Friday, November 9, 2007

Sorry, dear, I was on the phone with the press...

We were getting ready for our trip to Lexington when the phone rang. It was Josh [unpronounceable last name] from the Scranton Times-Tribune, calling to ask me about the lawsuit. He's called twice since then, once while we were driving, once after we arrived at Coffee Jones's house. Let's hear it for cell phones!

What lawsuit? Oh, you know -- just your basic celebrity suing the little people . . . Like, don't you have one going on in your neighborhood?

Here's what happened. Hub 1.0 and I bought Harmony in 2000. At that time, our realtor pointed out the huge (old-fashioned-bank-branch huge) Greek Revival manse in town. It had been some sort of an environmental center and, we were assured, it had been renovated in a very inappropriate way. It was also massively out of proportion with its neighbors -- it looked like a doll house plunked down amid a miniature train layout.

About a year later, we heard that a D-list celebrity had bought it. Who? Well, do this: Take any famous sitcom from the 1980s, think of one of the male leads, and that's your celebrity. Honestly, I think that's all you need -- a has-been actor that everyone older than 25 remembers, with a Hollywood-based ego and the notion that our little town is a perfect "snow globe" setting.

So DLC bought the huge Tara house. At first, this seemed a benign if quirky addition to the milieu. He bought a couple modest Greek Revival cottages across the street from Tara and fixed them up. (We were told that one was for his mother, but I gather she has declined to live there.) When the volunteer fire company wanted to put in their new firehouse next door to Tara, where they already owned a building, he offered them a large amount of money to relocate. When the local meeting house -- which had been deeded to the township but was pretty unusable in its present state -- came up for auction, DLC bought it and tore it down. He bought the local delicatessen (which had gone out of business). He bought the defunct general store and tore that down. He bought the post office.

At the present time, DLC owns eight properties (at least) and Tara has been stripped of some of its inconveniently modest neighbors. When you drive into town, you see Tara in all its glory without any obstruction . . . once you look past the gazebo.

Ah, the gazebo. On a modest triangle of land created by the conjunction of three roads, the gazebo -- which is the same size you would have if you bought one at the garden center -- is brown and slightly rustic. And it cannot be denied that one sees the gazebo before, or at the same time, as one sees Tara. Tara's about 20 times as big, but still...

As I understand it, the local community group -- which owns the triangle and the gazebo -- hosted a couple events in the past year. And supposedly someone parked on DLC's property. That isn't hard to imagine; he owns property on all three sides of the triangle! He immediately consulted a lawyer, and before anyone knew what was happening, he'd sued the local community group. [Short form of the legal arguments involved: The old general store property deed mentions a residual right in the triangle. The triangle had been sold by the store owner to the LCG in 1941 with two restrictions: they have to keep it as a memorial park and they can't build on it. If they violated either condition, the property reverts to the general store deed. So, is the gazebo a "structure" in the sense the grantor wanted to prohibit, or is it the sort of thing you find in a memorial park? If the former, DLC may win and own the triangle (we do have some equitable defenses); if the latter, we win and the LCG retains the triangle.]

By virtue of having sent in $5 at some point, I belong to the LCG. They can't be super rich, if $5 is all it takes to belong! So when I heard they'd been sued, I volunteered my time pro bono. They had hired a lawyer locally, and he's very good, but free is free, so I got involved. I wanted to depose DLC, but my co-counsel pointed out that getting all the transcripts copied is the expensive part, so that was out. In fact, no discovery at all -- welcome to litigation in the boonies!

I did file a motion for summary judgment (translation for non-lawyers: it says to the judge, "There are no facts in dispute and based on the law, we win.") but the judge denied it without hearing. We kind of thought that was good news, because this particular judge has a habit of ruling against the side he imagines will ultimately win. But when we were ready for the bench trial, the judge recused himself. We're now back in limbo, waiting to be assigned to one of the judges from a neighboring county.

This is where the press comes in. We have a county-wide newspaper, and it ran a rather odd piece about the delay in the trial. This item caught the eye of someone associated with the Scranton newspaper, and the next thing I know, I'm fielding calls from Josh, who sounded young enough that asking him about his high school prom didn't seem out of order. I must not have been a terrible interviewee; by the end of the day he was calling me run his copy by me for help with the wording.

Now we'll see if they spell my name right!

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