STUART — A two-year legal battle pitting the Arbors Villages Association in Hobe Sound against a 90-year-old homeowner accused of violating the rules for replacing a screen door could cost the community's residents hundreds of thousands of dollars — especially if the courts keep ruling in the man's favor.
After being sued by the Arbors in 2009, Edward A. Grede in May won the case during a two-day trial cut short when his attorney convinced Martin County Judge Kathleen Roberts to dismiss the lawsuit.
Grede was accused in the suit of violating architectural rules by swapping out a $2,500 screen door in 2008 after the association's board of directors twice told him he could not modify a front screened enclosure that was in place when he bought the home in 2003.
The 190-home gated community, built among lakes and preserve areas, was established in the mid 1990s, west of South Federal Highway at Southeast Seabranch Boulevard, state records show.
Roberts' May 9 order — which chided board members for their behavior in handling the matter — is being appealed to a panel of circuit judges, according to court documents. Arbors attorneys are also appealing a ruling by Roberts that rejected their request to disqualify her, citing fear that they couldn't receive a fair trial because of her "prejudice and/or bias."
If the appeals fail, the association could be ordered to pay all of Grede's legal fees, which his son, Richard "Dick" Grady, 66, said he and his father are vigorously pursuing.
"That door is going to be the most expensive screen door in Martin County," said Grady, who has helped his father navigate the legal process. "Because it's already cost my father over $150,000 and it has cost the homeowners association — before they pay my father what they owe for having prevailed in the case."
Separate from the fees his father has incurred, Grady predicted that Arbors officials have spent $100,000 litigating the case since the lawsuit was filed two years ago.
Documents available in the case don't indicate what's been spent in legal fees, and Arbors association board of director officials didn't return a call seeking comment.
Arbors attorney Michael Dermody, with Cornett, Googe & Associates of Stuart, declined to say how much his clients have spent, but suggested it's less than Grady speculated.
"If you were to use half of that number," Dermody said, "you'd be closer to what has been spent on the Arbors side."
Grady and his wife live at the Southeast Forest Glade Trail home to help care for his father, who broke a hip in June, but is home recovering.
He said the dispute, which began in 2003 when his now-deceased mother Mary Grede sought permission to replace a screen door, has robbed his father's peace of mind and a huge chunk of his retirement savings.
The case, Dermody said, boils down to a document enforcement matter.
"It was a modification to a grandfathered structure," said Dermody, "and when (the new door) was put up, the association was in a position where they really had no choice but to enforce the rules."
Both sides have disagreed whether the enclosure was ever approved when the home was built.
"Somehow it was, but after the fact, after it was put up," Dermody said, "very clearly there was a rule put in place saying you cannot have these screened structures."
Grede's West Palm Beach attorney Christopher Draper, of Becker & Poliakoff, insisted it was the Arbors' board of directors and Architectural Review Compliance Committee members who didn't follow the rules.
The review committee, Draper said, failed to properly notice meetings, record meeting minutes or allow the Gredes to address committee members before rejecting the request without explanation.
"They didn't meet in the open like they're supposed to," he said. "I was able to on cross exam to make it very clear they had violated their governing documents. And the judge found that very clearly."
In her order, Roberts cited the eight-year history of Grede's efforts to gain approval for a new door, and how meetings with Arbors officials were canceled without notice, and requests were denied without explanation.
"What happened was when the judge heard the testimony . . . that this gentleman was almost 90, and they had been pushing him around and bullying him and then sued him and tried to hide all the things they did wrong — it all came out," Draper said. "She publicly reprimanded them in that order."
Dermody declined to discuss the ruling.
"Obviously we disagree with the trial court's position," he said. "And that's why an appeal is pending."
Grady meanwhile, said he believes the appeals will fail, and wants to see his father recoup the money he's spent defending his right to improve his property.
"These people are going to have to pay for it," he said. "And at 190 homes in here, it's probably going to mean a $2,000 assessment on each home, and boy are you going to hear the screaming then."