1994 Tax Billing Error Forces Woman Into 5-Year Legal Battle To Save Her House

Back in 1994, a Georgia woman received two county tax bills in the mail — one addressed to her, and a second addressed to a man with the same, incredibly common last name, but whom she’d never heard of and whose address was invalid. She paid off the former immediately and ignored the latter. Little did she know that, 13 years later, this goof by the county would land her in court trying to save her house from being taken away from her.

See, even though that bill was not hers, the county decided it was. And without telling her, it sold the debt to a third-party collections agency, which then auctioned off the lien in 2002.

Meanwhile, the woman was blissfully unaware that all this had happened.

Then in late 2007, the company that had purchased the lien at auction sued the woman for back rent — on her own house… which she owned outright by this point.

The company that initially purchased this lien before eventually auctioning it off tells the Atlanta Journal Constitution that it’s all her fault for not paying a tax bill addressed to someone else who happens to have the same, remarkably popular last name of “James.”

“Why should we have any sympathy for this woman?” a lawyer for the company asks the AJC. “When someone doesn’t pay their taxes, who has to make up for that? We do.”

Good point. If this had been a tax the woman actually owed. Which she didn’t. So it’s a bad point. A very bad point.

Well, after several years of legal wrangling and a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision that went in the woman’s favor, the company that claims it owns the property finally decided to just give up that claim.

“We’re not saying we didn’t have the right to do what we were doing,” an attorney for the company explains. “We just voluntarily relinquished all our rights to the property to put an end to this, which, frankly, is what we’ve been trying to do for four years.”

The woman tells the AJC that she wasn’t surprised by the decision: “They knew in their heart they didn’t own that land.”

Even so, the 76-year-old grandmother has not dropped her counter-suit, which alleges trespass and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Woman wins fight to keep her home [AJC.com]

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  1. Blueskylaw says:

    Somehow, someway, if we dig deep enough, we will
    find Bunk of America has a hand in this dastardly deed.

  2. AtlantaCPA says:

    I hope she got court costs awarded to her even before the countersuit. Plus I hope she wins the countersuit. This should have been cleared up with a phone call or two (before the ‘debt’ was sold, etc).

    • Sarek says:

      I hope the counter-suit gets her back her attorney costs and a big stick-it-to-the-slimballs award.

  3. Red Cat Linux says:

    What puzzles me is how this even got so far?

    I’d like to think that there has to be something more to this. Even if a billing error occurred, you’d think that the first time someone saw the bill was addressed to an entirely different person at an incorrect address, the whole thing would have been sorted out.

    I wonder what an “invalid address” could have been?

    • speaky2k says:

      I live at 123 X Rd, my closest neighbors lives at 127 and 121 X Rd, with 120, 122, 124, 126 across the street from me. A bill come with my last name, but a different first name for 125 X Rd, so the postman delivers it to my address. This is just an idea, but it could be that the lot is twice the size of a standard lot so they assigned 2 numbers to it in some record somewhere and somehow assigned a name to the non-existent house number.

      But I agree, how did this happen? If I were to get the bill like that, I would have written “return to sender, no person by this name lives at this address” on the bill and put it back in the mailbox.

      • chiieddy says:

        I have a property with 2 lots, but my tax bill is a single bill for both pieces of property. The second lot is two small to build on and just a small piece of land the town sold to the previous owner to prevent having to build a road. Which then subsequently ticked off another neighbor who had hoped to sub-divide his lot and use that road to build houses (which the previous owner did not want build because the lot was on a hill overlooking the back yard)

      • Not Given says:

        Invalid address, so “return to sender, no such address.”

      • scoosdad says:

        I have something similar to that with my tax bills. My street address number, let’s say, is 39 Scoosdad Road. However, my tax bill goes by the lot number that was assigned when the street was built (let’s say it’s lot 25), so my tax bills are mailed to my name, then “25 Woody Acres Condominium Development Trust”, then with my actual street address below that, which confuses the heck out of the postman. I’ve asked the city to fix that but they say they go by the information in their tax billing database that comes off the deed, so no can do.

        So more often than not, the mailman puts my tax bill in the mailbox for my neighbor who lives at number 25 Scoosdad Road and not mine at number 39, and I usually see it about a week later.

    • lolwat says:

      She got a wrong bill, twice. She didn’t stop and think maybe she should call the tax office?

      Something doesn’t add up.

