Spring Hill home's sale leaves cloud over attorney, owner befuddled

SPRING HILL

Five months later, Joe McCall still could not explain what happened.

McCall knew he owned a home with no mortgage. He knew someone bought it. He knew he had little to show for the sale.

Mostly, though, he knew it didn't feel right.

This story started for McCall, a man once haunted by drug addiction and trouble with the law, when his wife, Nancy, died in July 2010. She loved him, took care of him and managed all of their finances. Then, she was gone.

Her death exacerbated his bipolar disorder and anxiety. He fell deeper into depression. Near the end of last year, he checked into the BayCare Behavioral Health facility near Brooksville for a month.

Then came money problems. Without his wife, McCall didn't know what to do. He owed about $1,000 in overdue property taxes and $2,800 for repairs to his car's transmission.

Still, McCall had equity. He owned an 884-square-foot, two-bedroom house on Felton Lane free and clear. In 2000, he'd paid $39,500 for the Spring Hill home. The Hernando County property appraiser set its just market value at $41,559, and Zillow.com estimates its worth at $38,800.

McCall didn't want to live there anymore. It reminded him of his wife. The 47-year-old said he considered renting the house or possibly selling it. Still despondent over his loss, he couldn't decide what to do on his own; he said he turned to his case manager from BayCare, Ken Perkins.

Around January, McCall said, Perkins took him to Melanie Burpee, a Spring Hill probate attorney. Burpee could take care of his money, McCall recalled Perkins telling him; she would fix his financial problems.

What happened after that, even months later, McCall didn't entirely understand.

Records show he gave Burpee power of attorney on Jan. 11. Alicia Devanna, a secretary in Burpee's law office, signed the paperwork as a witness.

"They've been in business for a long time, so you trust that they know what they're doing," McCall said. "I didn't even read what I was signing."

Just more than a month afterward, Burpee prepared to sell his home. Although she now claims he knew for what price she was selling it, McCall denied that. He said the attorney didn't invite him to the closing or tell him who the buyer was or how much money he would make from the sale.

On Feb. 25, records indicate, Burpee sold the house to a buyer McCall said he never could have imagined at a price he never could have imagined.

The buyer: The office secretary, Alicia Devanna. The price: $15,000.

• • •

When McCall learned what Burpee sold the house for — and that she would disburse the money to him over a four-year period — he said he was angry, but he didn't want to confront her.

He knew, though, none of it seemed fair.

"I could get a lot more than 15 grand," he said. "I'm sure."

When he explained what happened to his sister-in-law, Cheryl Dolan, and brother-in-law, Steve Reynolds, they were furious.

Burpee, Dolan said, once told her she sold the house to a "friend" but wouldn't say whom.

According to Reynolds, Burpee told him an out-of-state investor bought the house.

"She indicated to me that she knew these people, but they were not friends or business associates," he said. "They were just people who would buy a house quickly. That's what she told me."

Burpee denied telling him that. Instead, the attorney insists, she told Reynolds she merely spoke to investors interested in the home. A couple from Ohio called her about it three times, she said. Without their permission, Burpee said, she couldn't release their names.

McCall didn't learn the buyer's identity until weeks after the sale when he said he went into Burpee's office to ask for some of his money. There, he noticed a receptionist he hadn't met before. He asked whom she was.

"Well," he said she responded, "I'm the one who bought your house."

McCall said Devanna told him her family was fixing up the house so they could rent it out. She told him it was nice.

Burpee alleges that although Devanna works in her office, she isn't her employee. She noted that several other lawyers work in the same office building near the corner of Mariner and Cortez boulevards.

However, when asked why Devanna's signature appeared on several of McCall's financial documents — including the power of attorney and trust agreements Burpee created — she refused to respond, citing attorney-client privilege.

• • •

Perhaps above all, McCall and his family said they don't understand how Burpee and Devanna agreed to sell the house for $15,000 — less than 40 percent of its estimated worth.

Ten other homes in the neighborhood offer nearly perfect comparables to McCall's former house. They were each built between 1972 and 1973; they each have two bedrooms and one bathroom; they each have almost identical square footage.

Those homes, according to Zillow, are valued between $35,900 and $40,800.

