These two Harrison County homes are at the center of dispute now before the state Supreme Court. Elizabeth Sedlock alleges her ability to sell her home at 601 Indiana Ave. in Nutter Fort(right) was adversely impacted by David Romano's last-minute decision to refuse to sell the home he and his wife, Cathy, own at 339 Worley Ave. in Clarksburg (left). (Photos by Lawrence Smith)
CHARLESTON – A state Supreme Court justice is surprised to find out that an appellant named in a case the Court is scheduled to hear this week not only contributed to at least two of his bids for the Court, but also did so while investigating an ethics complaint against his son.
Among the cases on the Court's argument docket Tuesday is Elizabeth A. Sedlock, et. al. v. Marsha Ann Felton, et. al. According to court records, Sedlock is appealing a Harrison County judge's dismissal of the breach of contract suit she and Jason Banish filed against Felton, Jean Hollandsworth and Double H Realty.
Records are unclear as to the relationship between Sedlock and Banish.
Also named as defendants in Sedlock's and Banish's suit is David A. Romano and his wife Cathy Joey Romano. They maintain that the Romano's decision in 2004 to back out of a deal to sell their home to them adversely impacted Sedlock's and Banish's ability to sell their home to another couple.
Records show that David Romano, a Clarksburg attorney, contributed nearly $1,000 to Justice Joseph P. Albright Sr.'s campaign for Supreme Court in 1998 and 2000. In the course of those two campaigns, Romano was tapped by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the investigative arm of the state Bar Association, to investigate a complaint filed against Joseph P. Albright Jr.
Romano's investigation concluded with a finding that Albright violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, but declining to bring a statement of charges against him.
Romano reneges on home sale
According to court records, the dispute that is now before the Court started on Feb. 18, 2004. It was then that Felton, a licensed real estate salesperson, and agent in Double H Realty, obtained an exclusive listing agreement to sell Sedlock's home on 601 Indiana Ave. in Nutter Fort.
Felton showed the Indiana Ave. home to Thomas L. and Joann E. Moyle. On March 29, records show Felton drafted a contract for the Moyles to purchase Sedlock's home.
The sale of the home was "contingent upon the seller [Sedlock] finding acceptable housing." The deadline to find such, records show, was set for May 29 with a 15-day extension.
However, it was not until June 26 that Sedlock entered into a contract with the Romanos to purchase their home on 339 Worley Ave. in Clarksburg. Despite the expiration of the contract with the Moyles, Sedlock and Banish agreed to "clos[e] on the sale of their home at 601 Indiana Ave., Nutter Fort, WV 26301 prior to the closing date on 339 Worley Ave., Clarksburg, WV 26301."
Though records are unclear as to when, but shortly after the Romanos signed their agreement with Sedlock and Banish, Cathy Romano informed Sedlock that David "reneged" on the deal. Upon Sedlock confronting her with this revelation, Felton acknowledged the Romanos were backing away from the deal.
Regardless, Sedlock remained adamant she would not sell her home until she completed the sale on the Romanos home.
It is at this point that some of the facts in the case appear to be in dispute. Sedlock entered into a new contract to sell her Indiana Ave. home to the Moyles on July 5, acknowledging the absence of a contingency clause for her to find acceptable housing.
However, court records show during this time Sedlock communicated her intention to sell her home upon purchasing the Romano's Worley Ave. home.
The deal, court records show, was apparently a go when on Aug. 17 she received a call from a representative from Double H Realty she could come into the office pay for the home on Aug. 19 since the closing was scheduled for the 20th. However, Sedlock and Banish received a telephone call later that afternoon from Felton saying David Romano communicated through his real estate agent, Beth Taylor, his intention not to sell the Worley Ave. home.
Sedlock and Banish got more bad news, court records show, when the next day Felton said the Moyles were enforcing the contract requiring Sedlock to sell her home. If they were not out of the Indiana Ave. house by Aug, 28, Felton informed Sedlock and Banish the Moyles will be "moving in with you" and would be "getting the best lawyer money could buy and sue [you] for breaking the contract."
Breach 'not foreseeable'
However, it would be Sedlock and Banish who would be the ones to initiate legal action. Though in addition to Felton, Hollandsworth, Double H Realty and the Romanos, Sedlock and Banish named the Moyles as defendants, they were not included as parties in the petition for appeal.
On Sep. 15, 2006, Felton, Hollandsworth and Double H Realty, with the assistance of their attorneys Daniel C. Cooper and Tiffany A. Swiger with the Clarksburg law office of Steptoe and Johnson, made a motion to dismiss. The grounds for their motion, Cooper and Swiger said, was based on the failure of Sedlock and Banish to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
On Oct. 24, 2006, Harrison Circuit Judge Thomas A. Bedell granted Cooper's and Swiger's motion. In his dismissal order, Bedell said that it is the duty of each party to read and understand the terms and conditions of a contract, and that no duty is placed on a real estate agent to foresee a breach of contract.