      • Lennie Patrick says:

        Why should she?
        She never did anything wrong!
        She correctly assumed a mistake by whoever did the mailing.
        It wasn’t her property & had a different tax ID!
        She was never told that the other property was being soldd, because if you weren’t a troll & had read the original AJC article, you would have seen this quote; “The other was addressed to an Archie James, a man she had never heard of, at an address that does not exist, said her attorney, Francis X. Moore.”
        Her name is Rita James which is nothing similar to “Archie James”
        The Fulton County tax commissioner apparently does this all the time.

      • Red Cat Linux says:

        In honesty, SHE didn’t get a wrong bill. Some numpty in the tax office sent a bill addressed to the wrong person at a wrong address and it got placed in her mailbox.

        I’m thinking she never even opened the envelope.

        I’ve frequently gotten the wrong mail, bizarrely addressed, and have either dropped it at the actual owner’s house, or sent it back to the post office with a “RTS, wrong address or No Such Person”

        Why *that* didn’t happen, who knows.

      • Kate Blue says:

        I once got a bill from the fire department for an ambulance ride because someone got thrown from his house on the road in front of my property and I called 911 for him. They just assumed that it was a member of the household at the address I told them to come to and therefore I should be billed since they knew my name and address but not his.

        I called and was told to ignore the bill that they do that all the time.

  4. NanoDog says:

    Answer: Title insurance!…

    Question: What should you always get when you purchase a home

    • NanoDog says:

      Slightly more complicated than the article made it appear. This tax bill was in fact for her property as it was made up of two parcels.

      http://www.ajc.com/news/tax-lien-sales-shock-787746.html

      • Draw2much says:

        Wow. That situation is even worse! Why would they suddenly split the tax in two after 30 years of sending it as one bill? Why would they send the “new” second bill to a person and address that doesn’t exist? That REALLY sounds like someone was messing with her records and TRYING to get her in trouble.

  5. The Beer Baron says:

    I say, bully for you madam! You give those scoundrels what-for!

    And to the lawyer, you should have sympathy for the woman because you are quite wrong, and she is a fellow human being.

    Not that you’d know anything about humanity.

    • Dave B. says:

      Telling a lawyer that someone is a fellow human being is inaccurate, as that would imply that lawyers are human beings…

      • carlogesualdo says:

        This thread also implies Consumerist readers are fellow human beings, although reading through the lack of sympathy in so many replies, I’d call that debatable. But assuming she is human and thus deserving of some sympathy is certainly accurate.

  6. poco says:

    More soulless, fraudulent debt collectors. Good luck with your counter-suit; you deserve some compensation for having to deal with these a-holes.

    • A.Mercer says:

      The sad part is these guys are probably moving assets and organizing their “bankruptcy”. Next week they will be operating the same business under a different name and claim to have no ties to the prior company.

    • lolwat says:

      It’s not fraudulent. Cities and counties sell tax liens to investors so they can collect tax revenue. Investors in turn make profit off the interest when a person goes to pay the lien off. The city/county sold a lien on her property, which was not a valid lien. That company tried to collect on what they believed was a valid debt.

      The debt collectors are not the wrong ones here. They were sold an invalid debt, which they had no way of knowing. When doing business with a city or county, its reasonable to believe you are being sold a valid debt.

      • MaxH42 thinks RecordStoreToughGuy got a raw deal says:

        No.

        No, no, no.

        The lawyer for the debt collection agency blamed the victim, or did you miss that part? If the debt collection agency was blameless, they would be suing the county instead of the woman once they started the collection process and learned that the debt was not hers.

        Once it was brought to their attention that the debt was disputed, it was then their responsibility to check into it.

      • sagodjur1 says:

        “When doing business with a city or county, its reasonable to believe you are being sold a valid debt.”

        This scenario seems to disprove that assertion.

        The debt collectors were wrong, they just didn’t know it. They should have verified the debt and gone back to the debt issuers if they found it was possibly invalid. It’s the cost of doing business as a collector. God forbid they be certain the debt is legitimate.

      • frodolives35 says:

        You are right its a chain. The debt company should have to pay all the women’s legal fees and court costs and they in turn have the right to try and collect from the county government for the bad debt they were sold. Oh that’s right they can’t get money from the government so screw that women we want that house.

  7. 180CS says:

    “counter-suit”

    Amen. I hope we get a second story about her victory.

  8. Coffee says:

    I hope that the comments made by the company’s representative come across as callous and unfeeling in the courtroom as they do in print. If so, I can imagine a jury would be willing to aware this woman damages enough to ensure the company is sued into oblivion. If and when that happens, and the company declares bankruptcy, the court should go after personal assets of the principals. That would be justice.

