November 8, 2012

The other Side of the Gavel

Allegations about a property deal land a JP in court.

A desire to spend their golden years in an affordable but comfortable home led Richard and Ginger Moore to tap into their small nest egg for an $18,000 down payment and ink their names on a lease-to-own contract. The Moores aren’t particularly savvy when it comes to real estate transactions and contracts, but they trusted the seller — longtime Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Jacqueline Wright. She was selling a 2,400-square-foot home in the Snow Heights Addition of North Richland Hills for $149,000.

Now the Moores’ down payment is gone. So is the house. As it turns out, Wright didn’t own the home when she offered it for lease. The Moores suspect she took their money, used it as her own down payment, and took out a two-year interest-only loan to buy the house with the expectation that the Moores would exercise their option to buy.

Instead, they grew suspicious of the arrangement and stopped making payments after about 18 months. Wright couldn’t pay her loan, and the Bank of Texas foreclosed on the property about six months later, about the same time the Moores moved out.

They are living in a cramped recreational vehicle, their furniture stacked in three storage units.

“We wanted to set down roots; this isn’t roots,” Ginger Moore said, casting a disappointed glance around their motor home parked on a concrete slab in a local RV park.

“It’s 8 feet wide and 40 feet long — we’re living in 320 square feet,” her husband said.

“This wasn’t supposed to be our forever home, that’s for sure,” Ginger said.

They accused Wright of bilking them out of their down payment on a house she didn’t own.

Wright said she cheated nobody and broke no laws, but she did not want to comment for this story.

“There is a whole other side of the story, but this can’t be litigated in the press,” she said. She vowed to clear herself at a Nov. 15 trial in federal bankruptcy court.

Wright did discuss the case in a deposition. In it, she said the 50-year-old house had been owned by her cousins, who gave her permission to sell it for them. Wright and her husband, realtor Ross LaDart, listed the property and showed it to the Moores in August 2008.

“At the time I was the landlord, and I was to be the seller sometime down the road,” she said in the deposition.

Wright took out a loan with the Bank of Texas to buy the property in October 2008, after she had negotiated a deal with the Moores, who were seeking owner financing with a lease-purchase option. They put down $18,000 and agreed to pay $880 a month in rent with two years to decide whether they wanted to buy the house.

In a lawsuit filed on Sept. 24, 2010, the Moores’ attorney, Caleb Moore, described the large down payment as atypical — about four or five times more than the average down payment. He said it was “unconscionable” for Wright to have requested it.

“The result of this transaction was that the Moores had used their entire savings to purchase an option to purchase a house,” he wrote in the lawsuit. “They acquired no equity in the home and had no savings left to put down 3 to 5 percent of the purchase price at some point in the future, which is the minimum amount required to get traditional financing.”

They signed a contract without having an attorney go over the details and counsel them on the unusual financial arrangement.

Wright’s house-flipping doesn’t appear to have violated the Texas judicial code of conduct. The code stipulates that judges should refrain from dealings that exploit their judicial duties. The Moores say they trusted Wright because of her title as a judge, but there is no evidence that Wright used her position to sway the buyers.

The code, however, also says judges should “comply with the law and should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

The Moores paid their rent on time and spent an estimated $11,000 more on repairs and improvements. Then in March 2010, Wright sent the Moores a letter asking for proof that they had paid insurance and taxes. She included a letter from the Bank of Texas, which had requested proof that taxes had been paid.

The Moores were confused. Why was Bank of Texas involved? They thought they were buying the house from Wright.

In June 2010, Wright sent the couple a letter to remind them that they had until Sept. 1 to exercise their option to buy. If they missed that deadline, Wright would make a demand for possession of the home on Sept. 2.

Richard called a relative who is a real estate agent in another state. The relative examined the documents the Moores had signed and told them the contract was unfair and possibly illegal. Wright appeared to have sold them a house she didn’t legally own at the time, the couple was told.

“We signed papers that were illegal to begin with,” Richard said.

The Moores sent a letter to Wright in July saying they wanted to cancel the lease — and they wanted their down payment returned. They felt they had been deceived.

Wright’s position as justice of the peace meant the Moores “relied on her representations that she was presenting them with documents and contracts that were typical in residential sales transactions, which was in fact not the case,” the couple’s attorney wrote in the lawsuit.

The judge “used her superior bargaining power to create misleading documents, to misinform the Moores regarding their options, and used her position of authority in the community to create a sense of trust that she used to her advantage to a grossly unfair degree in this transaction,” Caleb Moore wrote.

Wright filed a legal response to the lawsuit and denied allegations that she violated the property code, breached a contract, or harmed the Moores in any way. The contract contained a provision that listed the option money as nonrefundable and another provision that encouraged the Moores to consult an attorney before signing. Wright said the couple filed the lawsuit simply to embarrass her in an attempt to back out of the deal and to extort money from her.

Wright oversees a small claims court in Lake Worth. Her current four-year term ends in 2014.

In mediation, Wright offered to return only a portion of the option money, the Moores said.

“We’re not blood-and-guts people out to get her,” Ginger Moore said. “If she had been willing in mediation to say, ‘I messed up, let’s talk… .’ ”

Instead, Wright was contemptuous and combative, Ginger said.

Mediation failed, and the Moores quadrupled their demand for damages to cover various expenses, including a reimbursement for rent and improvements, for a total of about $85,000.

The Moores filed a motion for a partial summary judgment and asked the 342nd District Court to determine whether Wright violated the Texas property code.

Judge Wade Birdwell granted the motion and in February 2011 ruled that Wright had violated the property code by failing to provide written disclosures to the Moores regarding a Bank of Texas lien on the property and by failing to obtain the bank’s consent before entering into a sales contract.

The Moores were elated. They thought they’d won, and they wanted their option money returned. But Wright filed for bankruptcy, effectively protecting her finances against any forced reimbursement until a federal judge can review the merits of the case. A Nov. 15 trial in federal bankruptcy court could determine whether her debt to the Moores is subject to reduction or exemption.

Meanwhile, the Moores are living in their RV and wondering how things went so wrong.

“It makes me sick at the pit of my stomach,” Ginger Moore said.