NEWS- Foreclosure reprieve: Lawsuit stalls 'this mold house' auction

The house was scheduled to be sold at auction February 23 at the Charlottesville Circuit Courthouse. But shortly before the gavel was to fall, the foreclosure sale was canceled. While one family crisis has been momentarily averted, a legal battle looms.

The house at 2207 Wayne Avenue, subject of the Hook's March 31, 2005 cover story, "This mold house: Family devastated by spore war," has a tumultuous history. Just two day after the new owners purchased it February 10, 2005, their asthmatic daughter was hospitalized. They say it's because the house was full of mold, and they wanted to sue.

"It had to be done," says Judit Szaloki, whose dreams of happy homeownership were dashed when she and husband Larry Butler realized the extent of the mold in the house. Their efforts to find a lawyer to take the case, however, were fruitless. 

Szaloki filed suit pro se– without an attorney– February 20 against former owners Steve and Betty Dudley, real estate agent Sirlei Ramirez, broker Pat Jensen and home inspector Blake Caravati. She's seeking $431,000, as well as compensation for emotional distress.

Szaloki used to run a daycare business that was the primary source of the family's income before they moved into the Wayne Avenue house, and she'd intended to continue that in the basement of her new home. She says that even after walls were gutted and mold remediated, the lack of a downstairs bathroom and an adequate kitchen have kept her from reopening the business.

The notice of her intent to file suit lists $60,000 for loss of livelihood, $249,000 for the cost of the house, $10,000 for loss of personal belongings that had to be thrown out when they were infested with mold, $60,000 to $80,000 for remediation, $30,000 for their cars (which were repossessed), and $2,000 for medical bills.

Real Estate III broker Pat Jensen was not aware she was being sued when a reporter called. "I'm trying to think how I would be involved," she says.

Jensen contends that the pre-purchase home inspection had pointed out the presence of fungus and mildew growth, but Szaloki and Butler were "enthusiastic" about getting a house because a couple of others had gotten away from them. Real estate agent Surlei Ramirez, now living in England, was concerned, says Jensen, and gave them a waterproofing coupon.

Szaloki and Butler contend Ramirez told them they could wipe the mold down with Clorox, and that the coupon was worthless. 

"My point is, they were given so many opportunities to do something about it and didn't," Jensen says. Even at closing, she says, Ramirez called her because the seller wanted to be released from the contract. 

"We gave up just about all of our commission to make this work for those folks," Jensen says.

After the family's plight was publicized, ServiceMaster franchisee Steve Taylor remediated the house for free, and other members of the community also pitched in.

"An awful lot of people did an awful lot to help them," says Jensen, who notes that Real Estate III "offered to help them with one monthly payment, but it wasn't as much as they wanted."

"Pat Jensen would give us $1,000 if we signed a waiver that we would not take them to court," replies Szaloki.

Blake Caravati, who performed the home inspection (and who is the a former Charlottesville mayor), has not seen the suit. "It's sad it came to this," he says.

Szaloki says many lawyers in town either do business with the defendants or wanted too much money up front to take the case. So she filed it herself.

"The legal system is for the people," says attorney Bryan Slaughter. "That said, it's a difficult road to take on a lawsuit without legal representation." He warns of procedural land mines that defense attorneys might exploit, but he adds, "If she can ever make it to a jury, they may be sympathetic."

Another local attorney, Matt Murray, notes, "There's a huge difference between filing a lawsuit and obtaining a judgment. As a plaintiff, you have one chance to get it right. The penalty for not knowing a rule can be dismissal.

"When folks have difficulty finding a lawyer on a contingency," says Murray, "that is some indication the entrepreneurs in the tort system don't believe their efforts will be rewarded."

CHS senior Emese Szaloki, standing in one of the Wayne Avenue house's unusable bathroom, works part-time to help her family.