Detroit land bank attorney argues there's no evidence HGTV star spent money on blighted Detroit home

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A judge is set to rule next month on whether to toss out a lawsuit HGTV star Nicole Curtis filed against the Detroit Land Bank Authority to recoup her investment in a rundown property.

A Monday court hearing marked the latest development in a lengthy battle between Curtis and the land bank over a 1908 foursquare at 451 E. Grand Blvd. 

Chief Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny, after listening to arguments from attorneys on both sides for nearly an hour, said he'll issue an opinion on April 15.

A judge is set to rule next month on whether to toss out a lawsuit HGTV star Nicole Curtis filed against the Detroit Land Bank Authority to recoup her investment in a rundown property

The land bank filed its emergency motion a week after the Lake Orion native and "Rehab Rescue Addict" star sued, arguing she should be reimbursed for $60,000 invested into the blighted house since purchasing it for $17,000 from a private seller in 2017. Curtis was notified a year later that the land bank actually held title to the property.

In her March 12 lawsuit, Curtis contends the land bank took advantage of her when it took the deed to the house she'd paid taxes on, was insuring and had stabilized and secured. Curtis has told The News she intended to invest $500,000 into restoring the house and spent $10,000 alone on architectural renderings. 

On Monday, attorneys for the land bank told Kenny there's no evidence that Curtis' company, Detroit Renovations, made any investment at the site.

"I do not believe Detroit Renovations ever spent a penny on this property," said Michael Donovan, legal counsel for the land bank. "Certainly, they can prove me wrong by producing some kind of invoice. But I've never seen an invoice. It's been close to four years now."

Donovan said claims that Curtis' company tried to work out a settlement with the land bank to renovate the house are "demonstratively wrong."

"We've indicated six different times where the Detroit Land Bank offered to enter into a settlement, the last several times without any response whatsoever," he said. "We did everything required by the land bank statute."

Curtis' attorney, Jim Rasor, noted Monday that there's been "a lot of disparaging" against Curtis but it's been her goal from the start to reach a mutual agreement. 

"I feel like we're building a nuclear submarine and it shouldn't be that hard," he said. "She paid the blight fees to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, she paid the taxes, she insured the property."

Rasor told Kenny the only reason Curtis hasn't been able to complete the house is "because the land bank has been inconsistently telling her one thing and then the other."

"She knew that the land bank had asserted an interest and was trying to resolve it," he said.

Monday's hearing comes days after Rasor accused the land bank in a court filing of  "misrepresenting material facts." In a Friday motion, Rasor is asking the court to set aside an August ruling that awarded the house to the land bank and declare Curtis the owner.

A judge ruled in the land bank's favor on Aug. 17, 2020, but Rasor said if a party in a lawsuit learns within a year of an order that there was fraud or misrepresentation involved in a case the court can be asked to set the ruling aside.

Friday's filing came one day after Curtis met with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to discuss her ongoing struggles with the land bank over the house in the city's Islandview area. 

Duggan told reporters last week that he's hopeful Curtis will bid on the house, which the land bank placed on the market in late February for $40,000. Duggan spokesman John Roach said Monday that the mayor is not commenting on his meeting with Curtis. 

Rasor said Friday that Curtis was able "to tell the mayor first-hand of the challenges of working with the land bank and the issues with redeveloping properties in the city of Detroit."

Alyssa Strickland, a land bank spokeswoman, said Monday that the land bank is awaiting the court's decision and is not commenting on pending litigation. 

Strickland previously noted the land bank already won two separate prior legal actions related to the property, including the action that Rasor is now seeking to overturn. 

The land bank originally filed a nuisance lawsuit in 2015 against owners Jerome and Joyce Cauley to compel them to renovate the blighted house.

The Cauleys did not occupy the property at that time, the land bank noted, and failed to meet their commitments. In January 2017, the property title was transferred back to the land bank.

Joyce Cauley then sold the home to Curtis' Detroit Renovations.

Once the issue was discovered, Curtis and the land bank worked toward an agreement to allow Curtis to rehab the house once the land bank claimed the title, but officials said those talks broke down. 

The land bank filed suit in July to resolve the title issue, with the court ruling in the land bank's favor the following month.

In January, the land bank asked the court to set a date for Curtis’ company to vacate the property. The court set a deadline of Feb. 12.

Rasor, in his Friday motion, argued the land bank failed on many fronts, including waiting two years after being awarded ownership to file the property title with the Register of Deeds. 

"Detroit Renovations beat (the land bank) to the Register of Deeds by 476 days," Rasor told Kenny Monday, adding Curtis' company is "an innocent third party."

Further, Rasor contends the land bank had no property right in 2015 when it originally filed suit against the Cauleys simply to abate a nuisance. As a result of the Cauleys' failure to comply with the nuisance action, he said, the land bank was awarded the property as compensation to defray costs of abating the nuisance, court costs and attorney fees.

But Rasor claims in the five years since the house was identified as a nuisance, the land bank failed to take any action to secure or repair it. 

Rasor said setting aside the land bank's claim to the title, as requested in the Friday motion, "will end this once and for all."