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Norwich - For the past several years, those who have lost cash deposits or advanced rent payments to local businessman Zane Megos when the apartments or houses never became available have been steered to the Connecticut Small Claims Court for restitution.
Many have won claims for up to several thousand dollars, but none have been able to collect. By the rules of the onerous small claims system, it's up to them to find a way to get their money back.
"This is a frustration that lots of plaintiffs feel," said Stacey Manware, deputy director of centralized court services for the state Judicial Branch, "particularly in small claims, once you get that judgment. Once you win, it's on the winner to collect that judgment from the individual."
A recent investigation by The Day found that Megos has taken deposits from more than a dozen people for apartments that they never ended up living in. Some of those apartments are in two condemned buildings Megos owns in Norwich.
Megos is under investigation by Norwich police and the state Department of Consumer Protection, and the IRS has filed a tax lien against him for more than $88,000 in unpaid federal income taxes.
In 2011, there were 45,143 cases statewide in which plaintiffs had won Small Claims Court judgments but had not been paid and were seeking court assistance to collect. About 3,700 were in New London County, Manware said.
The number of satisfactory outcomes cannot be determined, she said, because some people who have been paid don't report the payment to the court.
A judgment is good for 10 years, and the small claims website spells out the process for people who do not have an attorney. The court also has a booklet of frequently asked questions. But people who have gone through the process say that's not good enough.
Winners may seek an "execution" by attaching a claim to a bank account, wages or property. But to do that, they must request a state marshal to find the person's bank, job or properties to be attached.
And a judgment winner can file only one execution request at a time, seeking either a bank account, wages or property. The person must complete the appropriate form, get the court to approve it and then give it to a state marshal to serve the papers on a bank or employer. The marshal can track down only one account at one bank at a time, must wait for that bank to respond as to whether there is an account there, and then try another bank.
If unsuccessful, the judgment winner may go back to court and try again for a wage or property attachment. Each time though, the person must pay the court a $75 filing fee and then find a local state marshal to serve the papers.
Or, the judgment winner may send the person a "post judgment interrogatory" form by certified mail - with a $5.75 postal fee - that asks the person to reveal his or her bank accounts, assets and place of employment. The person often ignores the inquiry, at which point the judgment winner may ask the Small Claims Court to subpoena the person to court.
But then the judgment winner, who likely has no experience in court, most pose the questions to the person in front of a judge.
There is no mechanism through the courts that would automatically cover attorney fees if the judgment winner hires an attorney, Manware said. The judgment winner could ask for attorney fees to be added, but it is not guaranteed, Manware said.
Property in wife's name
Linda Quinet won a $5,135 Small Claims Court judgment against Megos in November 2008.
"It's really a nightmare," she said. "I've spent four years trying to (recoup) something."
Quinet was looking for an apartment for herself and her son, who was about to be released from prison. She contacted Megos and he showed her an apartment on Maple Avenue in Montville. She grew frustrated when Megos did not do necessary repairs to the place, and then her son's probation officer did not approve the apartment. She said she followed all the proper procedures to get her deposit money back.
It was only later, she said, that she found out that Megos didn't even own the Maple Avenue house, which was owned by Champion Mortgage.
Quinet said she also tried to file a complaint with Montville police but was told the department would not take her case.
She is now trying for a property execution through the small claims process. She is working with state Marshal Tom Burke of Norwich to find property in Megos' name that can be attached, but so far, Burke has found that Megos has all his assets in the name of his wife, Bonnie Megos.
Burke said last week that he could not discuss any specific cases, but he echoed other people in discussing how difficult the small claims process can be.
"The most difficult part with the judgment is that it has to be an exact match," Burke said. "If you get a judgment against ABC Corp. and ABC Corp. doesn't own anything, you're kind of stuck, or if you get an individual and everything is in the wife's name. It has to be an exact match."
He said often small claims judgment winners "don't stand a chance," either because the person owing the money has none or nothing can be found to attach.
State Marshal Ray Dussault said it can be just as difficult for marshals as for winners, because marshals don't get paid unless they can find the bank, wages or property to attach.
A costly process
Attorney Charles Norris said that when he handles a small claims case, he sends an interrogatory form to the subject of the complaint asking for employment, bank and property information. If the person doesn't answer, Norris asks the court to subpoena the person to court to provide the information.
"I don't know if I could do that. I'd have to get some free advice from an attorney first," said Anna Shatzer of Norwich, who won a $3,932 judgment against Megos in August and now has asked a state marshal to find one of Megos' bank account.
Shatzer and her roommate, Nicole Curioso, were living in New London when they gave Megos deposits for an apartment at 25 Rogers Ave. in Norwich, a building that has been condemned since January 2009. When the apartment never became available, they sought refunds.
Shatzer said the small claims process is not just intimidating, it's costly. She couldn't find some of her receipts and, although she sought a judgment of $5,000, she and Curioso were awarded $3,932. She works two jobs and had to take time off from work to go to court repeatedly for the inquiries.
"I won my case, but now what?" Shatzer said. "I can't afford to take time off work. … Now I'm waiting for a marshal to find banks. They have to go to one bank at a time. So far, they tell me, everything is in his wife's name or someone else's name."