Miami attorneys at Bilzin Sumberg not only defeated a lien on their clients’ property, but also turned the tables on the plaintiff to win a nearly $3.8 million verdict on a counterclaim.
Bilzin partners Michael Kreitzer and Melissa Pallett-Vasquez say the victory was nearly a decade in the making—but well worth the fight. In the end, their clients won a $3.1 million jury award, $644,000 in prejudgment interest on their counterclaim, plus attorney fees.
“The plaintiff, after nine years of litigation, recovered nothing,” said Kreitzer, who chairs Bilzin’s litigation group, and worked with associate Shalia Sakona. “We recovered every dollar that we asked for.”
The dispute pitted joint venture partners 2377 Collins Resort L.P. and West Collins Land Investors L.P. against Miami Springs contractor JVP Drywall & Finish Inc. over work done at a Miami Beach condo hotel.
JVP worked for the joint venture partners’ predecessor, Construction Source L.C., installing drywall and wallboard at 1 Hotel South Beach, formerly Gansevoort Miami Beach Hotel Spa and Residences. That relationship soon deteriorated. Construction Source refused to pay the contractor, claiming JVP Drywall used noncode compliant materials and incorrectly installed bathrooms, causing water leaks and millions in damage. JVP Drywall denied any wrongdoing. Its attorneys—Thomas Jablonski, Bradshaw Lotspeich and Houston Saffold Park—instead filed a notice of lis pendens on Dec. 18, 2008, seeking to foreclose on a mechanic’s lien on the properties at 2301 and 2377 Collins Ave.
Bilzin’s clients—linked to Starwood Capital Group and billionaire developer Richard LeFrak—later purchased the properties in 2012 and stepped in as substitute defendants. Defense attorneys said it seemed to outsiders like a David-versus-Goliath showdown, only with Bilzin’s client cast as the giant.
“From our perspective, you had a very small Hispanic contractor who claimed that not being paid for this work had ruined his company and ruined his life. From a jury perspective, his case had a lot of appeal,” Kreitzer said. “His lawyers tried to position us as the big bad developer that could take advantage of the little guy.”
At trial, Kreitzer, Pallett-Vasquez and Sakona worked to overcome that perception and reframe the narrative as they defended the claim and prosecuted one of their own. Their clients faced steep losses as JVP Drywall’s lien for about $443,000 would have accumulated about $300,000 in interest and attorney fees surpassing $1 million.
Pallett-Vasquez said a key part of the litigation strategy centered on proving to the jury that JVP’s subpar work damaged a prime piece of real estate, forcing the investors to spend millions on repairs. They focused on the details, showing photographs of wallboards improperly fastened to shower pans and holes that permitted water to leak in bathrooms across the property. They pushed forward with a counterclaim against JVP, asserting breach of contract, negligence, violation of the building code and contractual indemnity.
“Michael was able to show picture after picture where it did happen,” Pallett-Vasquez said.
Another hurdle: The investors lost their only eyewitness, who died three months before the start of trial. The expert had performed destructive testing to determine the extent and cause of the water damage for the property’s previous owner, and had given four depositions. He was an architect and engineer who had spent years on the litigation.
The unexpected development forced the Bilzin attorneys to consider a monumental question: Should they advise their client to spend hundred and thousands to have a new expert conduct tests and attempt to determine what happened years earlier when JVP worked on the property, or proceed to trial without a star witness?
The attorneys settled on an unusual strategy, using the opponent’s witness to build their own case by showing the jury loopholes in his testimony.
“If you’re a conservative trial lawyer, your natural inclination … is to hire a new expert,” Kreitzer said. “But we analyzed the risk. We had a great deal of confidence that we could overcome whatever presumption their expert might have left with the jury, and we were fortunate our strategy worked.”
The jury found for the investors. And then on Oct. 11, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge William Thomas denied JVP’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial. He entered final judgment in the investors’ favor, awarded attorneys fees and costs, and ordered the the Clerk of Court to return a bond of more than $617,183 the investors had paid on JVP’s lien.
JVP Drywall is fighting the decision. It filed a challenge Nov. 8 before Florida’s Third District of Appeal.
Case: JVP Drywall & Finish Inc. v. Construction Source L.C., et al.
Case No.: 08-78557 CA 24
Description: Construction defect
Filing date: Original complaint filed Dec. 18, 2008. Counterclaim filed July 28, 2010.
Verdict date: July 28, 2017 (last day of trial).
Judge: Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge William Thomas
Plaintiffs/counter-defense attorneys: Houston Park and Thomas Jablonski of Klein Glasser Park & Lowe in West Palm Beach, and Bradshaw Lotspeich of Bradshaw Lotspeich P.A. in Miami
Defense/counter-plaintiff attorneys: Michael Kreitzer, Melissa Pallett-Vasquez and Shalia Sakona of Bilzin Sumberg in Miami