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LITTLE HOUSE OF HORRORSIT ALL STARTED WITH A KNOCK ON THE DOOR

This year, there isn't much of a garden around the little house in the quiet northwest Phoenix neighborhood. The lone iris sprouting beneath Judy Brownstein's bedroom window seems more defiant than beautiful. The rosebush in the driveway is a scraggly survivor. "How can I garden if I don't know from...

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This year, there isn't much of a garden around the little house in the quiet northwest Phoenix neighborhood. The lone iris sprouting beneath Judy Brownstein's bedroom window seems more defiant than beautiful. The rosebush in the driveway is a scraggly survivor. "How can I garden if I don't know from day to day whether I can stay in my house?" Judy Brownstein asks, shoving her hands into the front pockets of her Levi's, trying hard, as she does a lot these days, not to cry.

Last winter, she couldn't garden at all. She barely had the strength to chain-smoke Marlboros and putter around her house. She was recovering from major surgery, and a lot of times she would simply lie on her bed and think about how a run of terrible luck and her own bad choices had landed her in the fix she was in.

Her ex-husband owed her thousands of dollars in child support payments. She suffered from Crohn's disease, an incurable intestinal malady. Unable to work for the past several years, she was surviving on a small disability check from social security. Just a few weeks before, worried about losing her house, she had filed for Chapter 7 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Phoenix.

The house she'd owned for fourteen years was practically empty. She'd lost most of her furniture and all of the carpeting in a flood two years ago, and because she had no insurance she'd been unable to replace either.

Judy Brownstein took some comfort in the fact that at least she and her son Michael, a 23-year-old college student, weren't homeless. Like many other people lining up at bankruptcy court these days, she assumed that the Chapter 7 filing would protect her house, shielding her from overdue mortgage payments and back taxes until she could pull her life together.

Her life already had been blown apart by illness and two common legal problems: no child support and no money to hire an attorney.

And then, on the evening of last December 11, a Tempe man named Joseph Mitchell knocked on her door.

He told her he'd just bought her house that day. She had one week to get out. For good.

"You know that feeling in your stomach when you get on the elevator and it goes up real fast? That's how I felt," Brownstein recalls. "When I could finally talk, I asked Mr. Mitchell into the house. He was very gentlemanly, very nice. I explained to him that no one had told me my house was going to be sold. He told me I'd better go down to the bankruptcy court the next morning."

She did. There, she discovered that because a clerk had mailed a letter to her at an address that did not exist, Brownstein had not received a notice of an October 26, 1990, court hearing over the fate of her house. Since Brownstein had not received a notice of the hearing, as required by law, she wasn't in bankruptcy court on October 26. But a lawyer for Lomas Mortgage, a Texas lender that held Brownstein's mortgage, did show up.

The lender asked Judge Robert Mooreman to release the house from the protection of Brownstein's bankruptcy case, meaning it could be sold. Mooreman agreed. His decision permitted Lomas to take steps to sell the house without Brownstein's knowledge.

On December 11, 1990, Mitchell purchased Brownstein's house from Lomas for $37,000. It was a steal. The Maricopa County Assessor's Office had just valued the house at $71,000. JUDY BROWNSTEIN, who at 43 looks like she's had all the fight whipped out of her, dug in her heels and fought back.

She and her son refused to move out. "Your rights are your rights. Period," she says.

To save her house, Brownstein has had to become embroiled in a legal battle against, at one time or another, both the lender and the house's new owner.

It's a mess that only seems to get more complicated as it careens from U.S. Bankruptcy Court to Maricopa County Superior Court and back again.

On April 19, attorney Floyd Bybee--recently hired by Judy Brownstein's brother--will file a brief on her behalf with the regional Bankruptcy Appellate Panel.

He says Brownstein's constitutional right to due process was violated by the bankruptcy court in Phoenix because she was not given notice of the hearing that resulted in her house being sold.

Problem is, everyone wants Judy Brownstein's unremarkable house. Mitchell put down good money for what he thought was a bona fide sale. Lomas, the lender, wants Mitchell to get the house--otherwise, he might sue Lomas.

Brownstein, who has little else, has to have the house. She has no place else to live. And she figures if she can hold on to it for a few years, she might be able to eventually sell it and perhaps finally get a small financial cushion of her own.

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE for this mess?
Judge Robert Mooreman says he can't talk about pending cases. Lomas and Mitchell also refused comment. Kevin O'Brien, clerk of the bankruptcy court in Phoenix, admits that his office "made a mistake" by sending Brownstein's notice of the hearing to an improper address.

