By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The newest owner of ruined 316 Willow St. wants the sale voided, and all of the property’s problems handed back to the guy who gave it to him for a buck.
Eddie Person filed a lawsuit against Patrick S. McFall in state Supreme Court on Wednesday.
McFall, the former owner-operator of Peters Dry Cleaning at 316 Willow, sold the building and land to Person this past June, according to property records on file in the county clerk’s office.
McFall did so days ahead of his sentencing, in Lockport City Court, on a building code violation. For months he’d been fighting off attempts by the building inspection department to make him responsible for construction debris on the property — the result when a portion of the dry cleaning facility collapsed this past December — and had been found guilty of a sanitary violation.
Before sentencing, McFall’s attorney in the case, Jon Ross Wilson, appealed to the judge to show leniency in sentencing because McFall was attempting amends by selling the property to a local man who, Wilson said, had a plan to remediate 316 Willow and transform it into a residence.
That man was Person, and he claims in his suit that McFall transferred ownership to him under dishonest circumstances. He’s asking a judge to void the sale due to “fraud and misrepresentation” — and give the deed to 316 Willow back to McFall.
“Mr. McFall took advantage of somebody who’s illiterate and poor, in order to dump the building,” Person’s attorney, Brian J. Hutchison, said. “He omitted certain (facts) about the property with the intention of tricking Eddie.”
At the time of the transaction, 316 Willow was saddled with numerous legal and financial problems: Over $38,000 in property taxes, water and sewer charges were owed to the city; the construction debris had tested positive for asbestos content; other parts of the property were known to be contaminated by PCE, a toxic dry-cleaning chemical, and were subject to a pending state Superfund cleanup; and McFall had quit paying the mortgage on the property.
McFall didn’t disclose those issues when he talked Person into signing a sale contract and, later, a quit-claim deed, Person said in a sworn deposition that’s attached to the lawsuit.
Person learned he was the legal owner of 316 Willow the day after McFall was sent to jail on the code charge. He found out from his pastor, Mark Sanders, a city employee, who’d heard about the land sale to “Eddie Persons.” Sanders stood with Person while building inspectors gave him the bad news about what he’d bought.
Person, 46, claims he is functionally illiterate, meaning he cannot read or write. He was classified that way in grade school and was placed in special education, according to his deposition. A self-described recovering drug addict, he finished a three-year stint in Lockport Drug Court in early summer.
Earlier this year, McFall approached Person several times about helping him get 316 Willow off his hands quickly, according to the deposition.
Person said he knew McFall as the owner of Main Street coffee shop, and had talked with McFall and other customers about his “dream to build a community center that would offer support to recovering addicts. I also tell them that it is only a dream because I have no money, and my inability to read or write makes it impossible to run a business.”
In early June, McFall offered to give 316 Willow to Person. According to the deposition, Person said he’d think about it, and a day later, McFall presented him with a draft sale contract.
Person said that when he told McFall he cannot read, McFall offered “to read the contract to me.”
After McFall finished reading, Person said he signed the contract, but told McFall to hold off finalizing the sale until “someone else” reviewed it. McFall agreed to wait, Person said.
According to the deposition, Person also signed a deed and his side of a seller’s disclosure statement briefly outlining the property’s various defects, although he claimed McFall had not read any portion of those documents to him.
Afterward, he said, he reiterated to McFall his desire to have a friend or attorney read the sale contract before it was finalized.
Ten days later, Person found out the sale was already done. After getting a trusted friend to read aloud the already-signed documents in their entirety, he said he was “shocked” to hear things that McFall had not mentioned.
“Mr. McFall is well aware that I could not afford the expenses associated with these outstanding issues, especially because I told him on numerous occasions ... that I had no money,” Person said in the deposition. “I feel like I have been taken advantage of ... .”
McFall disputed Person’s version of the transaction in a late Thursday telephone interview. He said he had not been served with the suit yet but calmly denied the gist: that he’d tricked Person into taking 316 Willow.
While saying he did not, and would not have, “read” the sale documents to Person verbatim, McFall asserted the two had discussed their contents before Person signed.
“I gave him copies of all the documents. I went over it all with him, the PCE, all of it. ... He took the property knowing full well what was involved,” he said.
McFall raised doubts about Person’s illiteracy claim, then questioned why anyone would sign a paper that they don’t understand.
“If he truly can’t read, why would he sign it without having someone he trusted read it for him first? ... If he didn’t understand what he was signing, he shouldn’t have signed it,” McFall said. “Five months later, it sounds like buyer’s remorse to me.”
Hutchison said he does not doubt Person’s illiteracy, after examining his client’s school records and talking with people who know Person, including a probation officer who said he explains all paperwork to Person before having him sign it.
While law generally supposes a person knows what he’s signing, case law says in the event he doesn’t, has someone read a document to him and the reader misrepresents the content, the document can be voided, Hutchison said.
Since Person is the legal owner of 316 Willow, he’s received notices of past-due taxes and water charges from the city. He has not received any notices from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Hutchison added.
City Attorney John Ottaviano is writing a foreclosure petition to get control of 316 Willow now, so it can be tested and remediated, he said Thursday. He’ll ask state Supreme Court for an “incident of ownership,” basically temporary title to the property so that the city can allow the DEC in to initiate a cleanup.
Once the cleanup is done, Ottaviano said, the city could complete the foreclosure process — take the title from whoever holds it, Person, McFall or someone else — and sell the cleaned-up property.