$50 million suit cites falling-out over food Broker, restaurateur ordered to arbitrate bounced-check battle

September 07, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

It all started when a group of hungry securities brokers couldn't get their fajitas fast enough.

Then the tiff between local restaurant owner Patrick McCusker and Prudential Securities expanded into a swollen court file, filled with claims of $50.9 million worth of alleged harm over an account Prudential is alleged to have closed because its manager missed dinner.

Yesterday, a Baltimore Circuit judge told McCusker he'd have to settle his beef with Prudential in arbitration, without the help of a judge or jury.

McCusker filed a lawsuit against Prudential branch manager Charles Baber, Prudential and Bank One last April 1 -- but to him, it was no joke.

Baber and five fellow Prudential employees tried to go to dinner at McCusker's 11-table Canton restaurant, Nacho Mama's, one night last February. According to McCusker, they called ahead to get on a waiting list. But when they arrived, McCusker said, the restaurant was busy. After about 20 minutes, Baber became angry and left, implying that McCusker's account with the brokerage was in trouble.

Several days later, a $7,900 check on the account that McCusker had written to his main supplier bounced, even though there was enough money to cover it.

Charles Perkins, a Prudential spokesman in New York, gave a different version of that night's events. He said Baber left the restaurant after a bartender hurled an obscenity at him. "The next day, he thought maybe it would be better if their business relationship ended," Perkins said.

Baber did close the account, which Perkins said he had a right to do as branch manager. Soon after, the check bounced. "I think, in hindsight, it was a mistake of his to do it," Perkins said.

But Perkins said Prudential took steps to try to correct the problem, including offering to write a letter to the recipient of the check to explain McCusker was not at fault. McCusker refused )) that offer, he said.

"We've done everything we could to make the situation right," Perkins said.

Judge Bonita J. Dancy accepted Prudential's argument that the dispute is a business question that must be settled by arbitration.

McCusker, who opened Nacho Mama's on Jan. 8 -- in honor of Elvis Presley's birthday -- in 1994, said he would pursue the arbitration but was disappointed that he wouldn't get to air his grievance in court.

While he acknowledged after the hearing that he didn't know quite how his lawyers came up with the $50 million figure, he said he did suffer after his brush with Prudential. For some time, he said he had to have cash or certified checks available to get supplies. And he said he was offended by the idea that someone thought he could get a seat in the restaurant by making a scene.

"I make beans and rice for a living," McCusker said. "It just shows what the big guy can do to the little guy."

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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