Eddings case ruling leaves some with nothing

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 17, 2013 

For two years, Lachon Trice has been caught in the middle of what she describes as a mess.

A week ago, Trice's mess got bigger when a federal judge dispersed the nearly half-million dollars in a trust account belonging to Columbus real estate closing attorney Michael Eddings.

In October 2011, Trice sold property her late father willed to his four daughters. Eddings was the closing attorney and Trice was given a check for $50,774.51 after the Oct. 25, 2011, closing.

The check bounced and Trice got in a lengthy line of those suing Eddings in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia.

There was $472,949.34 in Eddings' trust account when Columbus Bank & Trust Company raised a legal red flag and asked for help from Muscogee County Superior Court on Oct. 27, 2011, when it appeared the account was going to be overdrawn. The case was sent to the federal courts.

Since then, there have been more than $1.5 million in claims from large banks, mortgage companies, individuals and real estate agents saying Eddings owes them money related to real estate transactions.

Trice, who was raised in Columbus but now lives in the Atlanta area, was not one of the entities ordered to be paid in U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Hyles' ruling last Monday. She didn't get a dime and falls into a group out more than a combined $1 million after Eddings' trust account was frozen.

The judge, in his ruling, said the money owed to Trice and others was "gone." Hyles used simple, strong language saying the funds that were "not used for the purpose for which they were provided to Eddings have been misappropriated, converted, or outright stolen by Eddings or its employees and agents."

Hyles determined that only those whose checks were presented to CB&T on Oct. 27 for payment from the trust account were due money. He returned to those six entities -- two banks, two mortgage companies and two individuals -- about 88 cents on the dollar.

Eddings, once one of the busiest real estate closing attorneys in Muscogee County, has contended from the beginning that his then-wife and office business manager, Sonya Eddings, was responsible for the issues with the trust account. The two have divorced since the legal troubles began.

"At the end of the day, he is the lawyer, and he is responsible for all of the shenanigans everybody has had to endure for almost two years," Trice said.

Eddings declined comment Friday.

The Trice transaction

Trice's ordeal began Oct. 25, 2011, at a real estate closing in Eddings' Brookstone Center office.

As executor of her father David Trice's estate, she was selling the building at 509 15th Ave., where he operated The Needle Man, a tailoring business. When he died in 2007, David Trice left his daughters the property.

After a couple of years of trying to sell the building, the Trices finally found a buyer, Angie Arp, a Tennessee rafting company operator who was purchasing the building in anticipation of eventually getting a permit to run a business on the Chattahoochee River. She planned to use the warehouse to store rafts.

On Oct. 25, Arp transferred money for the purchase into Eddings' trust account. She and her real estate agent, Rhonda Thomas of Blue Ridge, Ga., had completed all of the paperwork and sent it to Eddings' office.

Trice closed the deal about noon that day. There was an issue with the insurance payment, and Trice did not leave the attorney's office with the nearly $50,000 check, she said. The next day, the check was sent overnight to Trice.

By the time she deposited it, records show, Eddings trust account had been frozen by the court. The property deed for Arp was recorded in the Muscogee County Superior Court Clerk's office, leaving Trice without the proceeds of the sale or a deed to the property.

"I felt horrible about what happened to her," said Thomas, who had a $2,850 check for her real estate closing fee bounce. "That should have never happened. That was her inheritance."

Arp, who owns Ocoee Rafting and has yet to secure a commercial outfitters permit for the new Chattahoochee whitewater course, says she also "hates it." However, Arp points out she paid for the real estate, and did what she was legally required to do.

She points a harsh finger directly at Eddings.

"This man should be in prison," Arp said. "He should not have one cent to his name."

Criminal investigation?

To date, there have been no criminal charges brought against Eddings.

Trice said she was contacted by an FBI agent in March who "said he was looking into a criminal case of Michael Eddings."

Trice said she has sent all of her closing documents to the FBI. Recently, she communicated with the FBI and was told they were still working on it.

The FBI has repeatedly declined to comment on any potential investigation involving Eddings. Friday afternoon an FBI agent in the Columbus office said they could make no comment.

"I do want justice," Trice said. "I want my family to be made whole."

Trice's situation was explained to Muscogee County District Attorney Julia Slater.

"It is potentially a crime," Slater said. "But I would tell her the same thing I would tell anyone who thinks they are the victim of a theft: They should contact law enforcement to see if a crime has been committed."

Still practicing law

Since the trust account was frozen, Eddings has not been able to do real estate closings. He still has his law license and has reinvented himself as a criminal defense attorney.

The State Bar of Georgia is moving forward with complaints against Eddings, said bar attorney William J. Cobb.

Ten complaints alleging 34 violations of state bar rules have been filed against Eddings, and all of them stem from Eddings' real estate closing business.

Late last year, the Supreme Court appointed a special master to serve as judge, and the case against Eddings is still in litigation and entitled to due process, Cobb said.

"The bar has a very highly regulated process that is similar to ordinary court litigation," Cobb said. "That is what is going on now."

The case is still in discovery, and the special master has not set a hearing date.

While Eddings waits on the Supreme Court, he has been defending clients accused of crimes.

In June, Eddings and high-profile criminal defense attorney Stacey Jackson successfully defended Ron Blair on murder charges. Blair, accused of shooting a man on a downtown street in March 2012, was acquitted by a Superior Court jury.

Eddings has also got in to legal hot water in the defense of another client.

In July, Eddings was found in civil contempt of court and fined $500 by Muscogee County Superior Court Judge William Rumer for contacting another attorney's client who was a co-defendant in an armed robbery case. An FBI agent was present during that hearing in Rumer's court and declined to comment after the hearing.

While Eddings practices law, Trice waits to get her money back. In addition to losing the more than $50,000 in the sale of the property, she said she has spent close to $10,000 in legal fees. She even had to pay a $12 insufficient funds fee to her bank when the Eddings' check was returned.

"We didn't ask for this," Trice said. "It has been almost two years and now we are being told we are not going to be paid. We don't have a building. We don't have the property, and we don't have the money. … This is an injustice to me and my family. We got caught up in his mess.

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