Station Operator Takes On Exxon In Fight Over Lease

May 01, 1991|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

Jim Munroe barely flinched when he learned Exxon intends to "terminate" his franchise agreement to operate the Jumpers Mall Exxon effective July 15.

"It's always hardball with Exxon," he lamented from his station at Ritchie Highway and Jumpers Hole Road, "and it's my livelihood they're playing with."

Munroe maintains a 3-inch-thick file of photocopies and legal correspondence outlining the sordid history of legal battles and contract disputes with his supplier and former landlord.

Exxon spokesman Lester Rogers refused to comment on the specifics of the dispute, calling it a "private matter."

The battles began in June 1986, when Exxon signed Munroe up to run a second filling station on Mountain Road, less than a mile from the Jumpers Mall station.

Munroe says hissales representative made an oral agreement with him to modernize the station and "build Exxon's first convenience mart in Maryland" on land the representative said Exxon owned.

Munroe liked the deal andsays he unwittingly signed a "Consent to Assignment" contract for the station that bound him to all the terms in the outgoing dealer's lease.

Among the terms of that lease: Exxon did not own the property; Exxon had the right "but not the obligation" to rebuild, remodel ormodernize the facilities; there were no oral agreements or representationsbetween the dealer and Exxon.

Exxon never built the convenience store on the land, which is owned by a local businessman. Munroe took the company to federal court, but his case was dismissed in 1990, because written agreements take precedence over oral agreements.

Munroe struck back in October 1986, though he insists he didn't haverevenge on his mind. Noticing that gasoline seemed to be disappearing from the tanks under his Mountain Road station, Munroe says he called Baltimore-area district manager Richard Klein "three or four times" asking him to check them for leaks.

"His only response to me wasto say, 'Jim, they can't be leaking, they're new tanks,' " Munroe said.

Fed up with the loss of fuel, Munroe bypassed Exxon and calledin a state inspector.

State Department of Environment spokesman Michael Sullivan confirmed that the tanks were discovered leaking. Thestation was closed for repairs at Exxon's expense Oct. 2, 1986.

Though the station reopened a month later, the cleanup is still under way, Sullivan said, and similar operations at other stations have ended up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Relations between Munroe and Exxon continued to deteriorate, with each party lodging minor procedural complaints with the state comptroller's office.

Theskirmishes turned into a full-scale war Jan. 15, when Exxon filed anadversarial motion against Munroe placing the Jumpers Hole station in Chapter 11 bankruptcy court. The company claims Munroe owes it money, while Munroe and his lawyers counter he has never fallen behind onpayments.

The bankruptcy case is scheduled for a hearing in mid-May.

On Jan. 24, Munroe "debranded" the Jumpers Mall station, arranging to buy his unleaded regular and medium-grade gasoline from independent petroleum distributors.

Though large signs reading "Not an Exxon Product" cover the 87- and 89-octane pumps, Arthur Price of theComptroller's Department of Fuel Tax Inspection and Testing found Munroe in violation of the debranding laws.

"We found him in violation of not fixing the proper signs to mark the pumps as a non-Exxon product," Price said Friday.

Munroe called Price's allegation "interesting," nothing that one of Price's inspectors was present when the signs were affixed.

An inspector working under Price, who did not want to be identified, confirmed Munroe's account.

Since March, Munroe and hisbookkeeper, Gloria Dilonardo, have documented eight unanswered fuel orders with Exxon's computerized distribution system.

On March 9, Exxon raised the rent at the Mountain Road Exxon from $1,009 a month to $4,000. Munroe closed the station rather than accept the increase and again appealed to the comptroller's office.

Price said Exxon "convinced (him) that the decision to raise the rent was based on a fair market value for the property."

Thursday, Munroe granted a request for an interview with The Anne Arundel County Sun to discuss his battle with Exxon.

Friday, an Exxon spokesman told the paper that "Exxon has notified Mr. Munroe of its intent to terminate its existing franchise agreement with Mr. Munroe effective July 15 for various reasons, including non-payment of amounts due and owing to Exxon."

Munroe, who other dealers and fuel distributors have alternatingly labeled a "rebel" and a "crybaby," has promised to keep up the fight and is retaining two lawyers.

But Price, from the comptroller's office, says Munroe has no legal ground to stand on.

"It's nice to argue with the boss, but at some point you have to back off and acknowledge he's the boss or else go into business for yourself," Price said of the dispute.

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