After Thomas and Pearlene Morton fell behind in their house payments by about $2,000 last summer, they turned to a mortgage company that had written offering help. There, they say, they met a man who advised them to "trust me."
Four weeks later, according to the Mortons, they signed the papers they thought would solve their financial difficulties. Instead, they committed themselves to a transaction that they say unknowingly cost them the house they had owned for 13 years, netted them little money and left their original $2,000 debt unpaid. The Mortons are now paying twice their original mortgage payments to rent the house they had tried to save.
The Mortons' plight, described in a complaint filed by the couple in D.C. Superior Court, is one of a number of such cases that have recently come to light as many D.C. residents, whose houses have soared in value, have found they do not have the business skill to manage their assets.
The Mortons, according to their suit, were the victims of an "old-fashioned flimflam operation," in which at every turn for assistance they became more befuddled and indebted by a seemingly endless series of "labyrinthine" financial transactions.
"I went out to borrow $2,000 and I ended up with . . . my house is gone," said 46-year-old Pearlene Morton, sitting at the dining room table of her small, semidetached brick house in the 1600 block of Fort Dupont Street SE "I have no feelings left in life. I'm a mummy. All I want to do is sleep, all because of this."
The suit charges that because the Mortons were unfamiliar with business matters, what started out as a request for a short-term loan of $2,250 ended up with them signing over the deed to their $60,000 house during a transaction they thought was a refinancing agreement.
"It's almost like a cancer in this area the way these unprotected people are getting taken advantage of," said Timothy Walthall, lawyer for the Mortons. "Because of the inflation in the '60s and early '70s, you all of a sudden have a large population of people who now have this tremendously valuable asset that everyone is coming after. But because they don't have the business sophistication or education they are totally unequipped to protect their assets. They become prime targets."
Walthall said his law office has handled six similar cases in the past six months. "Unfortunately it's not uncommon," said real estate lawyer Benny Kass, speaking generally. He explained that part of the problem is that the District is one of the few jurisdictions in the country without a banking commissioner to whom people could turn with these kinds of complaints. "When you've got people who have equity in their house who are basically unsophisticated they're preyed upon," Kass said of cases with which he is familiar.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Henry Greene last month blocked M. Frederick Wainwright, named in the suit as the listed owner of the property, from transferring or selling the Mortons' house pending further court proceedings. Greene told the Mortons they had endured enough problems and urged their lawyers, Walthall and William Keeney, to consider referring the case to the U.S. attorney's office for further investigation, according to persons present during the proceedings.
The suit, which seeks the return of their house, charges that Wainwright violated the District's Consumer Protection Statute and federal Truth-in-Lending Act.
Wainwright, of Wainwright Mortgage Investment, categorically denied the Mortons' allegations in a brief telephone interview and said that "they were going to lose their home and I saved it for them." He said the Mortons knew what they were doing and pointed out that the transaction went through a "legitimate title company."
Wainwright said he does not own the Morton house. He said he had agreed to return the house to the Mortons "as soon as they finish paying the payments." He added, "There is no one interested in taking their home."
Land and title records filed with the complaint list Wainwright as the owner of the property and do not include an agreement showing Wainwright as the temporary holder of the property.
Wainwright declined to elaborate and said his position would be outlined in a response yet to be filed in court.
The suit also names the title company representative, Richard F. Collins, and Jack S. Poms, who provided part of the financing for the deal. Collins, in a brief statement, denied the allegations and said that "as far as I'm concerned" the Mortons "knew exactly what they were doing." Poms described himself as an "innocent bystander" who said he only bought the Mortons' $10,000 note from Wainwright for a cost of $7,500 as a second trust.
"I don't know what happened really . . . . " said Poms, explaining that he was not paying much attention to the transaction that occurred in his office because he was working on other business. "All I did was buy a note . . . . In fact, if they gave me back the money I paid for the note, I'll be glad to give them back the note."
Poms said it was clear to him that Wainwright intended to purchase the Mortons' house but that it was his understanding that Wainwright would return the house to the Mortons after three years as long as the payments were made.
