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Mobtown Beat

The Last Drop?

Foreclosed Coffee Shop Plans Swan Song Celebration as Court Challenge Continues

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/10/2004

A sign reading FUNK'S still hangs in the window of the Formstoned Fells Point rowhouse at 1818 Eastern Ave. But perhaps not for much longer. The coffee shop and café, formerly (and formally) operating as Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot, closed last summer. The owner will be turning the lights back on this weekend (March 13 and 14) for what's been dubbed a "legal defense fund raising and going-out-of-business sale."

"It should be fun," says Funk's owner Janet Pfeiffer. "I want to invite all the past customers of Funk's to come hang out for a last bash."

Pfeiffer adds that she's commissioned a local musician to write a "Ballad of Funk's." This ditty will no doubt outline the strange saga that has led Pfeiffer to the point where she must clear out of the once-bustling café she founded a dozen years ago.

As City Paper reported in December, Pfeiffer's failure to pay a $1,500 water bill back in 2000 led her building to be sold in the city's annual tax lien sale (Mobtown Beat, Dec. 31). This kick-started a debt redemption process Pfeiffer brands as "stupid" and "confusing." As current court rulings have it, she did not clear her debt in the legally prescribed time frame. Her building was foreclosed on last summer--awarded to Gaithersburg-based First Government Tax Lien Services, the firm that purchased her lien for $1,856. Pfeiffer has until March 16 to remove her property from the building, at which time she will hand over the keys to the rowhouse she paid $80,000 for in 1992.

But Pfeiffer, erstwhile barista currently working as a shampoo/scalp-massage specialist at a Canton hair salon, is not going down without a fight. Her legal hot water began just as she was making ambitious plans to improve the financial footing and prospects of the café she ultimately hopes to keep owning and operating.

"People have been calling me to say they'll march on City Hall if I can't get this straightened out," she says of the publicity her prickly situation has received. Through First Government attorney James Logan, Pfeiffer has been attempting to arrange an out-of-court financial settlement that would allow her to keep her building. When she unsuccessfully appealed the foreclosure decision at a Baltimore City Circuit Court hearing last September, Pfeiffer says Logan agreed to settle for $70,000. Earlier this year the offer dropped to $45,000, which is still more than Pfeiffer wishes to pay to regain her property. (She was able to get Logan to delay what was initially a mid-January eviction date.) Now she is appealing the Circuit Court's September decision in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals; a hearing date has not been set, though it will likely be early May. (First Government could not be reached for comment; Logan did not return City Paper's phone calls.)

The case is built around the timing and nature of Pfeiffer's ultimate efforts to pay her debt. She filed what's called a Petition to Redeem her lien on July 1 of last year, which was 28 days after the judgment to foreclosure her property was entered by the Baltimore City Circuit Court. Pfeiffer's attorney, Stephen Prevas, notes that circuit courts in Maryland generally have a 30-day period from when a judgment is entered to employ "discretionary revisory and control" over a judgment--essentially, the court has the authority to revisit a decision and possibly come to a different conclusion. Such actions are usually initiated by a defendant or plaintiff filing a formal request for a judicial re-examination, as either a "motion to vacate" or "motion to revise" a ruling.

"My argument is that [Pfeiffer's] petition to redeem was within that 30-day [revisory] period," Prevas says. "Although not labeled as such, [the petition] really effectively sought a revision of the judgment. She couldn't redeem unless she revised the judgment. It's the intent of the motion that governs how it should treated."

If this argument stands come May, it wouldn't mean Pfeiffer is out of the legal-woes woods. It would only serve to overturn the September court decision. Pfeiffer would then face another Circuit Court proceeding wherein she would seek to overturn the foreclosure decision.

"I don't know how long this legal process is going to last," she laments. "So far I've spent almost $3,000."

Meanwhile, First Government could try to sell the property, but any potential buyer would likely learn of the pending legal case during a title search.

"I'm not pessimistic about winning this dispute," Prevas says. "I think generally nobody wants to see someone lose their property. . . . Technically they might have her by the short hairs, but is it really the right thing to do?"

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