At a foreclosure sale on the Franklin County courthouse steps last week, a Port St. Joe man may have scooped up one of Apalachicola’s most famous historic homes for a song.
A very sweet song, indeed, sung to the tune of $1,000 for a three-story late Victorian gem adjacent to Lafayette Park valued in the neighborhood of $1 million.
No sooner was the May 16 foreclosure sale complete, and David T. Ethridge the apparently successful buyer, that attorneys for TIB Bank moved to vacate the sale on the grounds Ethridge’s $1,000 bid on a property appraised at close to $900,000 was “clearly an ‘unconscionably inadequate’ price caused solely by the mistake” of the bank’s agent, JMT Management.
Naples attorney Kelly A. Johnson, who represents the plaintiff Capital Bank, National Association, the successor by merger to TIB Bank, wrote in her objection that her client, located in Collier County “approximately 480 miles away, or 8 hours by automobile, from the Franklin County Courthouse,” retained the services of JMT Management Corporation, a foreclosure sales attendance firm, to bid on the property on the bank’s behalf.
Johnson said JMT had bid at judicial sales around the state on the bank’s behalf, and that “without exception, in all other cases, JMT Management successfully performed and completed its services.”
In this case, however, something went wrong, at least as far as the bank was concerned, with one of the city’s most famous residences and one worth considerably more than was paid by the bidder.
Built in 1894 out of heart pine and black cypress by August Mohr, superintendent of the Cypress Lumber company, the Queen Anne Style home was the work of George and John Marshall. In the late 1930's, it became the home of Margaret and Alexander Key, a well-known author and illustrator whose novels include “Island Light,” “The Wrath and the Wind,” and “Night on Witch Mountain,” later made into a Disney movie.
The couple divorced in the 1940s, and Margaret, also an author, supported herself for more than half a century by working as a newspaper reporter, and writing magazine articles. Both she and her sister Bess lived in the house until they were well into their 90's.
Margaret died in 1996 and directed in her will that upon the sale of her estate, proceeds be given to the Apalachicola Municipal Library board, of which she was a long time member. About $350,000 plus interest resulted from the bequest, after the home was acquired in 1998 by Naples physician Dr. Gregory and Sally Leach.
The couple resumed restoration work dating back to the 1920s, when the home was first named Villa Rosa by owner Anna Riscilli. A small cigar factory was operated in an out- building during those years..
By Nov. 2012, however, the home had fallen into foreclosure, complicated by the bankruptcy of one of the home’s several owner entities, which included Apalach Classic Systems Inc., Gregory Leach, Sally Leach, Advanced Medical Center LLC, and Logical Investments.
The original foreclosure sale, set for Nov. 14, 2012, was postponed until May 2013, and then set for May 16 at 11 a.m. In a May 8 packet from a legal assistant to Johnson to a senior sales coordinator at JMT, the bank provided all the documentation needed to go ahead with the foreclosure sale, including the proof of newspaper publication and a $70 check to the county required before a sale can be held. They noted in the cover letter that the final bid amount was $832,344.
“The clerk property conducted the judicial sale, according to the judge’s order and state law,” said County Attorney Michael Shuler. “They did everything appropriately; all the things that should have been done were properly done.”
The plaintiffs are not alleging any wrongdoing by Clerk of Court Marcia Johnson’s office, but are contending that JMT’s representative assigned to the sale, Deborah Faircloth, “had forgotten about the assignment and did not appear for plaintiff at the sale.”
Because of this, argue the bank’s lawyers, the final sale price on the property “is only 0.001% of both the value of the Property and the Final Judgment amount.”
The lawyers, in citing a 1966 Florida Supreme Court summary of 75 years of case law, note the general rule that “mere inadequacy of price is not a ground for setting aside a judicial sale.”
But, as noted in the same ruling, “where the inadequacy is gross and is shown to result from any mistake, accident, surprise, fraud, misconduct or irregularity upon the part of either the purchaser or other person connected with the sale, with resulting injustice to the complaining party, equity will act to prevent the wrong result.”
The bank’s attorneys contend their client “is clearly the innocent victim of JMT Management’s mistake,” and cite a 1986 case where a calendaring error resulted in an “unconscionably inadequate price.”
Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey likely will have to decide whether or not to set aside and reschedule the sale, unless the matter plays out past her likely reassignment fulltime to Leon County in July.
Meanwhile, Michelle Maxwell, the assistant clerk of courts who handled the sale, won’t be certifying the sale in the usual 10 days, that action stymied by the pending motion.
If Ethridge eventually obtains the house, he will have to pay about $34,404 in back taxes, on three seprate parcels, said Tax Collector Jimmy Harris.