Judge tells entire subdivision:
Put away your cameras
Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times

Published October 18, 2002 

DADE CITY -- A judge on Thursday ordered residents of an entire Meadow Pointe townhouse community to put away their cameras, barring all from photographing work crews amid homeowner complaints and an atmosphere one attorney described as a "powder keg." 

The order affects the Sedgwick townhouse community -- about 160 units sold or under construction so far -- built by Premier Design Homes at the eastern edge of Meadow Pointe in Wesley Chapel. It came as a judge considered complaints by the builder that one homeowner, accused of spreading lies about the company, violated a court order by harassing workers. 

After three hearings, the last one on Thursday, Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson ruled homeowner Daniel Portalatin was not in contempt of his earlier orders. But he said to avoid confusion, no one in the development should be allowed to take pictures of workers trying to repair the homes. 

In a separate lawsuit, Portalatin and the owners of seven other townhouses complained last month of leaky windows, substandard work that violates building codes, installation of defective appliances and mold infestation. The group is accusing Premier subsidiary Sedgwick Developers of fraud, theft and deceptive trade practices. 

Developers admit there have been problems, especially with leaky windows, but complain that harassment from Portalatin and others is making it impossible to make repairs. 

Developers' attorney Karen Trafford said Portalatin has made construction workers so nervous, many won't come to work. 

"We have an extremely explosive situation here," she told the judge. "We're dealing with dozens of tradespeople, all of whom are scared to death of Mr. Portalatin." 

One worker testified earlier that Portalatin startled a crew member on a ladder, nearly causing him to fall. And a video Portalatin took from surveillance cameras he installed at his front door was banned from court Thursday because it violated state wiretapping laws. 

Portalatin in a hearing Thursday denied ever raising his voice to workers and said he is always cordial and has abided by Swanson's earlier ruling that he stay 20 feet away from workers. 

His attorney, Brad Tobin, accused the developer of using the courts to file a so-called "SLAP suit," short for strategic litigation against protesters, a type of lawsuit critics say big corporations use to silence critics. 

"This injunction is an abuse of process," he said. 

In an earlier court filing, Trafford claimed that because of Portalatin's loud complaints, buyers under contract have balked at closings. Other potential customers have turned away. Property values have been affected and "sales of new townhomes in Sedgwick have been hampered and have begun to decline dramatically." 

Although Swanson's ruling on the contempt of court complaint took three separate hearings and several witnesses to complete, it's only a fraction of the legal action surrounding Sedgwick. Both the larger lawsuit filed by Sedgwick against Portalatin, and the lawsuit Portalatin filed against Sedgwick, remain active in their earliest stages. 


Builder says critic violated order
Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times
A judge barred a townhomes critic from making false statements.
The man says he has not violated the order. 
By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2002 

DADE CITY -- A Meadow Pointe home builder struggling to silence a vocal critic is heading back to court, claiming the man violated a judge's order. 

Sedgwick at Meadow Pointe attorney Karen Trafford aims to slap a contempt of court charge on Daniel Portalatin, who is both a critic and a Sedgwick customer. Her complaint, filed in Circuit Court this month, claims Portalatin violated a judge's July order barring him from making false statements about a development that builders admit has had problems. 

According to Trafford, Portalatin continues to harass builders, interfere with repair crews and make disparaging remarks about the townhome development built by Premier Design Homes of Florida Inc. under the Sedgwick corporate name. 

Portalatin said Tuesday he has not violated any part of the judge's order. 

The dispute began in June when Sedgwick filed a lawsuit against Portalatin to quiet his criticisms. 

Portalatin, 44, bought a 1,400-square-foot townhouse for $102,400 in October. He claims builders did shoddy work, including poor window installation that allowed water to leak into his home. He alleges other homeowners in the development have had similar problems. 

Portalatin took part in at least two resident meetings and said in June he was determined to fight Sedgwick. 

In her original motion, Trafford admitted that the company has had quality problems, that windows leaked and that some electrical appliances didn't work. But she said the company took immediate action to fix the problems. 

Her suit accused Portalatin of being potentially violent; said he harassed company employees; and said that he warned potential customers not to buy, causing buyers under contract to back out of closings while potential customers turned away. 

She claimed property values have been affected and "sales of new townhomes in Sedgwick have been hampered and have begun to decline dramatically." 

Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson in July barred Portalatin from making "false and disparaging statements," something he denied doing. 

On Tuesday, Portalatin's attorney Bradley Tobin said all of Sedgwick's complaints are "fictitious and false." 

He said attorneys are trying to set a hearing date for next month. 

When he was originally hit with the suit in June, Portalatin countered with a small claims suit against Sedgwick representative Susan Y. Carey. But earlier this month, Portalatin withdrew the complaint and noted that Carey might be included in a future suit against Sedgwick. 

Carey fired back with a counter suit against Portalatin, alleging defamation and claiming Portalatin interfered with her business and ran off customers, costing her sales commissions. 

Tobin this month filed a bid to dismiss the entire Sedgwick case, claiming the company's arguments are too vague. 

"Generally, plaintiff claims that defendant is a violent individual and a vandal. However, their complaint is devoid of any specific factual incident," Tobin wrote. "The complaint is so vague, indefinite and ambiguous that it is impossible to form a reply to." 

Trafford was out of state Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. 

Sedgwick developers sue 
to silence homeowner
Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
Published June 30, 2002 

A judge has declined to order a critic of "shabby construction'' to keep quiet, but a lawsuit moves forward. 

MEADOW POINTE -- Daniel Portalatin put up his money for a new townhouse. Now the developer who sold it to him wants him to shut up. 

Portalatin said he paid $102,000 in October for his home in the Sedgwick subdivision, a neighborhood of townhomes at the east end of sprawling Meadow Pointe. On Wednesday, Sedgwick developers complained to a judge that Portalatin is too vocal in his criticism of their building practices, has made false allegations and is hurting business. 

They want him silenced. 

Portalatin says he'll fight the developers until they fix his house. And he said he's not alone. Neighbors have held meetings and threatened to picket Sedgwick properties. Residents who have complained live in townhomes built by Premier Design Homes of Florida Inc. 

"This is a big corporation versus John Q. Public," Portalatin said Wednesday. "They can't stop me from speaking at homeowners meetings. They can't stop me from talking to someone who comes to my door and asks me about the neighborhood. It's my First Amendment right." 

Sedgwick attorneys asked Pasco Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson on Wednesday to silence Portalatin's complaints. The judge declined, ordering only that Portalatin must not delete items on his computers that could be used as evidence. Portalatin said he has no intention of deleting anything. 

But Sedgwick is pursuing its efforts to quiet its critic in the full lawsuit, filed in circuit court. A preliminary hearing is set for July 16. 

Sedgwick attorney Karen Trafford in her motions admitted the company has had quality problems. The lawsuit agrees windows leaked and that some electrical appliances didn't work. 

"Plaintiff took immediate action to address and/or repair warranty items," Trafford wrote. She said the company also fired the person in charge of those items. 

When asked by the company, 38 of the 52 to 54 owners in the development filed forms detailing 250 areas that needed repair, and the company has set about fixing the problems, Trafford reported. 

Trafford did not return telephone calls to her office Wednesday. But in her filing she accused Portalatin of being potentially violent, said he harassed company employees and that he warned potential customers not to buy. 

As a result, Trafford wrote, buyers under contract have balked at closings. Other potential customers have turned away. Property values have been affected and "sales of new townhomes in Sedgwick have been hampered and have begun to decline dramatically," Trafford wrote. 

Portalatin, a retired New York law enforcement officer, said he's not a violent or aggressive person and denies wrongdoing. He said he's fed up with flaws in a new home. 

He said because of leaky windows, his interior walls rotted and molded, and a counter top had to be replaced. In addition, he said his floors have been damaged, his light-colored rugs are stained by work crews coming in and out to fix damage, and the doors swell and jam. 

"This is a new house," he said. "It was shabby construction work." 

Nearby resident David Hernandez reported other problems at his townhouse. He said his windows also had to be replaced, and he said repair crews don't use sound building practices. He said the stucco from his house was poorly applied, and it took months to get builders to repair problems. 

Throughout the neighborhood, passersby can see areas where stucco has been removed to replace windows. Other buildings show areas where stucco has been patched. 

"I moved in here Dec. 15. First day, I'm moving furniture in, I feel water on my head," Hernandez said. "I look up, there's a huge wet spot on the ceiling. A big leak. It's the air conditioner. They fixed it this month."