Judge voids settlement that would force homeowner out after shoddy repairs
An elderly homeowner facing eviction from her home has won in court, with a judge agreeing she never okayed a settlement handing over her Kinnaird Street triple-decker, assessed at well over a half-million dollars, in exchange for $46,000 and forgiveness of $14,000 in loan interest.
Just-A-Start, a low-cost home repair agency, has been arguing before Superior Court Justice Kimberly S. Budd since January that homeowner Shirley Graham had signed an agreement to take the deal and leave her home of four decades. Graham’s former lawyers, James P. Keane and Alice Klein, also claimed she had agreed to the deal.
Graham, though, argued she’d been coerced.
“I’ve told Mr. Keane over and over again I didn’t want to sign,” Graham told Budd.
In a Tuesday decision, Budd said she believed the evidence submitted by Graham that she had been dragged into the settlement by her own lawyers – or at least “cannot conclude that Graham unequivocally authorized the settlement, and therefore cannot enforce it.” Budd’s decision was provided by independent journalist John Hawkinson.
Graham brought in Just-A-Start in 2005 to correct her 1916 home’s sinking foundation. The $40,000 job ballooned to $75,000 in loans secured to the agency by her own mortgage. But the Just-A-Start workers shored the foundations unevenly, literally dropping the house to one side; it bulges on the left and is visibly lifting from the foundation on the right. A structural engineer has said the home has been “in imminent danger of collapse” since the repairs, and one estimate in February put the cost of correcting the problem at $65,938.
The home at 48 Kinnaird St. has two rental units, but because her home is in danger of collapse, Graham hasn’t been able to earn income from them for about seven years. As her revenue dried up and she fought the agency’s claim she owed it for repairs and the loans she took out to pay for them, her lawyers steered her toward mediation and a June 27 settlement.
“The defendants point to newly submitted evidence to support their position that Graham authorized the settlement. This court has reviewed this evidence and finds it insufficient,” Budd said. “For example, the defendants point out that during [a] March 14, 2012, telephone conversation, Graham stated that she wanted to resolve the matter and have ‘peace in [her] life.’ Klein testified at her deposition that based on this comment, she was satisfied that Graham accepted the settlement offer.
“Contrary to the defendants’ argument, this evidence merely establishes that Graham wanted to resolve the matter. It does not indicate that she was willing to accept the terms of this particular settlement,” Budd said.
Klein also showed the court her handwritten notes documenting the March 2012 telephone call, in which she said Graham had given a “firm yes” to the deal – but Budd called that “inconsequential” and said the notes “merely reflect Klein’s perspective of the telephone conversation. They do not reveal Graham’s own intent to accept or reject the settlement or to convey actual authority to Klein to hind her to the agreement.”
“In sum, the evidence submitted following discovery does not conclusively establish that Graham intended to accept the settlement offer or authorize Klein to bind her to the settlement agreement. This court cannot enforce the settlement agreement based on this evidence,” Budd said.
Just-A-Start, based at 1035 Cambridge St., is a nonprofit, tax-exempt community development agency. Just-A-Start says it works to help low- and moderate-income people mainly through education, training and job placement activities; development and operation of affordable housing; and “stabilizing” occupied housing.