Couple files multi-million dollar lawsuit against county

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   An Elizabethton couple alleges Carter County government officials "weaved a web of destruction and despair" in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving the couple's purchase in December 2002 of the former Seiler office building immediately adjacent to the county courthouse.
   Filed in U.S. District Court in Greeneville, the lawsuit names County Mayor Dale Fair, Chancery Court Clerk and Master Charlotte McKeehan, the county government and all 24 county commissioners both individually and in their capacities as elected officials.
   Plaintiffs Janet and Ed Peters allege their civil rights have been violated by county officials after they purchased the building located at 100 Courthouse Square at a public auction for $90,000 bid plus a buyer's fee of $4,500. The plaintiffs allege the special master's deed given to Janet Peters was an "unmarketable, improper deed", saying the Seiler building had only 2.6 feet of road frontage rather than 50 feet indicated in the deed and auction advertisement.
   The lawsuit also names Jim Woltz and Ken Farmer, of Woltz and Associates, who conducted the auction. The lawsuit states the Woltz advertisement for the auction used the 50-foot street frontage stated in the deed of record and did not include any mention of the 2.6 feet of street frontage of the property. Janet Peters said she was unaware the property was landlocked or that there were any questions regarding the property line when the auction occurred.
   The suit states that Janet Peters paid off and closed the property on Feb. 18, 2003, "despite a concerted effort by the defendants, especially Special Master Charlotte McKeehan and Mayor Dale Fair to keep her from closing." The lawsuit alleges, "Mayor Fair and Ms. McKeehan used the power of their office and their agents to weave a web of destruction and despair" against the plaintiffs.
   According to an heirs and administrators deed in the county Register of Deeds office, the late Dayton Seiler sold the property to seven family members, each of whom took 1 one-seventh interest in the property. The deed, dated Dec. 30, 1994, describes the property as being a lot fronting 50 feet on the north side of Forge Street (East Elk Avenue). According to the property tax identification card on file at the Assessor of Property's office, the lot's dimension is listed at 50 feet-by-70 feet. There is no mention of encroachment on the courthouse property in the deed.
   According to the complaint, McKeehan contacted Janet Peters in January 2003 and told her the deed was ready. On Jan. 29, 2003, she went to the Clerk and Master's office and realized McKeehan was offering her an incorrect deed, according to the lawsuit.
   The lawsuit alleges McKeehan refused to issue Janet Peters a property deed, violated the terms of the sale and breached the contract she signed with the plaintiff and Woltz and Associates. "Therefore when looking at all of Ms. McKeehan's actions, it is obvious that she kept part of the plaintiffs' property for the courthouse," the lawsuit alleges.
   However, according to a copy of an opinion of title of Dayton Seiler estate signed by attorney Richard Norris, the southwest corner of the Seiler property encroaches on the courthouse property. The opinion of title includes reference to a survey done by Dennis B. Pierce and dated May 2, 2002 indicating the Seiler property encroaches on the courthouse land. The complaint alleges Pierce erroneously or negligently changed a 50-foot street frontage on East Elk Avenue to 2.6 feet.
   Citing a deed filed in 1851 of the present county courthouse building, the lawsuit states the existing building or land has never encroached on the courthouse property.
   The lawsuit also alleges the plaintiffs were harassed by Fair during a closed-door meeting in the county mayor's office regarding the ownership of the property. The plaintiffs' complaint also reports another alleged incident of harassment during a meeting with Fair and the county Building and Grounds Committee.
   The complaint alleges Committee Chairman Al Meehan said during the meeting that (Peters) would have to put a museum in front of the building and "that was the only way he would agree for her to have it." Janet Peters later tried to obtain a copy of the minutes of the meeting she attended but was told no minutes existed, according to the lawsuit.
   The complaint also states Ed Peters received a telephone call from Fair on Dec. 23, 2003 regarding the county's possible purchase of the property. When Ed Peters said he did not buy the property to sell, the lawsuit alleges Fair "threatened going through condemnation" to acquire the property.
   The plaintiffs faced a threat of condemnation by the county government if they did not close on the contract and lawsuit from the Seiler estate if Janet Peters defaulted on the contract.
   The plaintiffs allege the defendants have engaged in breach of contract, misrepresentation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and common law negligence. The suit sets forth 18 separate allegations against the defendants including violation of the 5th and 14th amendments by depriving the plaintiff of her property without due process of law, breach of contract, as well as common law acts of civil conspiracy, negligence and retaliation.
   The Peters' attorney, Sheryl C. Rollins, of Knoxville, filed the suit on Wednesday. County attorney George Dugger acknowledged Thursday morning that he had received a copy of the complaint but declined to comment on the lawsuit.
   Rollins also declined to comment on the case when contacted by the Star on Thursday afternoon.
   The lawsuit asks the court for actual compensatory and punitive damages totaling $18.5 million.