"After that he would mark the deed canceled," said Poms, who noted that Wainwright paid off several thousand dollars worth of liens against the Mortons' house. Court records show that those payments were around $5,000.
The Mortons' current financial difficulties started earlier last year after Thomas Morton, a 48-year-old government plate maker, had his salary garnished for $7,000 in child support back payments, a fact that he did not tell his wife. Morton failed to take care of about five $319 monthly payments on the house the couple bought in 1973 for more than $26,000. At the time, the Mortons still owed about $19,000 on their 8.5 percent loan.
Morton finally told his wife about the problem a day before a foreclosure sale set for Aug. 20 by the mortgage holder. Pearlene Morton asked around and got the name of a friend of a friend who loaned the couple $2,250.
Within weeks that lender, who held a deed of trust on the property, demanded repayment of the $2,250.
Pearlene and Thomas Morton decided to contact one of the several companies offering loan assistance who had written the couple after apparently seeing their name in a newspaper listing of scheduled foreclosure sales. Pearlene Morton, a clerical worker, called Wainwright's office on Sept. 5, explained her problem and was told to appear "right away" with $250 if she wanted to see Wainwright, according to the suit.
The Mortons went to Wainright's office that day and, according to the suit, Wainwright made it clear that he was not interested in lending the couple only $2,250. He suggested they borrow $6,000, the suit says.
From that meeting on, the suit alleges, each time they returned for a "settlement date" Wainwright and his associates informed the couple that the previous loan offer was not sufficient and that if they wanted the money they needed to agree to a larger sum.
The suit alleges that after the first meeting Wainwright told the Mortons a $6,000 loan was insufficient because there was about $5,000 in liens against the house and they should borrow $10,000. That amount increased to $35,000 at the third meeting, according to the suit, when the Mortons said they were told they really needed to borrow $35,000 to cover the outstanding liens; $2,400 to pay back their original debt, $19,000, which would be an assumption of their 8.5 percent loan; and the remaining cash was to go to the Mortons.
"He kept telling us to trust him," Pearlene Morton said. "Whenever I asked him if we were going to lose our house and I would mention another couple being swindled out of their house, Wainwright would say, 'No, no, Mrs. Morton, I wouldn't do that. If I can't help you, I'll let you know.' "
Pearlene Morton eventually asked her pastor to go with them to a settlement meeting to help them interpret the documents.
The Rev. Clarence Parker, the Mortons' pastor, said in an affadavit filed in court that a deed caught his attention and he asked why Wainwright would become owner of the house if the agreement was only to refinance the house. Wainwright did not respond, according to the affadavit, but his assistant "confirmed that the house was going to Mr. Wainwright but only for a period of three years, after which time the house was to be transferred back" to the Mortons. The assistant explained that the temporary transfer was necessary because the Mortons had a bad credit rating and had mismanaged their finances.
Court documents, including the deed and sale settlement sheet, show that the Mortons had transferred their property to Wainwright and had executed the deed as sellers.
Although the house was valued at more than $60,000, the suit states, "The clear import of the settlement sheet and the deeds is that the Mortons had sold their house to Wainwright Mortgage Investment Inc. for the sum of $29,000 but never received any money from" Wainwright, other than the paying off of less than $5,000 in liens against the house.
The suit states that in December, after the October settlement, Wainwright "required the Mortons to execute a lease of the premises with them as tenants and his company as owner." Their lease lists their monthly payments as $682.47 over a three-year period for a total of $24,568.42.
"Worse still," the suit continues, "two weeks later the Mortons discovered that the man who had loaned them the original $2,200 had never been paid."
On Jan. 8, the Mortons contacted a lawyer. "I learned for the first time from my attorneys in January 1986 that I had in fact executed a deed conveying all of my right, title and interest to Wainwright Mortgage," said Thomas Morton in a court affadavit.
"It was very humiliating," Pearlene Morton said. "You look like a fool . . . . [Wainwright] had our complete confidence."