But he does not apologize for the error. Instead, he points out that about 18,250 bankruptcies were filed in Phoenix last year--a 300 percent increase from only five years earlier.

"Mistakes like that are bound to happen occasionally with the volume of paperwork and hundreds of hearings," O'Brien says. But he admits that he's never had a snafu that's had such repercussions.

The irony here is that Brownstein says she could have repurchased or refinanced her house if she'd only known it was going up on the auction block. She says she would have asked her family in Chicago for help. She had been trying to work things out herself because she'd been dependent on her family for most of her life and had been trying to break away.

"Begging is hard," she says. "I don't like to jump through hoops to get money. I have a real problem asking for help. A real major problem. It gives me a sense of failure. But I would have done it to save my house."

BACK IN THE DAYS when she knew she owned her house, Judy Brownstein was quite a gardener. Each spring, she pruned the rosebushes and planted beds of flowers around the little guesthouse in the backyard. She coaxed baby citrus plants into lush trees and trained a bright pink bougainvillea to climb up one wall of the guesthouse.

It was especially important that the guesthouse look beautiful. The one-bedroom unit with a little kitchen had for years provided her with enough rental income to meet her $360 monthly mortgage payment. But right about the time she got sick, she says, the Phoenix economy nosedived and rentals were a dime a dozen. She could no longer count on the guesthouse for income. During the past four years, she's survived on a $700 monthly disability check and whatever son Michael can bring home from his part-time minimum-wage jobs.

Listening to this little woman in Levi's and hoop earrings talk about expenses, it's hard to imagine that she once, in her words, "lived the life of the typical Jewish princess" as the daughter of an upper-middle-class manufacturer of industrial cleaners.

The oldest of four kids, Judy had complained of stomach problems from the time she was a little girl. Her family thought she was a hypochondriac. "My father pushed me and pushed me to do things, but I couldn't, I was too sick. He told me I was lazy," she recalls. "My siblings thought the same thing."

It wasn't until she was 22 that doctors discovered that her problem was real--that it was Crohn's disease. By then, she was hurt and angry about the way her family had treated her.

Estrangement from her family is one reason she dropped out of DePaul University when she was nineteen and married "extraordinarily bright and funny" Barry Brownstein. Her parents paid for a sumptuous wedding at the Continental Plaza Hotel in Chicago. Her wedding cake featured fresh flowers and spun sugar. Her trousseau included $100 shoes and $200 dresses.

These days her wardrobe is different. "It's riches to rags," she says. "I count myself lucky if I can find a pair of tennis shoes at Marshalls for $10. I have one good sweater left, a couple of tops and two good jeans. Part of me feels less than what I used to be because my clothes aren't new. I wonder, `Do I look okay?'"

She blames her ex-husband for a great deal of her present predicament. (Barry Brownstein could not be reached for comment for this article.)

Michael was born a year after the wedding, and the marriage lasted only a few years more.

According to Judy Brownstein's calculations, her ex-husband owes her $40,000 in child support. After years of fighting in Illinois and Arizona courts, she's been able to get only about $2,000.

(She knows she has little hope of getting the rest of the money. But the frustration has prompted her to form a fledgling nonprofit corporation called Project Child Support to help other parents in the same fix.

("Why don't they make as much noise in Arizona about people not getting child support as they do about losing a team in the Cactus League?" she asks.)

When Judy's marriage flopped, she let her family take care of her and Michael for years. She ended up working for the family business, and when her dad opened an office in Phoenix fifteen years ago, she moved West to help out.

Shortly after she arrived, she bought the house in northwest Phoenix, figuring she could pay the $32,000 mortgage with the guesthouse rental, plus $13,000 to $17,000 in annual commission-based income from the family business.

What Brownstein didn't figure on was that the Crohn's disease would get worse. She became too sick to eat and dropped to 95 pounds. She spent many nights in the hospital, being fed intravenously.

Neither she nor Michael will talk much about it, but her illness also took its toll on Michael. He wound up dropping out of Sunnyslope High School because it was a "waste of time."

Finally, her illness got so bad she couldn't work. The medical bills mounted, and she didn't pay her income taxes or mortgage payments. Eventually she filed for bankruptcy, acting as her own lawyer. Last year, a few weeks before the house was sold out from under her, Brownstein underwent major surgery, paid for by Medicare, to try to repair the ravages of Crohn's disease.

