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Investigative News

Connecticut marshals under scrutiny for allegedly charging excessive fees

Lois Patrick portrait
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Lois Patrick shuffles through legal papers in front of the home where she was raised in Bridgeport as her husband looks on from inside. The home was sold at a foreclosure auction, and the remaining equity was reduced by a host of court costs, including excessive fees charged by a state marshal.

An investigation by The Accountability Project found hundreds of foreclosure cases in which fees were too high, and diminishing oversight by the state.

When Lois Patrick was growing up in Bridgeport, her big yellow house on Wentworth Street was the center of gravity for her family.

Aunts, uncles and cousins gathered every year for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Her uncle was married there, and on the Fourth of July – her grandmother’s birthday – they celebrated with hamburgers and homemade ice cream, spilling from the backyard into the street.

Patrick’s mother, Erma Jean Roundtree, worked for years to pay off the mortgage with help from two of her sisters. When they were finally done, a pastor came to bless the house, and the family burned the mortgage papers.

But later in life, Patrick said, her mother struggled with medical bills and fell behind on her property taxes. When she died in 2017, the home was already in foreclosure. It sold at auction the following year for just $113,000.

Patrick said her mom never told her about her cancer diagnosis or about the bills that were piling up. Today, the money left over from that foreclosure sale is almost all gone – eaten up by creditors and court costs.

“It’s disappointing,” she said, sitting on the front steps, beside the honeysuckle near her front door. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Among those many costs was a bill for more than $300 from the state marshal who delivered legal papers for the sewer authority.

Under state law, homeowners are often liable for such costs. But the marshal who worked on that case is now facing an allegation that he’s been overcharging for his work, saddling many defendants with extra fees.

An investigation by The Accountability Project found that such cases aren’t isolated. In hundreds of foreclosures over the last five years, marshals charged excessive fees for delivering paperwork, sometimes tacking on hundreds of dollars more than allowed by state law, the investigation showed.

Often, those fees were passed on to homeowners, going unchallenged in court, and unnoticed by the state officials charged with overseeing the marshals’ work.

Patrick says when the foreclosure was underway, she didn’t give a thought to those fees – all she cared about was saving the home. But learning of the inflated bill only adds to her disappointment.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask for you to charge what is fair,” she said.

Finding the pattern

Small fees often garner little scrutiny in court, but they’ve increasingly been in focus for students at Yale Law School’s housing clinic.

During the pandemic, a moratorium went into effect on foreclosures of federally backed mortgages. That meant typical cases involving home loans were on hold.

Instead, the foreclosure cases that surfaced involved smaller debts, such as municipal tax liens and unpaid condo fees. Nicole Cabanez, a third-year law student at Yale, said the clinic looked for ways to help homeowners get back on track and realized some marshals had a pattern of charging too much.

“For us, it was really just gut-wrenching,” she said, “because we didn’t know how long this had been going on.”

Those inflated fees run anywhere from $20 to several hundred. They’re often paid initially by lawyers representing the lien holders, who are the plaintiffs in the case. But homeowners often wind up footing the bill – either by having the fees deducted from their equity after a foreclosure sale, or by getting them tacked on to the outstanding debt.

“When you’re going through your garage and trying to sell all your personal belongings to try to save your house, the number that you’re going to try to reach includes those fees,” Cabanez explained.

New Haven foreclosure auction
Jim Haddadin
/
CT Public
A lawyer appointed by the court prepares to auction off a foreclosed home in New Haven.

‘They’re not getting reprimanded’

Earlier this year, students from the clinic filed formal complaints with the State Marshal Commission against eight marshals working in New Haven County who they say routinely charge too much, including the marshal who worked on Patrick’s case. Those matters are pending.

To assess whether the problem was more widespread, Connecticut Public reviewed foreclosure cases filed statewide over the last five years, developing an automated computer process to gather the documents and record the fees marshals charged for service – the portion of the marshal’s bill that corresponds with the number of defendants who were served legal paperwork.

The investigative team then manually reviewed cases with the highest fees per defendant, identifying several hundred examples in which marshals charged more than allowed by statute – in total, more than $40,000 in excessive fees.

Jeffrey Gentes, a supervising lawyer at the Yale Law School housing clinic, said he believes the findings show that “some marshals just, frankly, understood there was no oversight.”

“They’re not getting reprimanded by the court, apparently not by their clients, not by the law firms and not by the State Marshal Commission,” Gentes said.

Connecticut Public reached out to three dozen marshals for comment. Sixteen didn’t respond. Seven ceased communications with a reporter after being provided copies of the case records in question by email or letter. Five declined to discuss the matter. Three acknowledged making mistakes in individual cases, one of whom has since fixed the error in court.

