Baldwin wins lease dispute
In what one attorney called a “precedent-setting verdict” that will have legal repercussions across Colorado, a jury has found the Garfield & Hecht law firm guilty of violating the Colorado Consumer Protection Act and breaching its legal duties to local landlord Harley Baldwin.But at Tuesday’s end of the nine-day trial involving multiple defendants and five sets of attorneys, the lawyers for Baldwin and the law firm differed over whom had actually won, and how much money Baldwin can collect.”For the first time in Colorado, a jury has found that a law firm has violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act,” declared Baldwin’s attorney, Stan Garnett of Denver.”This is a precedent-setting case,” Garnett continued. “The issue here has never been the money, it’s the principle, and the way this law firm treated Harley Baldwin.”But the attorney representing Garfield and Hecht, Michael Mihm, also of Denver, argued that the jury had rendered a “muddled verdict, at best,” which did not find his clients technically at “fault” in the case.Both attorneys said the case will be subject to post-trial motions and arguments, and that the final decision concerning who won will be up to 9th Judicial District Judge J.E. DeVilbiss. Depending on the result, Garnett said, it is likely the verdict will be appealed.Baldwin accused the law firm, along with local landlord Centre of Aspen LLC and local business owners Dan and Amy Martineau, of conspiring to steal one of his tenants from its original location in Baldwin’s Collins Block Building on Mill Street.The business, a home-furnishings store named Zona started in 1990 by Louis and Franci Sagar of New York, was sold to the Martineaus, who moved it in 1996 to the Elli’s building at the corner of Mill and Main streets. That building is owned by Centre of Aspen.Attorneys Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht are both investors in the Centre of Aspen, and the law firm in mid-1996 was representing both Baldwin (who had been a client of Garfield & Hecht for 25 years) and the Centre of Aspen in its lease negotiations with the Martineaus and Zona.The Martineaus maintained that because their names, and the name of their store, do not appear on the lease signed by the Sagars and Baldwin in 1993, they had every right to move to a new location where they could get a lease in their own name.At the end of an extremely complicated case that stretched over nearly two weeks, the jury took nearly six hours Tuesday night to wade through a tangle of highly technical charges and instructions from Judge J.E. DeVilbiss.The jury ruled that the Martineaus owe Baldwin approximately $40,000 in unpaid rent, apparently covering a time in 1996 when the rent for Zona went unpaid while Baldwin battled with the Sagars and the Martineaus. But the Martineaus were not found to be at fault in the charge of conspiring to cheat Baldwin.The judge dismissed the charges against Franci Sagar, who divorced Louis Sagar about five years ago. Louis Sagar, who has filed for bankruptcy protection, was found liable for nearly $70,000 in damages.Regarding Garfield & Hecht, the jury found they had violated the state Consumer Protection Act and “breached their fiduciary duty” to Baldwin.Mihm said the verdict does not actually find the law firm at fault, and requires it to pay Baldwin only about $8,000 in damages due to lost rental income.”What’s happened is that Mr. Baldwin has paid thousands of dollars in legal fees, and all he’ll get is $8,000,” Mihm said gleefully. Baldwin estimated that his legal fees will come in at “around $150,000.”But Garnett said the damages will ultimately come to “more than $400,000,” because the jury awarded triple damages for the violation of the Consumer Protection Act, and awarded Baldwin damages totaling $184,000.The jury did not find Centre of Aspen liable for any damages.
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