Can you imagine losing your home over a $68 dental bill? That's what happened to one Utah woman.
Sonya Capri Ramos says her Salt Lake City home was sold out from under her in 1996 to pay a collections agency seeking payment for dental work performed on one of Ramos's daughters. And despite the fact that she had made three years of payments on a $51,000 mortgage, the title changed hands for just $1,550 at a sheriff's auction.
But the story doesn't end there: Ramos, 41, said she didn't find out that her home no longer belonged to her until two years after the sale. To date, she hasn't moved out.
Instead, she said she continues to make mortgage payments on the home and is fighting what has become a decade-long legal battle to reclaim ownership.
Most recently, a state appeals court ruled against Ramos. She and her lawyer, she said, are preparing to appeal to the state's supreme court.
"It's a big mess," Ramos said.
Ramos said she bought her three-bedroom home with her then-husband Roger Bangerter in 1993. The couple used a $51,000 loan from Salt Lake City under the city's first-time home buyer program.
Two years later, she took her second-oldest daughter, Bailee Bangerter, to the dentist for cavity treatments on the girl's baby teeth.
Ramos said she paid for part of the treatment, but not all of it -- a $68 bill remained.
Ramos said she had "all intentions" to pay the bill, but didn't. "I wish I would have borrowed money to pay it at the time," she said wistfully.
A collections agency, North American Recovery, eventually sued her for payment of the bill, which by 1996 had escalated to more than $950, a result, Ramos said, of legal fees and other costs associated with collecting payment on the original bill.
But Ramos said she was never notified of the lawsuit and therefore didn't contest it.
With no legal defense, a judge ruled in favor of North American Recovery and ordered the local sheriff's department to sell off Ramos's property to satisfy the debt.
According to a 10-page published decision by the Utah Court of Appeals, the judge ordered the sheriff "to collect the judgment, with costs, interest and fees, and to sell enough of defendant's non-exempt real property to satisfy" the amount due.
Keith Meade, a Utah lawyer who focuses on real estate matters, said that this type of judgment typically allows some leeway for just a portion of the defendant's property to be sold off to satisfy the debt owed, which in this case was far smaller than the value of the home. But because the real estate at stake was Ramos's home, which by law is considered "indivisible," the title to the entire property was sold at auction.
Ramos's home was sold in 1996 to Jarmaccc Properties, a Utah company, for $1,550, according to the court documents.
Under the terms of such a sale, a property's buyer -- in this case, Jarmaccc -- buys the title to the home and the right to take over the mortgage payments. But Jarmaccc never did that because Ramos, who said she was never given notice of the sale, said she continued making the monthly mortgage payments herself.
"I continued to pay my mortgage," she said. "I didn't know the house was sold."