versailles says a Montgomery County law firm tried to force the sale of her McKee Road house to collect a trash collection fee she failed to pay in 2010.
“It's been very hectic,” said Carter, who filed a federal lawsuit this week against Portnoff Law Associates of Norristown. “I don't know what to expect. My anxiety is up.”
The lawsuit claims the firm violated a state law on municipal liens and a federal debt collection law when it tacked on more than $410 in attorney fees to the debt. It says the amount violates a state law restricting municipal claims to “reasonable” attorney fees and a federal debt collection law prohibiting the attorneys from claiming fees they can't legally collect.
Portnoff spokesman Ken Kilpatrick said no one from the firm could speak about the Carter case, saying it's in “settlement discussions.” Portnoff serves as a municipal fee debt collector for North Versailles.
Sam Juliano, North Versailles commissioner, said board members were unaware of Portnoff's actions outlined in the lawsuit.
“I would like to see Portnoff meet with us as commissioners and see what's going on,” Juliano said. “We were surprised when we read about it.”
Eileen Yacknin, Carter's attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services Association, a nonprofit public interest law firm, said cases similar to Carter's are “more common than you think.”
“It's typical for these types of charges now to be imposed against people like Ms. Carter who owe very little in municipal claims,” Yacknin said. “It's a way for companies to ensure they are able to obtain comfortable legal fee compensation, more than what is appropriate or reasonable, in order to make a profit in a fairly easy way.”
Carter inherited her one-bedroom home from her mother in 2000. According to Allegheny County records, it is worth $15,900. Carter's income consists of $644 a month in Social Security survivor's benefits.
She is currently paying Portnoff $50 a month to cover the entire claim of $685.33 in order to avoid the forced sale of her home.
“It's very hard,” Carter said. “I'm struggling with it.”
Others have sued Portnoff over claims they would lose their homes because of high fees. In 2003, Jerry and Theodora Konidaris of McKeesport filed suit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court because Portnoff levied about $3,800 in fees to collect a $2,150 back tax bill. Portnoff initiated a sheriff's sale, but it was stayed in 2004.
In 2008, the state Supreme Court ruled that a collection agency could collect fees in relation to the collection of delinquent taxes.
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals by the Konidarises and others, based on whether Portnoff violated credit laws by adding fees.
Ira Weiss, whose Pittsburgh law firm collects delinquent taxes for several school districts — including Moon, West Jefferson and Gateway — said his firm provides payment plans and hardship applications.
“The costs that are authorized by the legislation doesn't generally yield that sort of skewed situation,” Weiss said of Carter's case.
He added that he supports the legislation when it's applied fairly.
“It makes sense. People that pay taxes are subsidizing people that don't,” Weiss said.
The Pennsylvania Municipal Claims and Tax Liens Act stipulates lien amounts can include “reasonable” attorney fees. It is not intended to “require owners to pay ... inappropriate or unreasonable attorney fees, charges or expenses for routine functions.”
“We're not saying they don't have the right to collect attorney fees in appropriate cases, and we're not saying they don't have a right to get paid for their efforts,” Yacknin said. “We do believe ... they are taking huge advantage. It doesn't reflect the spirit of the law.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- South African sign language snafu baffles Pittsburgh-area interpreters
- 400M reasons to play Mega Millions lottery
- Euthanized pit bull at Ohio Township no-kill shelter draws protest from dog lovers
- Former Sandusky attorney sued over credit card debt
- Allegheny County president judge will be picked Friday
- Findlay neighbors want drilling site at airport moved
- Century III new owner seeks to reverse vacancy trend with new theater
- Pittsburgh police officers honored for helping one of their own
- Hill District nonprofit’s finances are taking another dive
- Corrected performance profiles provided for Pennsylvania schools
- Newsmaker: Jonathan Arac