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Title company suit gets its day in court

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

More than a year after Christian County Land Title filed a federal lawsuit against Greene County officials and five other title companies, the parties involved met in court before Judge Ortrie Smith Oct. 26.

Christian County Land Title, doing business as General Land Title, had filed the lawsuit against Linda Montgomery, Greene County recorder of deeds, the Greene County Commission and five title companies that participated in a group called the Greene County Land Title Association.

The association maintained a photocopying machine and a microfilm machine in the recorder's office, and members used those machines to make the copies needed for their land title businesses. The association members paid a fee to be members of the group, and the association paid the recorder of deeds a monthly fee of $20 to place the equipment in the office.

General Land Title had not been a part of the association, according to testimony offered in court, and had not had access to microfilm records in as timely a manner as the association members.

General Land Title also had difficulty obtaining paper records it needed from the recorder's office, and had to pay $1 per page, as do members of the public, for the paper records it needed, rather than being able to use the association's machine.

The suit was filed, essentially, over the difference in treatment among the title companies. The majority of the testimony during the trial dealt with whether General Land Title had ample access to records and how it got access to those records, according to testimony.

Jay Kirksey, attorney for the plaintiffs Jimmie Bell, president of General Land Title, and General Land Title presented a memo, dated April 29, 1997, in which Montgomery wrote that Hogan Land Title (a member of the association) and the association, were given a privilege, and were getting their photocopies for free when all other parties had to pay $1 per page.

Kirksey also posed the question to the county commission and Montgomery as to whether the $20 per month the association paid for the equipment to be in the recorder's office covered the electricity used to run the machines.

Montgomery testified that she did not agree with Kirksey's characterization of her having extended a special privilege to the members of the association.

"The arrangement was in place when I took office. Since I took office, I have been working to eliminate the need for such an arrangement," Montgomery said.

Montgomery further testified that it concerned her that the county was losing money by having the equipment in the office, and so she issued the April 29, 1997, memo, it was best not to allow anyone the privilege.

Montgomery said her first approach toward eliminating the need for the title companies to have the equipment in the office was to renovate the office, and then, to pursue making microfilm available daily to the title companies.

The daily film is necessary, officials from the companies represented testified, because of the nature of their business, as are daily take-off sheets, or paper print-outs. The recorder's office now provides daily microfilm to the title companies, Montgomery said.

General Land Title had made arrangements to get its necessary documents in various ways. Before Montgomery took office, the previous recorder allowed the company to take the records out overnight, copy them and return them to the office before 8 a.m., Bell testified.

At one time, the company also had an arrangement with Jack Hogan and Hogan Land Title Company for that company to make copies of the material for General Land Title. Montgomery intervened in that arrangement, asking that Hogan stop the practice.

Though Bell and General Land Title had asked Montgomery for the ability to rent space in the recorder's office for their own equipment, Montgomery said she refused because she did not have the authority to rent space in the office.

Though the equipment was removed and the daily microfilm made available after the suit was filed, Montgomery testified that she had been working on getting those things in place long before the suit was filed.

Ted Johnson, attorney for some of the defendants, called one witness, Jerry Matney, who has been associated with First Escrow and Preferred Title, both local title companies. Matney said his companies were able to operate profitably in the title business without joining the association or being permitted to take information out of the recorder's office at night.

The judge stated that he would rule on the case within two weeks of the trial and possibly within one week.

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