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Danette O'Neal is among about 40-thousand real estate agents along the Gulf Coast who lost their homes and/or businesses to Hurricane Katrina. Many from the region, including O'Neal who now lives in Lithonia, are trying to start over in other markets. But O'Neal's state of limbo is partly due to a federal lawsuit that she's fighting as Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corporation tries to collect more than 818-thousand dollars in franchise fees, ten years of potential income and other costs from the displaced realtor.

Coldwell Banker spokesman David Siroty says the case is about O'Neal's -- quote "refusal to pay royalty fees and return a sizable development advancement loan," both of which date back to 2004, the year before the storm.

Siroty says the case predates the hurricane, though the lawsuit also claims O'Neal continued to use Coldwell Banker trademarks and business systems after she abandoned the franchise system in late 2005.

Between court dates in Louisiana, O'Neal says she barely has time to build relationships with new loan officers, mortgage brokers or clients. Her cell phone constantly rings, and the calls are about new court motions as often as they are about potential business.

O'Neal started Danette O'Neal Realtors 16 years ago. She staked her business on helping black residents of New Orleans -- people of modest means and often less than perfect credit -- to become homeowners. In 2004, she says the agreed to partner with Coldwell Banker, but the arrangement wasn't as profitable as O'Neal had hoped. She says the franchise fees -- six percent of the commission -- were too much for her small business.

Coldwell poured 263-thousand dollars into O'Neal's business. She says she did not expect to have to pay the money back.

Within a month of Katrina, O'Neal said Coldwell sent a letter counting her franchise as a total loss.

Typically, attorneys say, abandonment of a franchise is a breach of contract.


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