Montana Office of the Public Defender lawyer sued for fraud, invalid liens

Lawyer declines to comment; Missoula OPD also declines to comment

By: - May 17, 2023 5:31 pm

Logo of the Montana Public Defenders (Photo via State of Montana).

An attorney for the Office of the Public Defender is being sued for filing invalid construction liens against a house after trying to force its foreclosure in a separate proceeding, according to a complaint filed this month in Missoula County District Court.

The complaint alleges Scotti Ramberg set up a couple of limited liability companies and used one of them to illegally record construction liens worth $109,000 against a vacant home — either knowingly or “with reckless disregard for the truth,” the lawsuit said.

“Ms. Ramberg recorded the liens against the property with the knowledge and intent that the action would result in harm to the plaintiffs,” the lawsuit said. “Alternatively, (Ramberg) either recognized or should have recognized that the recording of the liens without legal justification would result in harm to the plaintiffs.”

Ramberg declined to answer questions in a brief phone call Tuesday. She said she had only received the complaint Monday afternoon and had not fully reviewed it.

Reed Mandelko, managing attorney for the Office of the Public Defender in Missoula, declined to comment in a brief phone call Wednesday. The state’s employee data website listed Ramberg as having an hourly rate of $34.41 in 2021, which would translate to an annual salary of $71,573.

In the lawsuit, Joseph Bruno and Laura Knight, who own the property, are suing Ramberg, SLR Investments, LLC, and John Does 1-10.

Filed May 3, the complaint involves Ramberg, who works in Missoula for the public defender’s office, a vacant home, a couple of shell companies, a homeowner’s association, and a lawyer who represents the homeowner’s association and shares an address with Ramberg at least on paper.

The plaintiffs allege the defendants are guilty of fraud and acted with malice, and they are asking the court to quash, or invalidate, the construction liens and award damages and attorneys’ fees.

Filed by Gregory McDonnell of Orr McDonnell Law in Missoula, the lawsuit outlines the way the allegations unfolded.

In late 2005, Joseph Bruno bought the house, at 13137 Bunchgrass Lane, the complaint said. He and his brother lived there for many years until his brother died, and Bruno moved to California, “leaving the house vacant.”

In 2007, the Hawthorn Springs Property Owners Association, the homeowners association, filed a lien against the house with the Missoula County Clerk and Recorder for unpaid water usage in the amount of $1,337.90, the complaint said. A decade later, in 2017, that bill was unpaid and the HOA filed a “notice of non-compliance.”

On Nov. 27, 2020, the HOA filed a second lien that superseded the first, claiming the amount owed with interest to be $15,256,31, the complaint said. It said the lien was filed on behalf of the HOA by its attorney Rufus Peace.

“Mr. Peace is a Montana attorney, admitted to the Montana bar on the same day as Ms. Ramberg,” the complaint said.

The next month, on Dec. 31, Ramberg registered two entities with the Montana Secretary of State, the complaint said. One is Bruno Holdings, and the other is SLR (Ramberg’s initials are reflected in the name of the entity, the lawsuit said); she listed herself as the registered agent for both and Bruno’s address is listed as the LLCs’ business address, according to the lawsuit and exhibits.

The address she used identifying herself as the registered agent is the same address as a property owned by Peace, the lawsuit said.

Peace did not return a voicemail requesting comment to a number a previous employer said was his cellphone.

In the brief call, Ramberg declined to state her relationship to Peace: “I’m not going to answer that at this time.”

In January 2021, roughly one week after Ramberg registered the two entities with the Secretary of State’s Office, the HOA assigned all the interest in the second lien to Bruno Holdings, the lawsuit said.

Then in November 2021, SLR filed a construction lien with the county claiming it was owed $73,123.13.

But neither Bruno nor Knight ever requested any services or materials, and they hadn’t ever even spoken with SLR or Ramberg, the lawsuit said. They hadn’t entered into any contracts with SLR or Ramberg either.

The same day the construction lien was filed, Ramberg filed another document in court, the complaint said.

“On November 10, 2021, Ms. Ramberg, acting as counsel for Bruno Holdings, filed a complaint for judicial foreclosure in the Montana Fourth Judicial District Court … requesting that the house be sold at public auction to satisfy the second property owners association lien assigned to Bruno Holdings,” the lawsuit said.

An order vacating the foreclosure in August 2022 said Bruno paid the amount owed. But the Sheriff’s sale went down to the wire, according to a notice from the Sheriff’s Office.

In her request for foreclosure, Ramberg said the property owners had not communicated with the plaintiff or HOA “despite multiple notices.” But the current lawsuit states “Ramberg has sworn before this Honorable Court that she has not had any communication with Mr. Bruno.”

Additionally, a report to the court from the foreclosure case noted Bruno and Knight tried to contact Ramberg to prevent the Sheriff’s sale, but she refused to speak with them or articulate an amount that would satisfy the judgment.

“Upon information and belief, Ms. Ramberg through her solely owned entities, SLR Investments, LLC, and Bruno Holdings, LLC, was attempting to retain ownership of the house at 13137 Bunchgrass Lane using invalid liens and other questionable methods,” said the August 2022 report to the court.

Court documents note Bruno and Knight hired attorneys to determine the actual amount owed, and the order vacating the foreclosure last August said a check of $23,194.05 “more than fully satisfies” the amount due to Bruno Holdings.

Meanwhile in July 2022, SLR filed a second construction lien against the property, this one for $36,200.44, but without any descriptions of services or materials provided, as required by law, the lawsuit said.

Again, it said neither Bruno nor Knight had requested any work from SLR, and neither was there record of any contract or communication between them and SLR or Ramberg.

“As a result of defendants’ claim of invalid and unenforceable liens on the real property, plaintiffs have been forced to expend time and funds securing counsel to bring this action,” the lawsuit said.

Because of Ramberg’s “slander of title,” the plaintiffs can’t refinance the house, acquire a line of credit, or conduct other transactions related to the property, and they’ll continue to be damaged until the illegal liens are removed, according to the complaint.

In a phone call with the Daily Montanan, Ramberg declined to address whether she’d had any work history in construction or contracting and declined to make additional statements.

The lawsuit notes John Does 1-10 may be added to the case in the future, after the court determines whether others were involved in the case.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.