Near the first week of March, Reynolds said, Burpee told him she decided on $15,000 after speaking to a real estate agent, whom she didn't name.

Burpee told the Times she had gotten the house appraised, but she declined to say at what price it was valued or who did the assessment.

Reynolds also said she insisted to him that she had done McCall a favor because he would have lost the house last March 31 due to the unpaid taxes.

"Melanie told me that directly," Reynolds said. "That's when I knew that something was wrong."

Burpee's alleged assertion is inaccurate, according to Sally Daniel, chief deputy at the Hernando County Tax Collector's Office.

Although Daniel acknowledged McCall owed about $1,000 in taxes, she said no one had applied for a tax deed and the county hadn't taken any steps to seize the home.

"No one from the county Tax Collector's Office had sent him any notification saying that the house was going to be taken," she said. "It wasn't to that point."

When confronted by a reporter at her home last month, Devanna declined to say how she and Burpee decided on the sale price.

"Do you know how much money I had to put into that house?" she said before slamming the door and screaming: "Talk to the attorneys."

Burpee raised the same issue, stating that the house needed significant maintenance. She declined to say how much Devanna invested in repairs.

The attorney, McCall said, told him the buyer spent $6,500 to fix it up. Even in that circumstance, Devanna's total investment would have been $21,500, or about half the house's expected value.

Burpee wouldn't say if she represented both sides of the transaction or whether she felt it was a conflict of interest to sell the home to someone working in her office.

Although McCall denied knowing of or approving the sale price during a June interview, Burpee last week said he did.

"He called all the shots," she said.

The house is now being rented. A person staying there said his friend was the renter, but the man didn't know the monthly fee.

Zillow's predicted monthly rent is $606. At that rate, when including anticipated property taxes and insurance, the rental income would easily cover what Devanna paid for the house within the next three years.

When asked if she profited in any way from the deal, Burpee said, "Absolutely not."

• • •

When Robert M. Jarvis heard the details of the sale, he was stunned.

Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor, is considered an expert on legal ethics by the Florida Bar. He has degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University.

From what he learned of the transaction, Jarvis said he believes Burpee may have violated several Bar regulations.

"It's a failure to do what's in the client's best interest," Jarvis said of the price and manner in which Burpee sold McCall's home. "Clearly, the Bar rules say you have to safeguard your client's property."

The Bar, Jarvis said, also mandates that lawyers act competently for their clients.

"Obviously," he said, "selling (the home) for one-third its fair-market value, that's not something a competent lawyer would do."

Because she sold the house to someone who works in her office, Jarvis said, that may have created an enormous conflict of interest.

"The problem is that you really don't know what you could have gotten your client," he said, "if you had an arm's-length transaction."

When Reynolds and Dolan first learned of the sale, they compiled a time line of what had happened. Dolan mailed the details, along with an explanation, to several state and local entities, including the Hernando County clerk of court, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Bar.

Although Dolan never filed an official complaint with the Sheriff's Office, she did eventually file one with the Bar, which is investigating the circumstances.

• • •

After all that happened, McCall said he just wants peace.

He was once addicted to crack cocaine and pain pills. He spent 48 days in jail after he was charged with abusing his elderly father in late 2009. He accepted a plea agreement that ordered him to complete a mental health treatment program.

Since then, McCall said, he's been drug-free, but suffers from severe anxiety and has battled depression since his wife's death. He admits he is sensitive and lacks self-confidence. When he's nervous, he smokes 305 brand cigarettes, and sometimes trembles.

Burpee often doesn't give him the money he wants, McCall said. In fact, when he once asked for some cash to get a new paint job on his car, he said she told him that was not a necessity and instructed him not to request any more money from her for four years.

A local organization now acts as McCall's guardian and disburses the money from his disability check. After rent and other expenses, he said he lives on about $40 a week and occasional installments from Burpee. He goes to local churches twice a week for free food.

At this point, he doesn't want the house back. He just wants the money he deserves.

"I never have a dollar in my pocket," he said. "I guess, because I let someone take advantage of me."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Spring Hill home's sale leaves cloud over attorney, owner befuddled 08/06/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 1:51pm]

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