Storming the Castle

In Florida, the old adage about a man's home being his castle isn't just talk. It's the law. It's almost Holy Writ. The state's homestead exemption is so absolute that a Florida homestead is known in legal circles simply as "the sacred cow." Others call it "the castle." Added to...
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In Florida, the old adage about a man's home being his castle isn't just talk. It's the law. It's almost Holy Writ.

The state's homestead exemption is so absolute that a Florida homestead is known in legal circles simply as "the sacred cow." Others call it "the castle." Added to the Florida Constitution in 1868, the exemption forbids the forced sale of our homes and exempts them from seizure in civil judgments. Here's what Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jefferson Browne had to say about the homestead exemption in the early 1900s:

"[Its] obvious purpose is to secure each family a home and means of livelihood, irrespective of financial misfortune, and beyond the reach of creditors; security of the State from the burden of pauperism, and the individual citizen from destitution."

Countless families have indeed been spared the "burden of pauperism" because of it. But what happens when government bureaucrats take the sacred cow to the slaughterhouse? Or worse, when a judge not only allows it to happen but also brings a fork to the table so she can feast on the bloody carcass?

Aristides Pelecanos is finding out. He's living the homesteader's nightmare, a protracted six-year battle that has broken him financially and taken a toll on his health. Because Pelecanos' house has fallen into disrepair, the City of Hallandale Beach has hit him with $3 million in code enforcement fines. And Broward Circuit Judge Patti Henning has ruled against him over and over again — whether the law supports her or not.

It may be the bitterest and most expensive code enforcement case in the city's history — and Pelecanos believes that one of his neighbors has been instrumental in the campaign against him: Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper.

He's right, too.

Cooper lives a block from Pelecanos, down upscale Holiday Lane on the Intracoastal, and routinely walks her dog by his house. She admits that she's trying to drive him from it.

"The pool's not maintained, the landscaping is a mess, the roof looks terrible, the driveway is not painted, you name it," Cooper says. "I have been very involved in the process, getting monthly reports and briefings. The home should be foreclosed on, but there's a loophole in the law."

That "loophole," of course, is the homestead exemption, what two Florida judges in 1949 called "the great bulwark of the individual homeowner."

Cooper may have gone overboard with this, but she has a point: Pelecanos' house, a 3,500-square-foot waterfront number with a beautiful view of the water, is an eyesore. The roof is dirty and unkempt; the driveway is going to seed. It looks out of place on the street of huge homes with beautifully manicured lawns.

Behind every ugly house, however, there's usually a hard-luck story. Pelecanos' is no exception.

Born in Athens, he came to America in 1973 with little more than his childhood sweetheart and the clothes on his back. For the next 15 years, he worked hard, helping to make everything from shoes to pizza to kitchen countertops. That last job made him a good salary, in the mid-five figures. His wife from Athens, Vassiliki Barbatsi, was with him all the while, selling cosmetic products for extra money.

They bought the house on Holiday Lane in 1988 for $280,000. Pelecanos says the only way they could afford it was $75,000 given to him for a down payment by his wife's father. They still owe about $130,000 on the original mortgage.

For 12 years, they lived in the beautiful house without trouble. But then a series of misfortunes struck. The bulk of Pelecanos' countertop work was in Weston, which boomed throughout the 1990s. Then business slowed. Then his supplier went out of business.

At about the same time, his mother became ill back in Greece. He says he paid $23,000 out of his own pocket to put her in a private hospital. On top of that, he also lost much of his savings in the dot-com bust.

"For the first time in my life, it was one thing after another," he says in his thick Greek accent.

"I was depressed. I drank too much. But these people treat me like criminal."

When his house fell into disrepair, the neighbors, including Mayor Cooper, noticed. They complained to code enforcement, which cited him with violations in late 2000. The fines totaled $1,050 — each day.

He tried to satisfy the city. He washed the roof but couldn't afford to replace it. He cleaned up the yard and covered the pool with a tarp. It wasn't enough.

In February 2002, the city sued Pelecanos and Barbatsi in Broward Circuit Court to force him to pay the fines, which had then reached $436,150 (including $91,600 for "dead sod").

Ultimately, Judge Patti Englander Henning, a veteran of the bench (and sister of Broward tourism czar Nikki Grossman), was assigned the case. It went downhill from there for Pelecanos.

He says he wanted to get a home equity loan, fix the house, and get out of the neighborhood. But the lawsuit, liens, and fines ensured that no bank would give him the time of day.

Pelecanos says that Henning, who didn't return my phone calls for comment, seemed to be dead-set against him from the beginning.

In October 2002, Henning held him in contempt of court for not complying with her orders to fix the house. At the city's behest, the judge then ordered Pelecanos to sell the house. That would seem to be in violation of the homestead exemption, which forbids such forced sales, but soon it would become obvious that the judge in this case had lost touch with the law.

Later that year, Henning granted the city permission to demolish the house — at Pelecanos' expense — even though it had no structural problems. When Pelecanos argued against it, Henning threatened to throw him in jail if he tried to stop the bulldozers.

Pelecanos, meanwhile, was trying to sell the house, listing it "as-is" for $1.2 million. In April 2004, a Russian couple, Sergey and Galina Sachenko, agreed to buy it for the reduced price of $900,000.

By now the city wanted more than just Pelecanos gone — it wanted his equity in the house. Why?

"These people have to be held accountable for their actions," says Mayor Cooper.

