Steve Lash//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//September 7, 2014
//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
//September 7, 2014
Imagine you have been living in a house for 30 years when one December day a man you had never seen says he owns the property and you must either start paying rent of $850 per month or risk eviction.
That is what happened last year to Charlynn Sedgwick, a Baltimore woman who has been living in the home on Mount Olivet Lane since at least 1984, according to her attorney.
When Sedgwick refused to pay the rent, the purported owner, James Cann, filed a wrongful detainer, or eviction, action against her in Maryland District Court in Baltimore.
Land records indicate that Cann acquired the property in January 1979 and still holds record title to it, according to Sedgwick’s attorney, Michael E. Glass.
But Cann essentially “abandoned” the property in 1984, when his mortgage lender initiated a foreclosure proceeding that was never completed, Glass told District Judge Jennifer Etheridge last week.
Etheridge agreed to delay the eviction proceedings so Sedgwick could file a separate lawsuit to prove she now owns the property under the legal doctrine of adverse possession. Glass filed that action on her behalf in Baltimore City Circuit Court last Thursday, the same day Etheridge granted his motion to stay the wrongful detainer action.
Cann, however, disputed the allegation that he abandoned the property, saying he has rental records and other property documents that indicate his continued involvement in the property.
The adverse possession claim is a “nice ploy” to try to get ownership of property that is rightfully his, said Cann, who described himself as a longtime real-estate investor.
But Glass, a Baltimore solo practitioner, said he realized Sedgwick had a viable claim to the property through her surprisingly negative responses to his questions of whether she had ever paid rent to Cann or had even met him before last December.
“Lo and behold in this very atypical situation involving this row house, there was indeed an adverse possession claim,” Glass said. Like many attorneys, he learned the doctrine in law school but has had little occasion to invoke it during his 23 years in practice.
“It’s a very atypical situation for a landlord to walk away from a property for more than 20 years,” Glass added. “It was a very unique case.”
Glass acknowledged that his circuit-court filing reads like the property-law textbook’s listing of the elements of adverse possession.
The Complaint for Adverse Possession and Quiet Title states that Sedgwick should be deemed the owner because she has “continuously occupied the property” for 30 years, treating it as if she was the “rightful owner,” has “made improvements” to it and has had “no communication, interaction or contact” with Cann in all that time.
“For 30 years [Sedgwick] has held the property openly, notoriously, exclusively, and continuously for over the statutory period of 20 years under a claim of title and ownership,” the filing states. “For 30 years, [Cann] has not claimed an ownership interest in the property or collected rent.”
Glass said Friday that a loss in the case could be devastating to Sedgwick, who shares the house with a friend and lacks the financial means to find similar housing.
“If they are put out of this property, it is going to be difficult for them to find other property,” Glass said.
A victory in the case could also have financial consequences, as Sedgwick might be held responsible for the $25,000 property tax debt. But Glass, who has represented property owners in claims brought by Baltimore, said he is confident he could reach an agreement with the city on terms favorable to his client.
Online court records indicate a foreclosure action was filed against Cann on five separate properties, including the Mount Olivet property, in February 1984, but was terminated without prejudice “for want of jurisdiction or prosecution” in 1986.
Cann also said he doubts that Sedgwick has lived at the property for the statutory minimum of 20 years, much less the 30 years she claims.
“If they’ve been keeping records for 20 years, I’ll take my hat off to them,” said Cann, who said he plans to represent himself in court. “I have records.”T