Longtime Sperryville resident Elizabeth Lee says she presumes that her nearly two-year battle to keep her property on Main Street was lost at a trustee sale last month on the courthouse steps in Washington.
Last week, though, she continued her effort in what she sees as a greater war, filing a civil suit in Rappahannock County Circuit Court that accuses her mortgage-servicing company, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, of “harassment and abuse.” The suit — which, like all her efforts thus far she is pursuing pro se, or without a lawyer — asks for $237,700 in compensation from Wells Fargo.
Lee, 66, a holistic-massage therapist and hypnotist, had organized a protest and rally at the trustee sale on the morning of July 9 — after which Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, which Lee said tweeted the sole bid of $275,000 to trustee Ruhi Mirza’s mobile device, became owners of her former Engham House hostel and home.
Neither Mirza nor Wells Fargo responded to telephone requests for interviews.
Half a dozen supporters who share her views — on predatory-lending practices and corporations afforded the rights (but not the restraints) of citizens — showed up with signs and shouts, worrying sheriff’s deputies for a spell but failing to prevent the final act of foreclosure from happening.
“I am not a victim,” Lee said last week. “I’m a survivor. And I’m only asking for justice — and equity on my property.”
While she awaits word on the civil suit, however, Lee says she is preparing to sell belongings and leave the property on Main Street.
Her original mortgage on the property — which includes a large two-story building she operated as a hostel and store and a small cottage, where she now lives — dates to 2007. The mortgage note moved from owner to owner, she said, eventually ending up in the hands of loan servicer Wells Fargo Home Mortgage; by then it carried an interest rate of 8 percent.
Her efforts to seek a loan modification were unsuccessful — in part, she says she was told, from what the bank saw as unpermitted commercial use of the property (for most properties along Main Street in Sperryville, commercial-residential usage is permitted without special exception).
The economy, local and otherwise, had officially tanked by the time she started getting behind in payments, and she began receiving calls in April 2012 from “agents who identified themselves as calling ‘on behalf of Wells Fargo,’ ” according to her suit.
Lee has been attending local district and circuit court sessions for the last year or so, as part of a “self-taught legal education” effort. In her civil suit documents, prepared by her without paid legal help, she claims she logged 130 phone calls within 71 days by collection agents, half of which were “harrassment by Robo callers,” and cites Wells Fargo’s alleged neglect of her efforts to legally stop the calls.
She has a table laden with papers, boxes and files at home, and says she has collected evidence of numerous violations of Virginia and federal consumer-protection laws, including the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
“This fight with Wells Fargo started when I was told, ‘You can’t sue a corporation.’ ” Lee says. “I know I had heard Mitt Romney say back then that corporations are persons — so why would I not be able to sue a ‘fictitious person’ if that fictitious person can sue me?”
In an email last week, Lee added: “Win, lose or draw, I will have stood my ground as one of We the People — the people who don’t have the money to hire representation. If I lose it will have been worth all the studying, the expense of the court and to pay the fictitious person’s lawyer, just to know what the reality of life is here in America.”
In a case that shared supporters and issues with Lee’s efforts, a federal judge last week dismissed a suit by Kenneth Shankle of Sperryville which alleged that his constitutional rights had been violated by a Rappahannock County sheriff’s deputy, Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff, General District Court Judge J. Gregory Ashwell and Rappahannock County itself.
In his nine-page response July 24 to the defendants’ motion earlier this summer to dismiss the case, Glen E. Conrad, chief judge for the U.S. District Court’s western Virginia district, said “the court is convinced that the individual defendants are entitled to immunity, and that the plaintiff’s complaint fails to allege facts in support of a cognizable claim against any of the defendants.”
In local district court, Shankle — pulled over in June 2012 by Deputy Chris Ubben and charged with speeding and driving on a suspended license — claimed he was a “sovereign citizen,” and because he was traveling for personal reasons, as opposed to commercial ones, he did not need a license.
Members of the sovereign-citizen movement, a loose affiliation of libertarian groups and like-minded individuals around the country, believe that they are not subject to any of the laws enacted at the federal, state or municipal levels. One sovereign-citizen website says the “sovereign” part of the title comes from Black’s law dictionary, which defines “sovereign” as “a person, body or state in which independent and supreme authority is vested; a chief ruler with supreme power; a king or other ruler with limited power.”
Essentially, sovereign citizens believe they are “severed from the government . . . [and] not a subject.” Shankle said he believed none of these authorities have jurisdiction to arrest or try him on the driving-related charges, and their actions violated rights accorded him by the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, ninth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.