Home sale nightmare continues as blame spreads
The seller says an escrow company is hired to stop fraud
LIHUE » Ellen Hyman should be enjoying retirement at her home near Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, living off the proceeds of the sale of her Kauai home.
But thanks to Hurricane Katrina and a Kauai lawyer, Hyman was sitting in a Kauai courtroom yesterday as a trial began pitting her against lawyer Andrew Lichtenberg, the Title Guaranty Escrow Co. and the man who bought her home, Ken Houghton.
Hyman, 64, tried to sell her stake in a Princeville property in 2004 after a falling out with Houghton. He agreed to pay Hyman $373,000 in a "simple deal," her lawyer, Marjorie Bronster, said yesterday.
It turned out to be anything but simple.
Hyman hired local attorney Lichtenberg to handle her end of the deal. She signed a deed and other paperwork in the summer of 2004, sent them to Lichtenberg and waited for the funds to be wired to her account.
Lichtenberg, however, had the funds wired from Title Guaranty to his client trust account, took them out and moved to Fiji.
He has since been arrested, convicted on wire fraud and other charges, and is awaiting sentencing May 21 in the federal detention center in Honolulu.
He is scheduled, however, to testify next week in this case.
No one disagrees that Hyman has suffered, said Title Guaranty lawyer James Kawashima.
But the state's biggest escrow company, which handled more than 34,000 real estate transactions in 2004, just followed what the lawyer, hired by Hyman, told them to do.
Employees of the company's Princeville branch "had no inkling he would do something so horrible," Kawashima said.
Hyman was not even their client, Kawashima added -- Houghton was.
Bronster countered yesterday that the whole point of using an escrow company is to prevent fraud. Their job is to "get the money to the right people," she said.
Instead, without talking to Hyman, on the word of a letter from Lichtenberg, the funds were transferred, Bronster said.
Kawashima said that it is a lawyer's job to speak for his or her client and that Hyman should have contacted the escrow company herself if she had any trouble.
After moving back to Louisiana, Hyman, who has diabetes and is a cancer survivor, endured Hurricane Katrina. She spent days on her roof after flooding forced her from her home.
After escaping to a cabin in the woods, she wound up taking care of others, searching for food and living in fear of marauding gangs.
She later made her way to Kauai with the help of her lawyers.
The trial, which is scheduled to last more than a week, will continue Monday.