  9. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    I wonder what the parcel numbers were on the two tax bills? Our real estate tax notices have the parcel number, map number, and the deed number, showing the year the deed was filed and the deed number from the courthouse records. I have to say, if I got two bills at my address, one with my name and one with someone elses name, I would have called the tax collector’s office immediately. And before someone says, she’s 76 years old, she was 58 years old when this originally happened.

    I am EXTREMELY picky when I get tax bills. And if you don’t get one, investigate immediately! We get tax bills 2x year, on March 1 and July 1. I didn’t get my March tax bill, and when I called the courthouse, it turns out someone in the registrar’s office “sold” my property to someone else. Turns out the actual property sold was down the street from me, and our parcel numbers were the same except the last two digits, which were reversed. When the clerk at the courthouse keyed the data in to the computer, zap – my property was no longer mine, and the tax bill was mailed to the “new owner”. Looking back, I guess I’m lucky the new owner wasn’t a BofA customer or I may have come home from work one day to find my house bulldozed!

    • oldwiz65 says:

      and BofA would have taken everything from inside the house (including pets and family members) and sold it at auction, then said we did the right thing. And the town would have said “not our fault”.

    • kobresia says:

      Along the lines of what you experienced, what I’d suspect is that there was a typo (maybe a few) and there were 2 bills mistakenly issued for her property. She paid one. The double-bill, she ignored rather than following-up on. Since each bill was a different tax schedule, one kept going to her, the other went to the tax lien sale.

      A key bit of knowledge here is that the address to which a tax bill is sent is not necessarily the same as the information describing the property.

      This could simply be a case of karma catching-up with the woman. She didn’t do her due diligence when it came to pursuing what was obviously a clerical error, thinking it was just someone else’s problem and she didn’t want to bother to let anyone know, seeing as to how it didn’t affect her. I tend to think it’s good karma to make at least a basic, honest effort to inform people of their mistakes so they can get back on track and minimize the damage their errors cause, but maybe that’s just me.

      • Draw2much says:

        This wasn’t an obvious clerical error though. From another article it says:

        “James’ lawyer, Francis X. Moore, said Fulton [county] billed the property as one parcel for three decades and then in 1994 started billing for two parcels. But the tax bills for the second lot, notices of overdue taxes and notices of the lien sale were addressed to a person James does not know at an address that does not exist, Moore said.”

        This kind of shady practice is apparently common too, based on what the article linked to says:

        “Many taxpayers who discover a private company owns a tax lien on their property claim that Ferdinand’s office sent their bill to the wrong address, did not notify them of a small overdue amount or otherwise mishandled the bill.”

        • kobresia says:

          Odds seem good that it’s incompetence at work. I’m guessing there aren’t any mandatory qualifications to establish eligibility for county clerk & recorder positions.

          Even if there was ill intent, it’s still on the woman for failing to report the error and get it cleared up. When you don’t pay “rent” to the government on your property, the government can and will take it to sell to someone else. That’s just how it works with Fee Simple title.

          It still sounds to me like a duplicate record was mistakenly created with some of the details getting messed-up, maybe because someone started to edit the wrong property record, realized it was a mistake, thought they exited without saving, but saved a new record. Seriously, C&R officials and their office staffers seem to be about the most computer-illiterate buffoons I’ve ever seen, at least in my county. Their job is primarily data entry, but they always manage to screw something up in my transactions.

          The software used by all of Colorado (and I’d guess the situation is similar in other states as well) also seems to be terrible and clumsy, and from the 80s because nobody has redesigned it in the past 30 years. It’s not user-friendly, it doesn’t have confirmations, it has a bunch of different screens that are all needed together to get the “big picture” of a single record, but only one can be open at a given time and nothing can be copied or auto-populated between them. They screw-up things all the time, and they only get discovered when the error is brought to their attention.

  10. oldwiz65 says:

    It’s typical of scum debt collectors. I think they should all be sent to prison for 1 year for each time they do something like this. And shame on the town for stupidity.

  11. Lyn Torden says:

    Selling tax liens is something I think is OK. However, it is NOT OK when it is based on improper tax billing. This is why notification MUST be given when this process starts, so that the real landowner can enter the dispute. And, it is another FAILure if this notification is also made to the wrong name.

    I blame the Fulton Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, not for wanting to recover money for unpaid taxes, but to doing the process all wrong.

    • Lyn Torden says:

      “After James paid off her mortgage in 1994, she received two tax bills. One was in her name, which she paid. The other was addressed to an Archie James, a man she had never heard of, at an address that does not exist, said her attorney, Francis X. Moore.”

      How can this have even made the lien be applied to Rita’s house? It should have been applied to the non-existant address.