The investigation also found wide discrepancies in how marshals bill for their work.

For example, some marshals said they were unaware of an executive order issued more than five years ago that capped at $20 the fee for recording a legal notice called the lis pendens on the city or town’s land records in a foreclosure case. Records show several marshals still charge double that amount.

“I’m positive about it,” said Charles Fisher Jr., a longtime marshal in Hartford County who said the fee stands at $40. “That’s what we charge.”

“I’ve been in the business for 39 years, and I’ve never, ever heard that,” Neil Longobardi, a marshal in New Haven County, said regarding the $20 maximum.

The Marshal Commission issued an administrative bulletin in 2016 highlighting the change.

Another pair of marshals in the New Haven area said they tack on $40 to each case for retrieving paperwork from a lawyer out of town. That kind of fee can’t be added to the marshal’s return of service and reimbursed in court. But the Connecticut Public investigation showed it was present in close to 100 of their cases.

The State Marshal Association declined to answer questions for this story. President Brian Mezick said in a prepared statement that the union supports “unifying changes to the state marshal fee structure.”

“We’ll continue to work with stakeholders, including legislators and advocacy groups to bring greater clarity and accountability to the work we do for the courts,” Mezick said.

Diminished oversight

The marshal system came into being in 2000, after voters amended the state constitution to eliminate county sheriffs.

Marshals work as independent contractors, overseen by an appointed commission. The move was meant to restore integrity to the job, after sheriffs and their deputies were caught up in a host of scandals.

But marshals are arguably subject to even less oversight today. Unlike in the past, marshals no longer have to report their annual salaries and expenses to the State Ethics Commission. Lawmakers ended that requirement in 2018 to lighten its workload.

During the last year they were required to make those disclosures, the median net income among all state marshals who recorded any profit was about $42,500, with 39 recording salaries over $100,000 after expenses, and the top earner pulling in about $290,000, records filed with the State Ethics Commission show.

The Marshal Commission has itself long been short-staffed, served by a single staff attorney, one administrator and a group of volunteer board members, who today oversee some 150 active marshals across the state.

Marshal candidates receive 40 hours of classroom instruction, followed by 80 hours of field training under the supervision of an experienced state marshal, after which time they're unsupervised.

Acting Chairperson Shirley Skyers-Thomas said the commission thoroughly investigates misconduct complaints but doesn’t check the work marshals perform in the field unless a complaint is filed.

And even before the pandemic, the commission was grappling with a backlog. Complaints often take as long as two years to resolve. The commission hired a new investigator this year to speed things up.

“We definitely want to move a little bit more quickly than that,” Skyers-Thomas said.

Homeowners can also challenge erroneous fees in court. But two legal experts interviewed for this story said that rarely happens. Many people facing foreclosure can’t afford a lawyer. Those that can might still ignore the marshal’s fees.

Sarah Poriss, a foreclosure defense attorney in West Hartford, said if your goal is to get back on track with debt payments, it often isn’t prudent to risk derailing negotiations with your bank or lien holder by challenging relatively small sums.

“You’ve got to pick your battles,” she said. “This is a battle that should be picked and fought. But in my practice, it just isn't the thing I encourage my clients to focus on.”

Court clerks also sign off on marshal fees. But clerks don’t scrutinize those costs unless one of the parties objects, said Becky Schmitt, deputy director of civil matters for the state’s judicial branch.

“We’re relying on what the marshal and plaintiff’s attorney is submitting to the court … saying that this can be relied upon, that this is a true and accurate representation of what the fees are,” she said.

Lois Patrick portrait
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Lois Patrick stands outside her family's home in Bridgeport.

‘One step farther to the door’

Dominic Balletto Jr., the marshal who delivered legal papers to Lois Patrick in Bridgeport, charged $340 for the service portion of his bill. That’s at least $100 more than the maximum allowed by state law, based on the amount of work he described.

Balletto’s lawyer told us Balletto was unaware of the complaint filed against him with the commission earlier this year.

Balletto is currently listed as inactive by the Marshal Commission while serving on the Liquor Control Commission, meaning he was granted a leave of absence, and may reapply to become active again the future.

In a written statement, Balletto said that the Bridgeport case turned out to be unusual and complex because he had to visit multiple locations and that his bill was “commensurate with the service.” He didn’t answer additional questions or explain that $340 charge.

It might not have made any difference for Patrick if the fee was correct because her mom’s house was already underwater in debt at the time. But she says it still feels wrong.

Patrick is fighting to reverse the foreclosure and waiting to see what becomes of the roughly $9,700 left over from the sale, which is being held by the court.

“To know that you’re … helping people, you know, get more buried in debt, to help them get one step farther to the door – I think it’s a lousy thing to do to somebody,” she said.