Michael, in the meantime, was pulling his life together. He got his GED and went to community college. He shared his minimum-wage income from part-time jobs with his mother.

Michael is scrubbed and clean-cut, his mother's pride and joy. She often mentions that Michael is a youth member of the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board and once served on a city substance-abuse task force. Now a student at Arizona State University, Michael hopes to graduate next year.

She gets defensive when it is pointed out that some people might wonder why Michael didn't quit college to work full-time to rescue his mother from her financial crisis. "I wouldn't let him drop out," she says. "His education is more important."

"I really don't think it would help to drop out," agrees Michael. "If we can just hold on until I graduate, then I'll have a decent job." He is sitting in the kitchen, drinking a Coke and petting his aging black dog Putter. Behind him, shading the back porch is a huge Aleppo pine he and his mom planted fourteen years ago, when they first moved into the house. The tree was not much taller than Michael back then.

BROWNSTEIN THROWS back her head and laughs when people tell her she probably wouldn't be in such a bind if she had hired a lawyer to file her bankruptcy. Maybe she would have heard about the hearing in October, when the clerk sent the notice to the wrong address. If lawyers don't show up at such hearings, staffers in the judges' offices sometimes telephone them to see why they didn't appear in court.

She tried to get legal help. "I looked all over the place trying to find an attorney," she says. "Some wouldn't return calls. Others said they were too busy. The ones I talked to all said I should get a lawyer. I said I would if I could, but social security disability doesn't allow one the luxury of legal counsel."

Community Legal Services turned her down, too. It doesn't do bankruptcies, she remembers being told. So in December, after the fateful visit to her house by Joseph Mitchell, she herself "filed this emergency thing" with the court and appeared before Judge Mooreman. "I couldn't even talk," she recalls. "I just started crying. I was so nervous." She managed to blurt out that the clerk botched her address and that she hadn't been notified of the critical October 26 hearing.

After she told the judge about the clerk's mistake, Mooreman canceled the original order, allowing her to temporarily stay in her house until he held a second hearing on the matter. At the second hearing, however, he again severed the house from the bankruptcy estate.

But by the time the judge ordered the second hearing, the house's title had already changed hands.

If not for the original foul-up by the court clerk, Brownstein would have had several options. She could have borrowed money from her family to buy back the house from the lender. Or she could have paid the lender her delinquent payments, about $5,000, to reinstate the mortgage. Or she could have converted to Chapter 13 bankruptcy and worked out a plan to pay off her debts.

"I CAN'T BELIEVE this happens to people in America," says Judy Brownstein. "Maybe to prevent this from happening to others, you have to take a case like mine all the way to the Supreme Court. I wish I could. I wish I had a benefactor because, damn it, I would do it."

But maybe she won't have to. On Friday, her attorney will file papers to appeal Judge Robert Mooreman's decision to the bankruptcy appellate panel. According to law, the three judges on the panel have to be from the same region but cannot work in the court where the case is disputed. For instance, an Arizona case might be appealed to a panel of three California judges and vice versa.

Brownstein's appeal to the out-of-state panel will be simple. She will point out that the bankruptcy court in Phoenix violated her rights because the U.S. Constitution guarantees that a person's property cannot be sold unless the person is first notified. If the panel rules in Brownstein's favor, the entire process will start all over again and she might be able to save her house.

Last week, while doing her own research in the ASU law library, Judy Brownstein stumbled onto a case remarkably similar to her mess.

In this 1988 case, a bankruptcy judge voided a foreclosure sale because the owners hadn't been given proper notice. The lender appealed, but the appellate panel sided with the owners. The appellate judges based their decision in part on the same argument as Brownstein's--the simple fact that the Constitution requires that a person be given proper notice before the sale of his property.

Which Arizona bankruptcy judge sat on the panel deciding this California case? Judge Robert Mooreman.

"This is getting too bizarre for words," says Judy Brownstein.

Her life already had been blown apart by illness and two common legal problems--no child support and no money to hire an attorney.

He told her he'd just bought her house that day. She had one week to get out. For good.

"I explained to him that no one had told me my house was going to be sold."

"Your rights are your rights. Period," Judy says.

Everyone wants Judy Brownstein's unremarkable house.

"Mistakes like that are bound to happen occasionally with the volume of paperwork and hundreds of hearings," the clerk says.

"Begging is hard. But I would have done it to save my house.

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