    • lolwat says:

      She got a wrong bill twice and ignored both of em.

      • chatterboxwriter says:

        If mail comes here addressed to someone else, I don’t even open it. I write “Return to sender — not at this address” on each piece and send it right back to the post office. If the mail is not addressed to the right person, I don’t think the recipient should even open it.

  12. lolwat says:

    The blame should be with her county/city etc not with the company trying to collect. Towns that have tax lien auction sales are basically collecting what tax is owed to them when someone else purchases that lien. To pay off that lien, you pay that company/person that bought the lien and whatever interest rate they bought the lien at. It can end up being a lucrative business if you know what you are doing. I have seen liens purchased at 10-15% interest rates.

    When they purchased the lien at auction, It is reasonable to believe you are purchasing a valid lien from the city.county!. Now If i owned the lien on her home I would be pretty ticked because 1) I spent my money to purchase a lien with the expectation it would be paid off, with interest one day and 2) I was sold an invalid lien witch is worthless.

    While the lawyer for the company sounds cold, unless the city/county proved to them that they sold them a bogus lien, how would they know? Just because this woman says so? That’ts not enough to walk away from thousands of dollars, now is it? Her city or county that made the mistake should have owned up to it. But I suppose that had to take an act of the Supreme Court of GA to do anything about it. That is what is messed up.

    Depending on your state, a company that owns a tax lien can foreclose on your home after a certain amount of time. To say she owed back rent is incorrect. They believed she owned back taxes. Under that belief, they had a right to try and collect.

    • lolwat says:

      Oh wait a second….

      “She ignored the second bill, and the county issued a lien. Vesta Holdings, most likely the largest purchaser of tax liens in the state, bought it”

      She ignored 2 bills. Ok 1 wrong bill comes and you don’t do anything. Wrong name, wrong address. Whatever. But 2? You didn’t think to call them ?

      • cleo159 says:

        I’m pretty sure they mean she ignored the second, incorrectly addressed bill, but paid the first, correctly address bill. So of two bills received, only one was ignored.

        Regardless, I live in an apartment, so 75% of the mail I get is addressed to someone else, and plenty of it looks like bills. I wouldn’t dream of opening their mail (okay, I’ll look at the occasional magazine): it’s personal, possibly illegal, and frankly, I’m not really that interested in whether the tenant three tenants ago paid for their CAT scan or can save money on their car insurance or whatever. And a letter to someone else at a different address? Forget about it – that goes right back in the mailbox.

      • who? says:

        I get a steady stream of stuff in my mailbox that is addressed to someone else. I’ve lived in my house for 15 years. At this point, every adult who lived in my house before I did is dead. If I get mail for someone I don’t know, I just throw it out. If, in addition, it was for an address that didn’t exist, I’d throw it out even faster. Even if it got sent to me twice.

        It wasn’t her bill. She didn’t need to do anything with it, except maybe try to return it.

      • Difdi says:

        No, she ignored one bill. She got two. One of them had the right address, the right name, and the right amount. She paid that one.

        The other was to someone else entirely, that she wasn’t even related to, with a different address, corresponding to property that she didn’t own. The natural assumption would be lazy postal carrier wanting to go home instead of finish their route.

  13. Saskiatas says:

    It seems to me that this whole fiasco was ultimately the responsibility of the county that improperly sent the 2nd tax bill to her, and had the tax liability on that bill associated with her parcel. When it wasn’t paid, the county should have followed up with notifications to the same address that they sent the bill to. If they had, Ms. James would have known that the county had incorrect information and presumably contacted them. OR, if we are missing part of the story and she actually did contact the county and they corrected their records, the county was obligated to inform the company that they had incorrectly sold the lien to and take responsibility for the illegal sale. It seems this did not occur either, otherwise the company would have realized they did not truly own the lien and would not have gone to court. (Or would have taken the county to court.)

  14. dcatz says:

    Property tax is little more than modern-day feudalism. Under a property tax regime, no one truly owns their property; you only occupy your property at the blessing of your governmental feudal masters and must pay back a “share of the land” to your feudal masters at the tax office.

  15. your new nemesis says:

    Maybe I don’t fully understand the law regarding this, but since she was given a tax bill for another person for another address, wouldn’t it have been a felony for her to even open the bill in the first place? I guess her only recourse would have been to bring it to the post office or give it to the mail carrier when she saw him next. I get bills, letters, court summons, etc for previous tenants of my apartment all the time, I just put them into the “outgoing” mail slot and never see them again.

