Here are South Florida’s juiciest lawsuits of 2019

Allegations of jury tampering, reneging on commission agreements, aiding EB-5 scams and scaring off foreign investors filed in court documents

Dec.December 30, 2019 08:45 AM
These real estate power players are involved in 2019’s juiciest lawsuits (Credit: Getty Images)

These real estate power players are involved in 2019’s juiciest lawsuits (Credit: Getty Images)

The most salacious lawsuits of the past year involved accusations of bribing a juror, developer consultants scaring off foreign investors, a broker getting stiffed on a commission agreement worth at least $1.5 million, and a local bank executive aiding and abetting a hotel developer rip off investors, among other examples of alleged unethical business practices.

Here, The Real Deal breaks down the 10 juiciest lawsuits of 2019:

1. Miami developers Craig Robins and Ugo Colombo can’t seem to stop bludgeoning each other over a $22 million private jet they used to share. In late December 2018, Robins’ Dacra Development sued Colombo and his company CMC Group in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, alleging jury tampering and bribery in a 2014 trial centering on the plane. A jury had ruled in Colombo’s favor in that trial. Dacra alleged Colombo or CMC employees approached a juror who accepted an unspecified cash payment and the promise of a condo in a high-rise project he was building. In exchange, the juror allegedly had to guarantee a favorable verdict for Colombo and CRC.

Colombo’s lawyers called the lawsuit a “patently false claim, and in late November, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Michael Hanzman tossed out Dacra’s suit.

In his order, the judge called the allegations of jury tampering and bribery “bereft of evidence” and “completely implausible.” Colombo countersued Dacra for defamation, claiming the jury tampering and bribery charges caused “serious damage to Colombo.” That lawsuit is pending.

2. Shariar Zamanian and Preeya Malik, founders of an investor recruitment company called Step America, allegedly made false claims that a 1,000-foot observation tower in downtown Miami was not going to get built, prompting 14 investors to bail on the $430 million project, according to a Miami-Dade civil lawsuit filed by the project’s fundraising company, Skyrise Miami Tower Investors LLC.

In 2014, Skyrise Miami retained Step America to recruit investors through the federal EB-5 Visa program that gives green cards to foreigners who create at least 10 domestic jobs and contribute at least $500,000 to $1 million in a U.S. business venture. Skyrise Miami, owned by developer Jeffrey Berkowitz, paid Zamanian and Malik $720,000 in fees for bringing in the 14 investors, who committed $7 million to the project, the suit claims. But in 2018, Step America’s owners “falsely advised investors” that the project was not proceeding, and that they would lose their investments and not get green cards, according to the suit.

Malik denied the allegations, claiming investors withdrew on their own after Skyrise Miami changed the terms of the investment agreements. She said Step America never “frightened off” or “misled” investors. She added Skyrise Miami owes Step America “a significant sum of money.”

3. Jay Parker, CEO of Douglas Elliman’s Florida brokerage, allegedly welched on an agreement that would have paid Fort Lauderdale broker Howard Elfman at least $1.5 million in commission fees, according to a Miami-Dade civil lawsuit. Elfman claimed he and Parker had numerous conversations about paying him an 8 percent commission rate for landing the exclusive sales contract for Riva, a 100-unit condo building at 1180 North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale.

The lawsuit states that based on the project’s sales prices, Elfman would have generated an estimated income of $1.5 million. Instead, Parker wanted him to sign an agreement that “was contrary” to the terms they discussed and would cap his fees at $500,000, according to the suit. A Douglas Elliman spokesperson said the company and Parker do not comment on litigation matters.

4. Miami Beach hotel and restaurant developers Jared Galbut and Keith Menin allegedly mismanaged a pair of South Beach eateries they own with former nightclub impresario Louis Puig, per a suit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Puig, who owns a minority stake in Bodega Taqueria y Tequila at 1220 16th Street in Miami Beach and Ricky’s pizzeria next door, claims Galbut and Menin, the majority owners, co-mingled staff and resources without his consent, refused to show him the accounting books and profit distributions and sent employees to work at other Miami Beach restaurants the duo operate.

