March 13, 2010

Here's one for the good guys

By BILL NEMITZ Columnist

— Little guys have been taking it on the chin a lot these days. Here's a story about one who hit back.

His name is Victor Bernier. When we last met him in this column 19 months ago, he'd just filed a lawsuit alleging that Robert F. Hanson Jr. of Windham, doing business as RKD Real Estate, had fraudulently snatched Bernier's modest house on Maine Street in Brunswick right out from under him.

Bernier, 47, suffers from myotonic dystrophy, a neurological disease that not only affects how his muscles work, but also limits his brain's ability to communicate and process information. He can carry on a conversation, but even a few minutes with him makes it clear that he has trouble grasping many of life's more complicated challenges.

Things like big financial transactions. And mortgages. And people who say they're trying to help him when in fact they're doing something quite different.

According to the complaint filed last year in Cumberland County Superior Court by Martica Douglas, Bernier's attorney, Hanson is one of those people.

It all started back in 2006 when Bernier found himself in a financial pickle. His mother, with whom he'd lived all his adult life, had died the previous year -- leaving Bernier the bungalow and small lot on which it sits.

But there were two mortgages on the property totaling just $15,313. And because Bernier had trouble keeping his bills straight -- he lives on Social Security disability payments totaling $635 per month -- he now found himself facing foreclosure.

That's when Bernier got a letter from Hanson offering to help make it all go away. Two sit-downs later, Hanson owned the house -- not for the $124,300 the town assessor said it was worth, but for the $15,313 it took to pay off the mortgages.

And Bernier, who insists to this day that Hanson promised he could live there for free as long as he wanted, was told after the property changed hands that he'd have to pay $250-per-month rent. After he fell behind on those payments early in 2007, according to the complaint, he found himself facing eviction.

''I didn't really know what was going on,'' Bernier said at the time, adding that he thought Hanson was ''going to help me.''

Earlier this year, Hanson and his attorneys, George Marcus and Lee Bals, tried to get the lawsuit tossed. They failed.

Instead, the case finally went to trial last week. For three days, a jury of eight women and one man listened as the whole sorry story unfolded.

They heard Bernier try his best to explain what had happened. He had trouble on the stand Tuesday afternoon because, he later explained, ''I didn't sleep at all the night before.'' Wednesday morning, after a decent night's rest, he did better.

''I was nervous,'' Bernier said. ''There were a couple of confusing questions. But I was told by my lawyer just to tell the truth.''

The jury also heard how, only weeks after buying the house and lot from Bernier for a mere $15,313, Hanson took out an equity loan on the property for $100,000. They heard how he'd stopped paying taxes on the property, leading to two tax liens that remain to this day.

The jury even heard from an unrepentant Hanson, who insisted that he did nothing wrong and that Bernier knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed over the property.

Asked at one point by Douglas, Bernier's attorney, if there were any ethical guidelines governing his real estate business, Hanson replied, ''I have absolutely no idea.''

Thursday evening, after less than three hours of deliberations, the jurors handed down their verdict.

They found by a unanimous vote that Bernier had been the victim of ''fraudulent misrepresentation'' and awarded him $127,136 in compensatory damages.

They also found by an 8-1 vote that Hanson had ''acted with malice,'' which meant they had to return Friday and resume deliberations on how much to award Bernier in punitive damages.

Early Friday, before the jury arrived, Hanson's attorneys tried to get the jury's finding of fraudulent misrepresentation thrown out. But Justice Thomas Warren would have none of it.

In addition to denying the motion, Warren rescinded the sale of the property -- meaning Bernier could choose between the jury's award of compensatory damages or simply get his house back after Hanson paid off the equity loan and the tax liens.

''The evidence is clear you could not go through a transaction with (Bernier) without understanding you were taking massive advantage of this individual,'' Warren said.

The case then went back to the jurors, who were told by Douglas before resuming their deliberations that Hanson's federal tax returns showed income of $1.25 million in 2002, $670,000 in 2003, $223,790 in 2004, $497,464 in 2005 and $389,379 in 2006.

After another hour behind closed doors, the jury emerged and announced its unanimous decision: In addition to the $127,136 in direct compensation for his loss, Bernier should receive an additional $300,000.

Happy ending? Not quite.

While the jury deliberated on punitive damages, attorney Marcus pulled out his cell phone and called his Portland firm, Marcus, Clegg & Mistretta. Within seconds, a petition for bankruptcy was filed electronically on Hanson's behalf with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Portland.

Marcus later said Douglas had turned down a settlement offer -- under which Hanson would still keep the house -- and thus left Hanson no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

''There comes a point where you push people over the edge and have to accept the consequences,'' Marcus said.

Hanson, meanwhile, said he filed for bankruptcy ''on the advice of my attorneys'' and maintained that the jury was flat-out wrong.

Meaning he treated Bernier fairly?

''No,'' said Hanson. ''I feel like I treated him more than fairly. From the beginning.''

Later, Hanson added that he and Bernier got along just fine until attorney Douglas (who took on the case for free) came along.

''My relationship with Victor was very meaningful to me,'' Hanson said.

After the jury was dismissed, Douglas said it was too soon to say with certainty what impact Hanson's bankruptcy filing will have on the $427,136 award to her client. But she said she's prepared to argue on Bernier's behalf before the bankruptcy court that Hanson's last-minute filing was a blatant attempt to dodge a legitimate jury verdict.

''I brought this lawsuit not looking for money (for herself) or even expecting money,'' Douglas said. ''And I'm not about to give up now.''

Douglas also noted that other states have already passed laws against ''predatory'' speculators who take advantage of people facing foreclosure.

''Maine doesn't have such a law,'' she said. ''And it should.''

As for Bernier, Douglas drove him home Friday afternoon -- he's remained in the house, paying no rent, since the lawsuit was filed -- and told him not to worry, everything will turn out all right.

''I'm glad I won,'' Bernier said. ''But I'm a little upset because Robert Hanson is trying to play games now.''

Did he understand what all the commotion was about in court that morning?

''No,'' Bernier replied. ''I didn't understand half of it.''

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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