In a highly unusual move, the city is foreclosing on the Punchbowl home of a 93-year-old widow because of her failure to connect the residence to the city’s sewer system for more than nine years.
Sunny Lee has lived at the two-story Prospect Street home for 55 years, but she and her daughter Monica, who also resides at the two-story home, represented themselves in losing three court cases that led to a state judge granting the city’s foreclosure request.
The two nonlawyers maintain that the elderly woman has a legal right to use an underground sewer line that goes through a neighbor’s property even though the Hawaii Supreme Court rejected that claim in a 2006 ruling.
Both the city and state have been sending Sunny Lee notices for years that she was in violation of state and city laws and incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.
The Lees said in addition to their belief that the mother still has a legal right to the sewer line, Sunny Lee’s only income is from Social Security, and she cannot afford to install a new line.
"Help me," Sunny Lee said Wednesday outside her home. "I have no place to go."
But city Corporation Counsel Brad Saito said the city is forced to turn to what amounts to the "last step in enforcement" of the city ordinances.
He acknowledged the case is "unique."
Saito said foreclosures are usually for nonpayment of mortgages or maintenance fees, and this is the first foreclosure case he’s handled involving sewer violations.
"Unfortunately, we don’t have much choice but to foreclose if (the Lees) are unwilling to correct the violations," he said.
Sunny Lee, who operated Sunny Lee’s Korean Delicatessen in the 1950s and 1960s and also produced Sunny Lee’s Korean barbecue sauce, moved to the then newly built home in the residential neighborhood on the makai slope of Punchbowl in 1957.
The sewer line ran through the residential property of neighbors Melvin and Mildred Bender, who claimed they didn’t know about the pipe until it sprang a leak in 2000.
The Benders sought payment from the Lees and other neighbors who also used the line for the $2,000 spent to repair the break. When the neighbors refused, the Benders retained a lawyer and filed a lawsuit alleging the neighbors were using the line without permission.
The other neighbors reached an agreement with the Benders, but the Lees fought the lawsuit.
In 2002 then-Circuit Judge Richard Pollack, now a Supreme Court associate justice, ruled that Sunny Lee did not have an easement or any legal right to use the line.
The line was shut off.
In 2006 the Supreme Court unanimously rejected an appeal filed by Monica Lee and affirmed that her mother did not have a legal right to the line.
The state Department of Health started issuing Sunny Lee notices as early as 2003 that she was in violation of health regulations.
The department filed a lawsuit in 2008 saying that Sunny Lee had incurred state administrative penalties of more than $170,000.
A health inspector said soil tests showed that bacteria were found in wastewater from under the home flowing to a neighbor’s retaining wall. But Sunny Lee said no toilet waste or "hazardous materials or anything injurious to health" had been released from the house.
In 2008 then-Circuit Judge Sabrina McKenna ruled in favor of the state and held that Sunny Lee at her own expense must hire a licensed engineer and a licensed contractor to connect the home to the sewer system.
McKenna, who also now sits on the high court, ruled that Sunny Lee must halt discharging wastewater onto her property, pay the department $25,000 for past violations and $150 a day from 2005 until the home is connected to the sewer system.
In 2007 the city filed its lawsuit, which has led to the foreclosure.
The suit said Sunny Lee was in violation of city ordinances and had racked up $50 a day in city fines that amounted to $36,000 as of June 2006.
In August, Circuit Judge Bert Ayabe granted summary judgment for the city and appointed attorney Thomas Wong as commissioner to take possession of the home and sell it.
Wong said this is his first sale involving a home not hooked to the sewer system.
"I’m just mandated to proceed, which is unfortunate," he said. "They (the city) said they usually don’t take this step, but in this case they had to."
The two-story home on the 3,575-square-foot property is valued at more than $550,000 on city property and real estate listings.
The Lees will get any money from the sale remaining after payments for commissioner fees and related costs and the city’s claim that Wong said was $149,250 as of Aug. 23 and accruing at a rate of $50 a day.
The purchaser, however, will be subject to a bank’s mortgage on the home, which is about $18,000, and must install the line to the sewer system, Wong said.
Wong said notices of the sale must be published in a newspaper for three weeks. The auction, he said, could be held in December or early January.
There is no indication in the court file that the state has moved to collect on its 2008 judgment. Deputy Attorney General Edward Bohlen said he could not discuss the case without first talking to the Department of Health.
Saito said the city officials tried to be reasonable in resolving the dispute.
It has been willing in other cases to compromise on the fines, in some instances seeking only 10 percent or less, depending on the circumstances, he said.
But he said the city hit an impasse with the Lees because they refuse to accept that they are in violation of city ordinances.
"Quite frankly, those discussions begin with Monica Lee yelling at us," he said.
Saito said the city Department of Planning and Permitting continues to receive complaints related to the lack of sewage hookup. He said he can’t disclose the names of the complainants, but said they are from people who are "sort of in the area."
Saito said he does not know what it would cost to link to the sewage system, but said he thinks it would be a "small percentage of the fine."
Monica Lee, an unemployed former art teacher who has taken the lead in representing her mother in court, said the complaints are unfounded.
"Why are they trying to blacken our character?" she said in tears.
"I might get excited but I’m very much alive," she said about Saito’s remarks that she yells at them. "I get passionate but I never overstepped the line."
Monica Lee said they use portable toilets that don’t discharge wastewater outside the house. They "recycle" other water for their garden, she said.
She said her mother doesn’t have enough income to take out an equity loan to pay for lawyers or to construct a line to the sewer system.
She said when she recently talked to lawyers, one said it was too late and another wanted $20,000.
"We no more money," Sunny Lee said.
Monica Lee estimated that the cost would be at least $100,000 for a new sewer line to run uphill from the home to the sewage system on Prospect Street. The house is downhill along a narrow driveway off the street.
The line they used for 46 years before the 2003 shut-off runs to Magazine Street, which is downhill from the residence.
"She has a legal right to that line," said Monica Lee, who sometimes helps translate her mother’s words.
"My mother keeps saying, ‘What did I do wrong?’"