Homeowners' trials returning to court

Judge to reconsider couple's award in contractor fraud

January 09, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

At first, Tracey A. and Sharon Y. Bowers saw their new Southwest Baltimore home as a place for glorious holiday dinners in the dining room and great Fourth of July crab feasts on the sun deck.

Three years later, they say their three-bedroom home, in the 300 block of Marydell Road, has become a financial disaster, dragging them deep into debt and into a court system where a jury's verdict can vanish with the stroke of a judge's pen.

"This is supposed to be the American dream," said Sharon Bowers, a clerk in Baltimore Circuit Court. "It's our nightmare."

Today, Circuit Judge John N. Prevas is scheduled to decide whether to strike down a $70,000 judgment a jury awarded the Bowerses in their fraud case against a quasi-public city agency and its inspector. The couple argued that they had been recommended a contractor who turned out not to have a license.

The Bowerses can only shake their heads at how their home has been a steady source of disappointment over the past three years.

They moved in with grand hopes. It wasn't a big home, just a modest two-story house with one bathroom and an unfinished basement. But it was near Mount St. Joseph High School, where Tracey Jr. had been accepted. It was in a good neighborhood in the city. And it was big enough to give their two sons separate bedrooms.

Now, Sharon Bowers says that because of the home's condition, she is too embarrassed to have friends and family visit.

Water has soaked the walls from the top floor to the basement, leaving surfaces mottled, cracked and peeling. Doors aren't flush to their frames. Faulty electrical work keeps her from using the dryer, forcing her to hang clothes on a line strung across the basement or use the dryer at her mother's house. And peeling plaster and heavy water damage to one bedroom has forced Tracey Jr., now 19, and Trevon, 9, to bunk together.

The Bowerses trace their problems to James F. Bowlin, who was on the Community Development Financing Corp.'s list of approved contractors and, they say, was recommended to renovate their home.

CDFC, an agency that runs programs for homebuyers and commercial developments, financed the Bowerses' $73,250 loan through the Vacant House Loan Program. More than $27,000 of the loan went to renovations. The family moved in during January 1999.

"I'm not a contractor. So it looked fine," said Tracey Bowers, a youth counselor.

Three months after moving in, they started to find problems with the work. When they couldn't get the contractor to make the repairs, they filed a complaint with the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. MHIC told them Bowlin was not licensed. He was later found guilty in District Court of working without a license and fined $2,000.

The Bowerses filed a civil fraud case against Bowlin, CDFC and its inspector, Nicholas Cannamela, in March 2000. On Nov. 30, after a four-day trial, a jury awarded the Bowerses $70,000 in compensatory and punitive damages -- the judgment that is to be reconsidered by Prevas today.

Gary M. Brooks, CDFC's executive vice president, said the couple had refused a settlement offer of about $12,000, which he said was in line with the repair costs.

"We feel we've been fair and just, at least through the time I've been involved in the project," Brooks said. "We feel that the amount the jury came back with was unjust."

Peter J. Sommer, attorney for Cannamela, declined to comment, saying the case is still in litigation. But the defendants argue in court documents that there was no evidence Cannamela or CDFC had committed fraud.

The couple said other contractors are reluctant to take on the work, but have given repair estimates from $35,000 to $69,000. Getting a second mortgage or home improvement loan is out of the question, said Tracey Bowers.

"You have to remember, my clients are working-class people," said Leslie C. Howard, a lawyer representing the couple.

Brooks said he could not predict CDFC's response if the verdict is struck down. He said he is sympathetic, but noted that the case's financial and legal aspects are separate issues.

"If you take the attitude [of] all or nothing, sometimes you end up with nothing. But my attitude is that anything can be worked out," he said. "We would be willing to sit down with them."

Sharon Bowers said today's hearing will be one more stop on a journey into homeownership that has brought nothing but heartache.

"It's just not fair," she said. "If I could go in a closet and cry, I bet I could cry for a month."

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