The city asked Henning to put an equitable lien on the sale, meaning that any proceeds Pelecanos and his wife received — which amounted to their life savings and nest egg — would go to the city.

Unfortunately for the city, that "loophole" was in the way. The state's homestead exemption narrowly defines the circumstances under which such liens can be placed, and code violations aren't among them.

So the city got creative with a recent Florida Supreme Court opinion that equitable liens could be placed on homes that were purchased with "funds obtained through fraud or egregious conduct."

Nobody ever accused Pelecanos of buying his home with anything other than honest money, yet the city still accused Pelecanos of fraud. It was a ludicrous allegation. It didn't stick.

Failing that, the city claimed Pelecanos had engaged in a pattern of "egregious conduct" by failing to obey the city and the court.

"Egregious conduct?" Pelecanos asks. "I look in the dictionary. What the hell is that? You don't have money to fix the roof or driveway, it's 'egregious conduct'?"

The city was clearly misinterpreting the law, but that didn't stop Henning from granting the city's order for an equitable lien in 2004.

The sacred cow was cooked. Pelecanos and his wife were looking at losing everything because of a vindictive city and a judge who seemed to have run off the tracks.

Cooper was thrilled with the "win."

"I was very proud of our city attorney," she told me.

Pelecanos took the case to the Fourth District of Appeal. A year later, on November 23, 2005, the court reversed Henning's order, finding that it contradicted the law, and adding for good measure that "the courts of this state have long emphasized that the homestead exemption is to be liberally construed in the interest of protecting the family home."

So there is justice in Florida. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to wait until you get to the higher courts to find it.

Mayor Cooper, though, believes the law should be changed. That loophole needs to be closed. "It gets to the point that you have your hands tied," she says.

Told of Pelecanos' troubles, Cooper softens her tone, but she doesn't back down. She still thinks the law should give municipal governments more power over homeowners.

"My pregnant mother, at 42, was out scrubbing the sidewalks and picking the dandelions and she had six kids," Cooper told me. "The American Dream shouldn't be taken for granted."

For Pelecanos, the appellate court decision seemed to end his American Nightmare. The court case was closed. Months passed.

But the city and Henning weren't done. Hallandale reopened the civil case a year after the appellate ruling. Since it couldn't force a sale and take Pelecanos' equity in the house, the city now wanted cash.

Remember those fines? Well, with interest, they totaled $2,807,460 in late 2006. The dead sod alone was costing Pelecanos $439,000. Today the total stands at more than $3 million.

The city, however, never notified Pelecanos of a November 29 hearing on the matter. On that day, only city attorneys and Henning were present when the judge signed a final judgment against Pelecanos and his wife: in the amount of $2.8 million.

Talk about egregious conduct.

"Judge Henning doesn't even let me defend myself," says Pelecanos. "They don't even call me and tell me."

His new lawyer, Michael Reppas, says it's one of the most outrageous things he's witnessed as an attorney. "The city never notified Pelecanos that they had reopened the case," he says. "And the city got a $2.8 million judgment without opposition. That's Due Process 101. That's the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution out the window."

As if he didn't have enough trouble, Pelecanos was dealing with another lawsuit aimed at taking the house. Remember the Russian couple, Sergey and Galina Sachenko? Well, they missed the deadline to close on the purchase of the house. But after Pelecanos won his appeal, they sued Pelecanos and his wife, trying to force him to sell the house to them for the original $900,000.

The Sachenkos claim in their suit that Pelecanos signed a document that extended the contract until the appellate court made its ruling. But the extension is nothing more than a scrawled-on piece of fax paper that Pelecanos says is forged.

When I asked Galina Sachenko about the case, she said neither she nor her husband speaks English well and hung up on me.

There may be a good reason for their evasiveness. Pelecanos appears to have proof that the extended contract is phony. He showed me documents from the Sachenkos' previous closing agent asking him to sign the contract extension, dated November 4 and November 22, 2004. Yet the dubious contract extension filed in court by the Sachenkos' attorney, Evan Byer, is dated October 22 of that year.

Why would Pelecanos be asked to sign a contract that he had allegedly already signed?

It's a laughable case. Reppas calls it "worthless." But, just Pelecanos' luck, the judge assigned to it is... Henning.

Not surprisingly, the judge denied Reppas' motion to dismiss the suit, so the bizarre case continues to drag on. Henning has also denied Pelecanos' motion to overturn the $2.8 million judgment — and she did it without so much as allowing a hearing on the matter.

Pelecanos says he's borrowing money from his brother to defend himself from both the city and the mysterious Sachenkos. The fight, however, has taken a toll on the house, which continues to crumble. Hurricane Wilma left two holes in the roof.

And it's had a similar effect on him, evidenced by a missing front tooth. "My health is bad from all the stress," he says. "My blood pressure is through the roof. I passed out and broke the tooth on the side of the bed. My doctor said it was because of the high blood pressure."

But Pelecanos says he's going to keep fighting. He sent letters complaining about Judge Henning to former Chief Judge Dale Ross and the Florida Bar. Both Ross and the Bar, however, wrote him back to say they couldn't help.

"You are doing the right thing by appealing," Ross wrote him on April 26. "Good luck."

With Henning still in charge of his legal fate, he'll need it.

"I want everyone to know what corruption there is in this county," Pelecanos says.

"They tell us to obey the laws and they don't obey the laws themselves. Why this crap happen in America?"

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