Ronald Lowy, an attorney for Galbut and Menin, said Puig filed a complaint full of incorrect and inaccurate representations in an attempt to apply pressure to his clients into buying out their minority partner.

5. PNC Bank and Boynton Beach branch Vice President Ruben Ramirez aided and abetted fraud at the unfinished Palm House Hotel, which recently sold for $39.6 million in a bankruptcy auction, according to a Palm Beach civil lawsuit. The plaintiffs, 44 investors from China, Iran and Turkey, accused Ramirez of placing the money in a business checking account made to appear as an escrow account where investment funds were deposited. This allowed Palm House Hotel’s developer Robert Matthews and a business partner to take money out when they pleased for personal expenditures such as a 151-foot yacht and luxury homes, the investors allege.

The lawsuit was subsequently consolidated with a Miami federal complaint the same investors filed against Matthews, companies tied to the Palm House project and 14 individuals. A trial has been set for October 2021.

6. Sotherly Hotels accused Daniel Rutois, association president of the Hyde Resort & Residences in Hollywood, of “commercial speech to defame and set forth falsehoods” about its management of the luxury property, as well as its executives and employees, according to a Miami federal lawsuit. Rutois and his company, KGA Management Group, also allegedly broke association rules by running an unauthorized rental program.

The association’s attorney called the complaint meritless and a retaliatory move because Rutois successfully campaigned to have Sotherly removed as the hotel manager. In addition, the association sued Sotherly in Broward County Circuit Court, alleging the company and its affiliates engaged in a “pattern and practice of improperly utilizing [The Hyde association’s] funds to cover the overhead and expenses of unrelated hotel operations.” Rutois also denied the allegations against him.

7. A Palm Beach County civil lawsuit filed in March alleges golf legend Jack Nicklaus banished Gary Sellers from Nicklaus’ The Bear’s Club in Jupiter for critiquing the six-time Masters champ’s management. Sellers, a former president of the private club’s homeowner association, accused Nicklaus of using association fees as “a personal piggy bank” to maintain the golf club. Sellers alleged the contents of his two club lockers were dumped onto his front lawn after he was kicked out, according to the suit.

8. Swire, the developer of Brickell City Centre, sued former accounting manager Yelenis Jimenez for allegedly stealing company trade secrets by sending “confidential and proprietary information” to her personal email account during a three-year period beginning in 2016. Swire fired Jimenez and sought a court order to have her personal computer seized for a forensic audit. In a statement, Swire said Jimenez refused numerous attempts to “retrieve stolen company property.”

Email exchanges between Jimenez and Swire’s attorney, attached to the lawsuit, show the ex-employee vehemently denied the accusations. She claimed Swire made false claims against her after reporting a high-ranking executive of harassing women in his office.

9. In a Miami-Dade civil lawsuit, Carlos Pedotti alleges the developers of Residences by Armani/Casa are responsible for injuries he sustained when construction materials from the project crashed through his roof, striking him while he was in bed. The Sunny Isles Beach homeowner sued the development entity RDR Seashore LLC, a partnership between The Related Group, Dezer Development and Rockpoint Group, that recently completed the 56-story luxury tower.

Pedotti suffered “severe bodily injury, resulting in pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, mental anguish, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life,” the lawsuit alleges. Pedotti is seeking damages for his hospitalization, medical and nursing care and treatment and lost income.

10. Peggie McNatt, an Alabama real estate investor who owns land underneath a car dealership in Fort Lauderdale, accused Holman Automotive of building a new automobile facility on her property without her consent.

In her Broward County civil lawsuit, McNatt alleged Holman executives went behind her back to obtain approvals from Fort Lauderdale and Broward County permitting agencies to tear down a previous dealership and replace it with a new 29,657-square-foot showroom, plus a two-level parking garage and service department. John Shiekman, a lawyer for Holman Automotive, which is headquartered in Maple Shade, New Jersey, declined comment.

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