Interest Growing in Disputed Real-Estate Case Taken to the Web

By Guy Leonard, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (Jan. 31, 2008)—When John Zupancic and Cheryl Gordon took their grievances about a real estate deal in Scotland that didn't go their way on to the Internet at the beginning of the year, they wanted to find some kind of closure to the case.

They are still steamed about Circuit Court Judge Karen Abrams' decision back in 2006 that allowed the sale of the land to buyers who originally had a contract on the property but sought a delay, which they believe should have allowed them—the backup buyers—the right to buy the property.

They also criticize the Court of Special Appeals decision that supported Abrams' finding. But, they are happy with the interest their complaints have generated on their Web site

"There needs to be a forum where people wronged [in the judicial system] can get justice or just closure," Gordon told The County Times. "I wouldn't want anyone to go through what we've had to go through."

Since the start of the Web site it has had nearly 48,000 hits, where visitors can read about their claims that Abrams, along with Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser, Timothy E. Meridith and Charles E. Moylan Jr. tried to hide a $2,500 retainer check from the originally interested buyers Paul Abbott and Elaine Barker of Arlington, Va. to their settlement attorney F. Michael Harris, who is also part-time Circuit Court master serving under Abrams.

The Web site also talks about the issue of another attorney for Abbott and Barker, Daniel J. Guenther, who rents his office space from Abrams in Leonardtown.

Both Zupancic and Gordon claim that they were unsure of Harris' and Guenther's relationship with Abrams during court proceedings and that they would have wanted to proceed with another judge had they known differently.

Zupancic said they were informed of Harris' position, but were unsure what it meant.

The Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee issued a ruling after the case had gone to the Court of Special Appeals that a judge must disclose a renter-tenant relationship with a lawyer in a case they are to adjudicate.

If the two sides disagree whether the judge should stay on, the judge should let another jurist handle the matter, the opinion states.

The opinion mentioned no particular case in its finding. Neither Gunther nor Harris returned phone calls seeking comment for this article.

A local attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Abrams, Harris and Guenther had a strong reputation of ethical practices, but that the way the case was handled put a cloud over the situation.

"The appearance of impropriety is there," the attorney said. "And you don't want to feed people's impressions that things are done with a wink and a nod."

The attorney concurred with Zupancic and Gordon's claim that Guenther's relationship with Abrams, which is apparently well known in Leonardtown, should have been made clear to them.

"Then you don't have a situation where litigants are debating the fairness and impartiality of the bench," the attorney said. "This thing could have easily been avoided.

"But I don't think that they would debase themselves or the [legal] system that way."

The Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities dismissed a complaint from Zupancic and Gordon against Abrams but in November of last year Zupancic e-mailed a complaint to Judge Joseph Murphy of the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, regarding the case.

In an e-mailed response Murphy said he forwarded the complaint again to the Commission on Judicial Disabilities.

"The fact that I am sending a copy to [Steven Lemmey, chief investigative counsel] should not be misinterpreted as an indication that I lack confidence in the integrity of my colleagues," Murphy wrote in his e-mail. "I am sending a copy to Mr. Lernmey because it is for the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, not for an individual Chief Judge, to investigate the type of complaints that are contained in your e-mail."

Lemmey would not comment on whether he or others on his staff were investigating the complaint.

The controversy over the land started in 2003 when Catherine Bartos of Silver Spring, was originally set to sell the property to Abbott and Barker, the CSA decision stated, and while the offer never came to fruition, they still entered into a contract that revolved around the buyers getting a building permit.

The buyers and Harris received letters from a group protesting plans to build on the site from the "Friends of Cornfield Harbor," the opinion states, which led Harris to believe there was potential for a lawsuit over the property, which in turn could muddy the transfer.

Harris advised his clients to wait on the sale by giving him the purchase funds, the opinion states, where he would put the money into escrow and to see if a lawsuit had been filed regarding the property.

Bartos, according to the court's opinion, refused to wait on the transaction and demanded that she get the money that day in January of2005.

The next business day, the opinion states, Bartos refused to return to St. Mary's to complete the transaction; Abbott and Barker were subsequently represented by Guenther in their lawsuit that was tried by Abrams in 2006.

In short the appeals court ruled that the original buyers were "ready, willing and able" to complete the transaction and that Bartos could not sell to the back up buyers Zupancic and Gordon.

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