  16. uberlaus says:

    Everyone seems to be dumping on the company that bought the lien. The culprit in all this seems to be the County which sold the lien in the first place and made no attempt to contact the woman beforehand. I have had several neighbors and friends that have had property tax issues and good luck expecting accountability from the government. Just last week I talked to someone who after she paid her tax bill on her vehicle, the town “corrected” the amount she owed to the tune of $12. They never notified her or rebilled her. 2 years later they wouldn’t let her register her car, and refused her parking and trash permits due to “unpaid taxes”. After going down to town hall and spending several hours figuring out the problem, the clerk admitted it wasn’t her fault, and then told her she could file for a hearing , which would take 3 months to happen during which she couldn’t park, drive her car etc. and get her record corrected, or she could pay the bill in full which was $400 with interest and penalties and have everything immediately resolved. If a bank or debt collected acted like this, senators and congressman would be lining up to regulate them.

  17. JJFIII says:

    Property tax liabilities are attache to property first and foremost. The name is not important. In fact, if I fail to pay the taxes on my property, my mortgage company would start paying them and increase what I owe them.
    Hoping that mistakes take care of themselves and ignoring them lead to these kind of issues. People need to stop thinking things will just “work themselves out”. Spend a few hours now to avoid months and years of turmoil and possible financial ruin.
    I do not know all the details of this story, but I have a hard time believing the taxing authority sold without posting notice first. Her issue should not be with the purchaser, but with the taxing body

    • Lennie Patrick says:

      No, No, No!
      Read the article again!
      It was sent to a non-existent address & the letter carrier delivered it to her.
      She should have written “No such address” on the envelopes & thrown them back in the mail.
      The comment just before yours by ‘your new nemesis’ is correct, she would have committed a federal crime by opening someone else’s mail.
      When the tax bill was returned to the county, someone there should have checked for the correct address & also should have gone out & checked it out in person.

      So, the county screwed up, the tax buyer screwed up, their lawyers screwed up & her lawyer screwed up by not getting one or more judges to issue a permanent injunction against the tax buyer from going after her & her property ever again.
      She is the only one that didn’t screw up!

    • McRib wants to know if you've been saved by the Holy Clown says:

      “The other was addressed to an Archie James, a man she had never heard of, at an address that does not exist”

      So, wrong name, wrong address and this got attached to her property how, now?

    • who? says:

      You don’t even know the details in the summary correctly. She paid *her* tax bill. The tax bill she ignored was for a person she didn’t know at an address that didn’t exist. Why should she even look at the envelope twice?

      • JJFIII says:

        I am saying it is BULLSHIT, That is HER story. You want people to believe that a HUGE conspiracy took place. Here is what has to happen to believe the story:

        1. The taxing authority printed a bill to Mr James instead of Mrs James.
        2. They placed HIS address on her bill and it got mailed to her. I guess the post office would KNOW that the this shoudl happen too.
        3. In over a decade she could not get this figured out.

        How many times do you get something mistakenly in the mail for not her property and not her name, but remember it 18 years later? PLEASE.
        This was lack of follow through on her part and you all know it.

        • shepd says:

          There is no way the debt collector would have dropped this suit if the address on the bill were proper. Rather, they either don’t have the bill (in which case the claim is null and void unless they can prove in some other fashion it exists) or they do have the bill, looked at it, and said “Oh shit… …she’s right. The names don’t match and the address is wrong. What moron keyed this in?” and that by the time someone noticed this, the lawsuit was already on and they decided to fight it anyways… …because many idiotically large companies do that.

  18. TheOnlyBob says:

    1. counter – suit
    2. send them to collections when they dont pay
    3. take their office building and charge them rent to be there.
    4. laugh

  19. Peggee has pearls and will clutch them when cashiers ask "YOU GOT A WIC CHECK MA'AM?" says:

    “We’re not saying we didn’t have the right to do what we were doing,” an attorney for the company explains. “We just voluntarily relinquished all our rights to the property to put an end to this, which, frankly, is what we’ve been trying to do for four years.”

    I think this is the offline equivalent of “Maybe you want to sit here and debate this forever, but I’ve been trying to withdraw for four years because I actually have a life.”

    http://www.cracked.com/blog/8-stupid-arguments-that-internet-debates-always-devolve-into

  20. carlogesualdo says:

    I changed my name several years ago, but the process to change the name on my title is so difficult, it’s actually still under my old name. This has so confused the post office that I have failed to receive my tax bill twice. And I missed it both times because I didn’t notice when it simply didn’t appear. After the second year of getting a late notice (oh yeah, THEN they were able to find me!), I had to start putting it on my calendar to look for the bill. Annoying. I guess I should expect it to come back to bite me in about 10 years.