If a lawsuit gets filed and there’s no plaintiff around, does a judge still hear it?
EnviroFinance Group, along with the city and county of Denver, has asked the court to throw out an appeal to block a planned 12-story condo tower in Sloan’s Lake.
The developer argues there is no plaintiff pursuing the dispute after the only named complainant, the Torres family that lives across the street from the proposed building at 17th Avenue and Stuart Street, asked to be removed from the case late last year.
Meanwhile, attorneys representing the plaintiffs are asking the court to add a new group of neighbors to the case and accusing developer EnviroFinance Group of coercing the Torreses into removing themselves from the case, in part with a $700,000 offer to buy their home.
It’s a charge Cameron Bertron, EFG senior vice president, denies. He said the company never offered to buy the home and there has never been any sort of settlement with the Torres family.
He added that he believes the family pulled out after realizing they were the only party in the lawsuit.
“I think the Torres family didn’t have a good understanding of what was being asked of them and what they purportedly agreed to if they agreed to it,” Bertron said. “Now that they have this understanding, I think they just want to be left alone.”
But with one family requesting out of the case, the plaintiff attorney wants to add five more neighbors to replace the Torreses in the year-long development dispute. It’s a fight Larry Ambrose, vice president of the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association, said many nearby residents are willing to take up.
“There are a lot more people in the neighborhood than just the Torreses who are opposed to this project. We have 500 in this immediate area that are opposed to a 12-story complex right on the park,” he said. “To think it’s just one person that they can talk out of this is ludicrous.”
The back and forth is the latest in the dispute at the St. Anthony’s Hospital redevelopment just south of Sloan’s Lake Park.
EFG owns the land and is the master developer on the entire former hospital site. NAVA Real Estate Development will develop the planned condo building.
City Council unanimously voted to rezone the condo building plot at the southeast corner of 17th and Stuart last February to allow the 12-story building.
In March, the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association filed a Rule 106 appeal in state court naming both EFG and the city and county of Denver as defendants. Rule 106 is an avenue available to residents and developers who are unhappy with a local land use decision such as a zoning change.
At first the neighborhood association brought the challenge with a group of individual co-plaintiffs. The court ruled that those plaintiffs lacked standing to sue but allowed the Torres family, because they live just across the street from the proposed development, to step in as plaintiffs in the case.
Now, the Torreses want out, according to a letter dated Dec. 7 and submitted to the court late last year.
In the document, signed by Agripino, Ana and Luis Torres, the family says they signed a petition in opposition of the condo tower but never wanted to get into a legal battle.
“We understood that there was a lawsuit but we thought it was the neighborhood association against the contractor,” the letter reads. “We never wanted nor knew that ourselves and our children had a lawsuit against the city of Denver and the city council.”
In the same letter, the Torres family asserts that they never hired David Medina, the plaintiff’s attorney on the case, to represent them in a suit against the city.
But opponents of the development are claiming that the Torreses wrote that letter with help from Bertron.
In a response to the motion to dismiss the Rule 106 appeal, Medina wrote that Bertron visited the Torreses at Las Palmas, a Westminster restaurant the family owns.
During that visit, Medina alleges, Bertron told the Torres family the condo building would be between three and five stories tall and offered to buy the Torres residence for $700,000.
“We do know that he helped write the letter, he helped address the letter,” Ambrose said. “We know that he, according to Mr. Torres, told them how much his house was worth and told him that they would buy it from him.”
The defense admits that EFG reached out to the Torres family, according to a response filed in court, but denied any improper conduct.
In a phone interview with BusinessDen on Wednesday, Bertron said he did meet with the Torreses and explained through an interpreter that the building would be three stories tall right across Stuart from the Torres residence before stepping up to its 12-story peak near Raleigh Street.
Bertron said Denver zoning regulations will not allow a building taller than three stories fronting Stuart Street.
Bertron said he never offered to buy the house from the Torres family but speculated that in the fast-developing Sloan’s Lake neighborhood, another party may well have made an offer on the property.
Bertron said he did provide the Torres family with a copy of the lawsuit they had brought against EFG and the city.
“I just had a conversation with them about the facts, and as they better understood the facts I think they made a decision on their own,” Bertron said.
In a separate affidavit submitted by Medina, another Sloan’s Lake neighbor relays a conversation she claimed to have with Agripino Torres in which Torres said he planned to sell the house to his son and move back to Mexico.
Per the neighbor’s account, Torres told her his son planned to demolish the home and build duplexes on the site.
About two weeks after the Torreses requested out of the condo dispute, a separate Rule 106 appeal was filed for the next block at St. Anthony’s with the Torres family and the neighborhood association named as plaintiffs.
Bertron said the second suit is further evidence the Torreses are being used as “straw plaintiffs” without their consent in each case.
Otten Johnson attorneys Brian Connolly, Bill Kyriagis, Thomas Macdonald and Thomas Ragonetti are representing EnviroFinance Group. Connolly declined to comment beyond what was included in court records when reached by phone Tuesday.
Medina did not return a phone message seeking comment on the proceedings.
Moving forward, Medina has asked the court to substitute a new group of plaintiffs in the proceeding. That slate includes Torres’ next-door neighbors, a family that lives five blocks east of the proposed condominium building and another that lives about four blocks from the site.
Medina is also again asking the court to add the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association to the case as a plaintiff.
In a response filed Wednesday, attorneys for EFG and the city argue that the proposed plaintiffs who live several blocks off of the site own property too far away to have legal standing. They also argue that the neighborhood association should not be reconsidered.
At this point, Bertron said he just wants the case resolved with or without a new set of plaintiffs.
“I am in favor of ending it, however and whenever that comes about, and I am confident that the city’s position is the right one,” Bertron said. “If they allow new plaintiffs to come in, then the court will rule on the merits of the case.”
“But if there are no plaintiffs, and I would argue there haven’t been for several months, it needs to end and we need to move on.”