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(This story, in slightly different form, originally appeared in Incisive Media’s Daily Business Review.)

MIAMI-Fighting developers over pre-construction condominium deposits in court can be a lengthy process, especially if the project in question was developed by the giant Related Group. The locally based company, headed by developer Jorge Perez, has been stalling litigation and unnecessarily dragging out cases while holding on to tens of million of dollars worth of deposits from buyers, plaintiff lawyers contend.

Related’s in-house counsel, Betsy McCoy, denies the allegations. She said Related has had to ask for extensions to respond to some cases because the company is facing lawsuits from more than 700 buyers who are trying to get their deposits back and cancel contracts.

“This number we face would be difficult for any private company to manage,” McCoy says. “But we believe we are managing these suits as effectively and efficiently as is possible in current economic conditions.”

However, attorneys representing condo buyers say they find the explanation implausible for a company of Related’s size, and for one that keeps large law firms such as Greenberg Traurig and Carlton Fields on retainer. One attorney fired off a court filing claiming that Related “has engaged in dilatory and/or bad faith practices solely for purposes of hindrance and delay.”

The attorney, Eric Neuman of Buckingham Doolittle & Burroughs in Boca Raton, and his client declined comment. But in court filings, Neuman claims Related has shown a “pattern of delay and abuse of process,” in a case he is litigating on behalf of a buyer suing to recover a $108,000 deposit for a unit at the CityPlace South Tower in West Palm Beach.

Related failed, during a period of five months, to respond to his client’s lawsuit on the grounds that the company had an “overwhelming workload,” Neuman stated in the document. During that time, Related did not respond to the complaint and filed a notice of appearance, a request for extension of time and two notices of unavailability.

After a judge entered a default judgment against Related, the developer responded to the lawsuit. Circuit Court Judge David French ordered Related to refund the deposit and the developer then filed a motion to vacate the judgment. Neuman filed a memorandum of law opposing the request, and the case is still pending.

Attorney Timothy O’Neil in North Palm Beach says that’s been his experience with Related, too. He is suing the developer in federal court over a pre-construction contract on behalf of a buyer at a project in Fort Myers. He says McCoy tried the same delay strategy of filing a notice of appearance rather than responding to the lawsuit. “Filing a notice of appearance while failing to file an answer or seek an enlargement of time to answer is a dilatory delay tactic under Florida state law,” he wrote in a motion for default.

The judge in his case also granted a default judgment against Related. And the developer filed a motion to vacate, which was granted. The case is set for trial in September.

Attorney Robert Cooper, who represents about 500 buyers suing several Related projects over condo deposits, says Related has used a similar strategy to stall the cases he is litigating. “Once the lawsuit is filed, instead of responding, [McCoy] files a notice of appearance hoping to stop a default from getting entered and, by avoiding to file a response, they hope to drag it on and buy time,” he says. “Then [McCoy] is ordered to respond, and she keeps filing motions for extension of time.”

The tactic is frustrating to attorneys and buyers, Cooper says: “They are playing the delay game, and I have confirmed with several other attorneys who are dealing with them,” Cooper said. “It’s become their standard practice.”

In an e-mailed response to the Daily Business Review, McCoy says: “The buyers’ lawyers are anxious for conclusion of the cases because they hope to recover money from which they earn fees. I have to be deliberate and not rush because we are defending a number of claims that do not have merit and we have to be cautious to protect our interests.”

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