A Beaver County widow has lost her $260,000 house — for a second time — for failure to pay $6.30 in interest and late fees from back taxes.
Eileen Battisti of Center was given plenty of legal notice to pay the fees and was notified properly of the county tax claim bureau's intention to sell her home on Rosewood Drive in Center at a tax auction in September 2011, according to a decision last week by Common Pleas Judge Gus Kwidis.
Because the tax claim bureau followed proper protocol, and can provide evidence that Mrs. Battisti received the notices, the judge could only follow the letter of the strictly written tax law even though that means Mrs. Battisti likely will lose possession of her home, said the county's chief solicitor, Joe Askar.
"We never want to see any homeowner lose their house to a tax sale -- it's an unfortunate matter, but this case is no different from any other case," Mr. Askar said. "Tax sale law is pretty clear that if you don't pay your taxes for a two-year period, the sale must proceed."
Neither Mrs. Battisti nor her lawyer in the case, Joseph M. Spratt, could be reached for comment. Commonwealth Court had remanded the case back to Judge Kwidis after finding that the lower court had not given Mrs. Battisti her due process rights and ruling that she must have a chance to make her case at an evidentiary hearing.
Mrs. Battisti bought the home with her now-deceased husband, Anthony, in 1999. After his death in 2004, Mrs. Battisti paid off the mortgage with proceeds from his life insurance, but struggled to keep up with other bills in part because of other personal struggles including a daughter who had been seriously injured in a car crash, the lower court said when her case was first heard in 2013.
Mrs. Battisti said her husband had handled the family's finances, including the paperwork for the property's taxes, until his death, the court said.
The Central Valley School District notified the county tax claim bureau in March 2009 that Mrs. Battisti owed back taxes on her property, according to the court. Mrs. Battisti sent the bureau a check for the $897.19 that she believed she owed. But in the interim before the check was received in May, the bureau added an interest charge of $6.30.
According to the court filing, the tax bureau then sent Mrs. Battisti a notice of the unpaid amount, adding postage and costs for a total of $28.25. That notice was returned to the bureau as unclaimed, the court stated. No further notices were apparently sent to Mrs. Battisti, according to the court.
While Mrs. Battisti was notified of unpaid taxes the following year, and paid them in full, she received no additional notices about the original $6.30 shortfall, the court stated.
Mrs. Battisti could have paid the fees as late as the morning of the tax upset sale, Mr. Askar said. But she did not show up that morning, and her home was sold to S.P. Lewis on Sept. 12, 2011, for $116,000, or less than half its value, according to the court. Most of that money will be paid to Mrs. Battisti if her appeals fail.
Mrs. Battisti, who said later she found out about the sale only when Mr. Lewis contacted her two weeks later, filed an objection to the sale within the required 30-day time period, in an effort to undo the sale, Mr. Askar said. But the basis of her objection was that she had not been given proper notice of the outstanding debt or the pending sale, he said, while the court found otherwise.
Two certified letters were returned as undeliverable, but at least two first-class letters sent by the tax claim bureau were not returned, Mr. Askar said.
"The law is clear that if a first-class letter goes out and doesn't return, it's deemed received," he said.
In addition, the deputies who notified Mrs. Battisti of the bureau's intention to sell her property posted her front door with a white, letter-sized sheet of paper that would have been visible when she drove past the house or pulled her car into the driveway, he said. And Mrs. Battisti has previously testified that she was living at the home on Rosewood with her adult son at the time, according to Mr. Askar.
"I don't think the judge had any wiggle room to decide any [other] way ... and unfortunately for Mrs. Battisti, I think the Commonwealth Court is going to affirm his decision," Mr. Askar said.
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or firstname.lastname@example.org.