Woman who lost house over $6.30 late fee gets second chance

| Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, 10:57 p.m.

A Beaver County woman who lost her $280,000 house over a $6.30 late fee won a partial victory on Monday from a sympathetic Commonwealth Court, which returned her case to Western Pennsylvania.

County officials sold Eileen F. Battisti's home in Center for about $116,000 in September 2011, claiming a six-day late fee on her 2008 school property taxes had grown to $234.72 with interest and other costs.

But Battisti, 52, maintains the county never gave her proper notifications — not about the late fee and not about the sale in which S.P. Lewis of Imperial purchased her house on Rosewood Drive.

Lewis offered to sell the house back to Battisti for $160,000, said her lawyer, Ed Santillan. Neither Lewis nor his attorney could be reached.

“She was shocked. She doesn't have that much money to pay to get her property back,” said Santillan, who is based in Beaver. “She was absolutely shocked. That's not appropriate.”

While the county Common Pleas Court has allowed Battisti to remain in the house as she fights the matter, it erred in ruling against her before any evidentiary hearing on key material, the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg decided. Judge C. Gus Kwidis, who handled the case in Beaver County, could not be reached on Monday.

Kwidis likely will preside over the county evidentiary hearing demanded by the Commonwealth Court in its order, though no date has been set, Santillan said.

Tony Amadio, chairman of the county commissioners, referred questions about the case to county solicitor Joe Askar, who could not be reached.

Still, independent observers called the ordeal unusual.

“It's very atypical, and fortunately, it's very rare,” said Alan D. Wallace, a real estate lawyer and adjunct law professor who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “This is outrageous that the county would take her house over (less than) $300 and she would lose all this equity. It's terrible.”

Wallace said most counties operate “fail-safe programs” that prevent officials from selling off property over $200 or $300 shortfalls. He said Battisti's situation suggests the county might not have had a worker review and apply common sense to tax notices that may be processed electronically.

Court filings show Battisti continued to pay her property taxes to Central Valley School District in full in 2009. A notice of a $6.30 late fee on her 2008 taxes of nearly $900 — also paid in full — was returned to the county Tax Claim Bureau as unclaimed, according to the Commonwealth Court order.

“No further notices, apparently, were sent to” Battisti, reads the order, written by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt. It says the county court was wrong in depriving Battisti of an evidentiary hearing and her home “because the outstanding liability was small and the value of the home was far greater than the amount paid” by Lewis.

More recent tax bills should have included alerts to bring Battisti's attention to the past-due late fee, said Thomas W. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

“I can't imagine that wasn't the case, but it sounds like it was,” he said. “If the government wasn't doing it, that's a lesson learned.”

Either way, he said, the case can be a cautionary tale for taxpayers.

“You always want to make sure the government says you're paid in full and that there's nothing outstanding,” Mitchell said. “It's kind of a simple thing. But, obviously, in this case, it had extreme consequences.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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