A Severn landlord facing a county Health Department lawsuit failed to show up at a court hearing yesterday, a development that could further delay court-mandated repairs at 30 houses he owns on a crime-ridden Anne Arundel County street.
Mohammad I. Zuberi was issued a summons to appear before District Judge Vincent Mulieri in Glen Burnie yesterday to confirm whether he would have a lawyer to represent him in his hearing on health code violations at 30 Arwell Court homes.
The Pioneer City street, vexed by drug activity, shootings and dangerous dogs running loose, is part of the state's anti-crime HotSpot initiative. For years, residents and activists have tried to stem problems there, with little success.
After waiting about an hour in court for Zuberi, the judge asked Assistant County Attorney Howard Nicholson to call the Columbia landlord.
"I asked him if he would come to court today, because you were waiting for him," Nicholson told the judge after the phone call. "He informed me he had a bad toothache and was knocked out on Tylenol 3."
An agitated Mulieri responded: "I don't know what I'm going to do about that."
Reached at his home yesterday, Zuberi said he never received notice of the hearing.
But because of the case's many delays, the judge won't be able to stick to a timeline for repairs outlined in June, when Zuberi agreed to fix multiple violations at his homes by Oct. 7 or face daily fines. Mulieri instead set a hearing date on the matter for Nov. 7.
In June, Zuberi agreed to work with county health inspectors to compile a list of violations and come up with a plan for fixing them by July. But since then, the landlord has objected in court to many of the nearly 1,000 violations inspectors documented in their 88-page report - including rodent infestations, ceiling holes, rotting wood and a lack of electricity.
Hoping to avoid a drawn-out court debate about each violation, the judge ordered Zuberi and Nicholson to enter mediation. But after a week of meetings late last month yielded little progress, the judge decided he had to hold a hearing for arguments on each violation.
Nicholson said mediation delayed the matter because the case moved out of court, and when it moved back in, the docket was filling up. He and the health inspectors are trying to pare down the repair list so that the case won't tie up the court for weeks.
Nicholson was hoping Zuberi would indicate yesterday whether he would have a lawyer so that he would not be able to delay the case further by involving one at the last minute. That nearly happened in June, when an attorney representing Zuberi in his bankruptcy filing stepped in to negotiate the settlement terms hours before the judge signed off on it. Zuberi showed up more than an hour late for that hearing.
"If I treated court notices like Mr. Zuberi seems to treat court notices, I would be in a world of trouble," Nicholson said.
Nick Kyriacou, a specialist with the Maryland Department of the Environment, was also waiting for Zuberi outside the courtroom yesterday. Kyriacou has tried for years to serve Zuberi with an order compelling him to fix a leaking underground storage tank at 1800 Arwell Court. Within 14 days of getting the order, Zuberi must fix the tank or he'll face a $1,000 fine.
"There have been attempts, but nobody's been around," said Kyriacou, who added that most people cooperate quickly when told of a leaking tank on their property.
Zuberi said he installed a heat pump at 1800 Arwell Court years ago and has never been contracted by MDE about a tank.
Robert Farmer, president of the Warfield Condominium Association No. 3, which governs Arwell Court, said he was disappointed the hearing was pushed back to November. But, he said, he has faith in the Health Department's ability to hold Zuberi accountable.
"It's unbelievable what we've been through trying to improve the community," he said, "and we're not giving up."