"Defendants Marsha Ann Felton, Jean Hollandsworth, and Double H Realty Inc, as a matter of law, did not breach any duty owed to Plaintiffs," Bedell said in his order. "The Court finds that these Defendants had not duty to anticipate a breach of contract by the Romanos or to protect Plaintiffs from such breach. The Court finds that the Romanos breach was not foreseeable to these Defendants."
On March 19, 2007 with the assistance of Grafton attorney LaVerne Sweeney, Sedlock and Banish filed their petition for appeal to the Court. In September, the Court unanimously agreed to hear arguments in the case.
Since then, none of the parties involved has petitioned the Court for Albright to recuse himself from the case. Campaign finance records show Romano first contributed $100 to Albright's unsuccessful 1998 campaign for Supreme Court.
In 1995, then-Gov. Gaston Caperton appointed Albright, a former Speaker of the House of Delegates, to the Court to fill the vacancy created by Justice William Brotherton, who retired a year before his term ended due to ill health. The next year Albright was unsuccessful in retaining his seat on the bench.
However, he ran again in 1998. The year before, then-Gov. Cecil H. Underwood appointed John McCuskey to fill the vacancy.
Again, Albright would lose in the Democratic primary to former Senate President Warren McGraw. In November, McGraw would be successful in unseating McCuskey.
Records show that the $100 contribution Romano gave to Albright came on April 29, 1998 at Phillip's Restaurant in Clarksburg. It would be at this same venue almost two years later that Romano would hold a fundraiser for Albright for his third, and successful, campaign for Supreme Court.
On Jan. 25, 2000, records show the Romano Law Office made a $300 donation to Albright's campaign.
Prior to Romano's 1998 contribution to Albright's campaign, Genevieve Cross of Parkersburg filed a complaint against Albright's son on April 6, 1998. In her complaint, Cross alleged that Albright was not acting quickly enough to settle the estate of Jeanne Johnson, who named Cross as the caretaker of her estate, and Albright as the executor, in her will.
According to her complaint, Albright was to provide Cross a key to Johnson's home. He did only when he was directed to do so by the Wood County Commission when Cross petitioned them to remove him as executor.
Though the Commission denied Cross' petition, it did instruct Albright to file an estate appraisement which, at the time, was three weeks late.
It was not until Sep. 15, 1998, records show, that Albright responded to ODC's repeated requests for an answer to Cross' complaint. The delay in settling the estate was due to complications in figuring stock and retirement plans, he said.
However, in July 1999, Albright communicated to ODC that all but the house was liquidated, and it was appraised and ready for sale. By coincidence, Albright Sr. filed pre-candidacy papers at this time to run for Supreme Court.
The complaint against Albright Jr. was closed on Oct. 9, 1999. Though Romano found that Albright committed a Rule violation by not promptly replying to ODC's inquiry, he declined to file a statement of charges against him.
Instead, Romano "strongly cautioned" Albright about complying with future ODC inquiries and "urged [him] to diligently handle such matters in the future and to be more careful about explaining matters to heirs."
Romano's admonishment apparently went unheeded as, ironically, the reprimand the Supreme Court gave to Albright Jr. last year was in part due to his failure to handle an estate matter for Rita Ramsey.
Records show he answered Ramsey's complaint only when subpoenaed to do so, and was ordered by the Court to complete the estate settlement, including providing the Court periodic updates of his progress.
When that case was before the Court, Justice Albright was disqualified from hearing it.
Less than a month after the fundraiser he hosted, Romano contributed another $200 to Albright's campaign on Feb. 18, 2000. Records show, Romano would make one last contribution of $500 to Albright on Sep. 20, 2000.
Albright, and fellow Justice Robin Jean Davis defeated then-Del. Evan Jenkins and WVU law professor Robert M. Bastrass in the Democratic primary for the two full-term seats on the Supreme Court.
Facing token Republican opposition, they sailed to easy victories in the November 2000 general election.
The West Virginia Record contacted Justice Albright about the potential conflict in hearing the Sedlock appeal. Speaking through Supreme Court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy, Albright acknowledged he knows Romano "as well as several hundred other attorneys in West Virginia."
Nevertheless, Bundy said Albright is "scrupulous" about not looking at his campaign finance reports. However, she said Albright takes seriously any potential conflict of interest.
"If he [the Record reporter] wants to send me something in writing, I will look into it to see if it provides me a basis to recuse myself," Albright said.
On Feb. 6, The Record submitted via e-mail the information it found via public records concerning Albright and Romano. As of presstime Feb. 7, Albright had not commented on the information provided.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Case No. 33524