Gasoline Dealer's Legal Feud With Exxon Rages On

August 07, 1991|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

A siege mentality has set in at the Exxon station on the corner of Jumpers Hole Road and Route 2, the center of a bitter dispute between dealer W. James Munroe and his landlord, Exxon Corp.

Munroe has filed a $12 million lawsuit against the giant petroleum company, charging Exxon with violating his lease and colluding with state inspectors, other dealers and his corporate customers to force him out of business.

Munroe continues to sell gasoline purchased from independent distributors. Employees, accustomed to working in 90-degree temperatures with faulty equipment and without the air conditioner that broke downearlier this summer, grouse about the problems they blame on Exxon. But they have dug in their heels in support of Munroe.

"I'll standby Jim because he really treats me good. I believe Exxon's not doinganything here to get him to just say 'To hell with it,' " said LarryGibson, a mechanic who narrowly escaped serious injury while workingunder a faulty hydraulic car lift.

Another mechanic went to work at another station in June after Exxon announced to a reporter that the franchise "will be terminated July 15." But bookkeeper Gloria DiLonardo said the rest of the employees, though they complain bitterly about the heat and poor working conditions, have decided to stay at the station until the legal wrangling is over.

Exxon officials say the station should be closed down because Munroe owes the company $38,000.

And Exxon has punctuated its desire to close the station withrent increases, while the property continues to deteriorate. The station's air conditioning and electrical systems have been out all summer, pot holes scar the lot and aging pumps and canopies haven't been replaced in years.

Last month a hydraulic lift that Munroe had asked Exxon to check for safety in February collapsed under the weight of a Cadillac just seconds after a mechanic had stepped out from underit.

But Munroe insists that his combined landlord and fuel supplier's moves to close him down violate his right to have a second chance to reorganize his debts through the Chapter 11 provisions of the federal bankruptcy law.

Munao Inc. owes $500,000 in long- and short-term debt to 30 creditors, including more than $130,000 to the IRS and the state, court documents show.

Although Munroe has copies of more than 30 registered letters requesting fuel or repairs, he says Exxon has refused to deliver fuel or to make repairs.

One letter, dated Feb. 13, requested repairs on the 10-year-old lift that collapsedlast month.

"I went to them for help at the beginning of this year because (the completion of) Route 10 was hurting my business and they responded by quadrupling my rent at one station and trying to force me out of the other," Munroe said.

"They tell you they've got more money than God and they can do anything to you. It's a poker game where they're betting that you won't stand up to them."

But the nation's largest oil company hasn't flinched since Munroe filed his $12million lawsuit July 15.

Lester Rogers, a spokesman for the company, said Exxon's lawyers are unaware of the lawsuit and that the company "does not like to try its cases in the media."

In the meantime, Exxon's hearing on a separate motion to terminate Munroe's franchise agreement was delayed for a second time Monday by Bankruptcy Judge James F. Schneider. The new court date is Oct. 4.

Arthur Price, director of the Comptroller's Department of Fuel Tax Inspection and Testing, denied that Exxon had pressured his office to increase the number or intensity of inspections of the station -- a charge made by Munroe.

Roy Littlefield, head of the Service Station Automotive Dealers Association, said the association has not taken a position on the legal battle.

"We're trying to improve relations with the companies to get them to work with dealers who are in trouble," Littlefield said.

Approximately 110,000 service stations have gone out of business in the past 10 years nationwide as the major oil companies have moved toward policies favoring large, high-volume dealers, Littlefieldsaid. He expects more "weeding out" of small and/or difficult dealers in Maryland.

Littlefield said the oil companies regularly will go out of their way to help high-volume stations, but tend to neglect or look for ways to get rid of smaller stations such as Munroe's service- and towing-oriented operation.

Exxon has accused Munroe of failing to pay for a load of gas delivered last February and of doctoring a standard business check to make it look like a certified check to pay for another delivery.

Munroe says he never missed the payment and that he had never been required to pay for gas deliveries with certified checks before.

"Exxon is just looking for any excuse they could find to shut me down," Munroe said.

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