HUNTINGTON – Fifth Third Bank claims members of a Huntington church created fraudulent documents in an attempt to release them from a mortgage on which they owed more than $700,000.

Fifth Third Bank filed a complaint Dec. 7 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia against Apostolic Life Cathedral, Mark Shannon Manuel, Bernard O. Cremeans, James Mays, Robert Vaughn, Apostolic Life Pastor Edwin S. Harper, the church's ministering elders and Digigreeters.

Fifth Third claims church trustees T.R. Wood, C.E. Black and Cremeans executed a promissory note for $900,000 on May 23, 2001.

In order to guarantee the church members would repay the note, Fifth Third acquired an interest in the church property, which is located at 350 Staunton Ave., through a deed of trust, the suit states.

Church leaders decided to renew the note at least three times before it matured on June 30, according to the complaint.

But the church has failed to pay required monthly payments owed to Fifth Third and owes the bank $702,054.22, plus accrued interest of $36,691.94, which continues at a rate of $195.01 per day, and late fees of $1,162.43, the complaint says.

Knowing of their debt to the bank, church members met and conspired to construct documents to deprive the bank of money they owed it, the bank alleges.

Fifth Third claims church members attempted to evade consequences for their failure to pay by preparing a fraudulent correction to the bank's deed of trust. In addition, defendant DigiGreeters created a fake release of mortgage, which a lender normally issues to a borrower when a loan has been paid in full, according to the complaint.

While defendant Manuel created the correction to the deed of trust, defendant Cremeans signed it on Sept. 9. Manuel signed the release of mortgage on Oct. 14, and Office of the Clerk of the County Commission of Cabell County now holds the release, the suit states.

"These statements, by their plain and ordinary meanings, were naturally and commonly to be interpreted as denying, disparaging and casting doubt on Plaintiff's legal rights in and to the Subject Property, were so understood, were willfully and intentionally published with the intent to slander Plaintiff's lien, rights and interests to the Subject Property," the suit states. "As a proximate result of the aforesaid conduct of preparing the Notice and Release, Plaintiff's lien, rights and interest to the Subject Property has been disparaged and slandered, and there is a cloud on Plaintiff's title."

Mays and Vaughn are named as defendants in the lawsuit because they are trustees of the church. As trustees, their responsibilities included holding all property belonging to the church in trust and making all legal acquisitions. Defendant Pastor Harper's responsibilities include overseeing the church's finances, according to the complaint. The defending unnamed ministering elders handle the church's business affairs, the suit states.

In its 10-count suit, Fifth Third alleges slander of title, fraud, unlawful and unauthorized practice of law, interference with contractual relationship, civil conspiracy and declaratory judgment.

The bank wants the court to find the church in default in the repayment of the note; to judge against the church for late fees, fines, expenses and advances; and to render actual, punitive and special damages, plus costs and other relief to the bank. In addition, it seeks a finding that the defendants have engaged in a civil conspiracy to inflict injury on Fifth Third, a declaration that Fifth Third's original deed of trust is valid and a declaration the documents created by church members have no validity.

William T. Holmes of Spilman, Thomas and Battle in Morgantown and W. Eric Gadd of Wheeling will be representing the bank.

U.S. District Court case number: 3:09-cv-1309

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