Dispute over tenant bogs down in court
In a civil trial that has been plagued by lengthy and repetitious questioning by multiple attorneys, as well as delays due to unrelated cases taking up the judge’s time, there is some question as to whether the contest between one of Aspen’s most well-known landlords and a one of the town’s most prominent law firms can be completed as scheduled.
An attorney involved with the case said confidentially that settlement negotiations are continuing throughout the proceeding.
Negotiations, as well as the trial itself, are made unavoidably cumbersome because there are five different parties to the lawsuit and five different negotiating positions.
The plaintiff, local landlord Harley Baldwin, is accusing the real estate law firm of Garfield and Hecht of conspiring to steal one of his tenants and move that tenant to a building that is partly owned by attorneys Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht.
Also named as parties to the suit are the tenants – Louis and Franci Sagar of New York and New Jersey, who started the high-end home furnishings store, Zona, and were Baldwin’s tenants of record. Also being sued is the couple who took over management of the store, Dan and Amy Martineau – along with the corporation, Centre of Aspen, that operates the Elli’s Building at the corner of Mill and Main streets.
It was to Elli’s that the Martineaus moved Zona in 1996. The store had been located in the Baldwin-owned Collins Block building, also on Mill Street.
At the close of the third day of the trial on Friday, lawyers from both sides promised the judge that they would do everything they could to get things wrapped up by the final day of the trial schedule – Wednesday, Oct. 20. The schedule is complicated by the fact that 9th Judicial District Court Judge J.E. DeVilbiss must take care of his criminal court duties today, putting the Baldwin trial on hold until tomorrow.
On Friday, defendants’ attorneys attempted to show that Baldwin had full knowledge of the fact that the Martineaus and Sagars were planning in late 1996 to move the store, which had at that point been located in the Collins Block complex for more than five years.
The defendants also argued that Baldwin was planning a massive renovation of his other property in Aspen’s commercial core, the neighboring Brand Building, and that he actually planned in advance to move one tenant from the Brand Building to the Zona location once it was vacant.
It has also been a consistent argument of the defense that the Martineaus and Zona, because neither they as individuals nor the store itself were named on the lease, had every right to move at any time. The only names on the lease, according to testimony, are those of Louis and Franci Sagar.
Therefore, the defense is claiming, Baldwin has no grounds for his suit against the Martineaus or the law firm, which had represented Baldwin for some 25 years before he fired them in 1996 over the Zona matter.
Baldwin, however, contends the defendants were all involved in a conspiracy to illegally move the Zona store, in violation of its lease and of the attorneys’ duty to act in Baldwin’s interests.
The Martineaus wanted to move the store because they were offered substantially lower rent – $60 per square foot instead of the $106 per square foot they were paying Baldwin – and because they were concerned that they were not named in the lease for the Collins Block space and therefore were essentially a business without a stable home.
The lease in question carried a five-year term and was written in 1993 at the request of the tenants at the time, the Sagars, amending the original 1990 lease that dated from the time the store opened. Franci Sagar now claims she knew nothing of the new lease, as she and Louis were separated in 1993 and headed for divorce.
The Martineaus, who also own and operate the Gracy’s secondhand store in Aspen, did not come into the picture until 1995, when the financially troubled Louis Sagar needed a managing local partner and was introduced to the Martineaus by the Fleisher Co. commercial real estate firm.
A large part of the dispute is over the fact that the Martineaus were never written into the lease, despite a clause in the lease that requires it be formally “assigned” to any sub-tenants, and that Baldwin agree to the assignment.
Baldwin is seeking what could amount to $1 million or more in back rents and other damages.
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