Longform

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 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.

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Terry Greene