And They Built A Crooked House, by Ruth S. Martin


Aftermath: Lies and Deception

Half the truth is often a great lie.
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack, 1758

Throughout the spring of 1989 there was no escaping the awful feeling of injustice. Here we were, ordered to move out of our home at a $160,000 loss, while Cooper was receiving an exorbitant rent and preparing to take another profit on the dwelling. Cooper had gained the upper hand because he had chosen to not respond, had in fact totally ignored us and our contract with a claim of "no re-sponsibility." We could not (and still cannot) fathom how the law can penalize buyers of a defective home and, at the same time, re-ward a developer like Jake Cooper. Could Cooper now fix the house only part way, and sell it to some unsuspecting family at another profit? Based on the way houses are inspected for occupancy the answer was yes, he could. Unless the proper authorities knew what had happened to us, Cooper could profit from selling a defective home twice. How could we prevent this from happening? And why did we care? Our losses were final, the case was over, nothing we said or did could reimburse us even partly. But reimbursement was no long-er the point. We felt obligated to do something for the rights of homeowners, especially whoever might end up with our old house. The law may not be able to reach men like Cooper but perhaps something else could: publicity.

On June 23, 1989 I sent a long, heartfelt letter to the mayor and council members of Emerald Heights, telling them what happened, why we were moving, and begging them to please not let this sorry episode repeat itself . Also, to clarify any mis-understanding about our reasons for moving I sent a copy to friends living on the street. My letter alone should have sufficed to ensure that Cooper properly repaired the house. But I realized other people needed to also know. After all, Emerald Heights might claim it had no responsibility to inspect a used home, or that the legal judgment superseded local responsibility for the house. I also sent a copy of the letter and the Judge's opinion to the Plain Dealer (Cleveland's major daily) and two suburban papers. The reaction was quicker than expected, almost immediate. Shortly after we moved out we were phoned by Brent Larkin, a widely-read columnist for the Plain Dealer, and also by reporters for the suburban weeklies. Larkin's column, published early in July, beautifully captured the essence of our case.


...In July 1985, the Martins decided to take the plunge. They agreed to buy the land from the developer, -----------. The builder would be ------------- Construction Inc. and the architect --------. ...None of those involved in building the house had bad reputations. But all would later be named as defendants in a lawsuit brought by the Martins. Construction of the Martins' dream house began in late 1985. On May 17, 1986, [the community] granted a permit stating that the house complied with building requirements and was fit for occupancy. It wasn't. Neither was it a dream house. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge ---------------------- recalled last week that when he first walked through the living room of the house, he had the distinct impression he was walking downhill. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only problem. ...In July 1987 the Martins filed their lawsuit. They asked that the entire construction contract be rescinded, that they be refunded their money and allowed to void the entire deal. Considering that the house was already built, this was a major request, requiring that the court find that the breach of the contract was so material, so enormous, that the Martins could wash their hands of it. The court, with --------- hearing the case, found just that, and the ruling was not appealed. -------------- also ruled that the builder and the architects were liable to the developer for damages. Still, in more ways than one, the Martins were the big losers in this case. For the three years they lived in their new home, not a day went by that they weren't reminded of what a disaster it was. Worse yet, they took a financial bath in their legal victory...The Martins won, all right, but they're at least $155,000 poorer for their victory. ...They've also written a book about their dream-house experience and are searching for a publisher ...They can call it "Nightmare on Pelican Road."

This column, plus a suburban newspaper story that appeared on July 6, created intense publicity for awhile. (It seemed that everyone in Cleveland had read Larkin's column.) In response, Cooper and Nelson (but not Murdock) held a news conference at our old house! Their comments were published in two long articles in the suburban weeklies (apparently no one from the daily newspaper had attended their conference). Cooper and Nelson? That's right. Cooper was using Nelson to help make the structural repairs. The same architect who screwed up in the first place! And what did Nelson have to say for himself? The following quotes and comments from Nelson were published in a suburban newspaper on July 13, 1989.

"When I went over the plans with Mrs. Martin, she wanted a support column in the basement moved to open the area. It's a common request, but in removing the column, I failed to recalculate the loads (on the beam)."

This is an incredible statement, not least because it is completely untrue. Nelson neglected to tell the reporters that the area in question was in the unfinished portion of the basement, an unlikely place to ask that a beam be removed. In any case, Nelson had never used this excuse before, in any letter, in deposition, or in court. Did he invent this excuse to salvage his reputation? If so, it was incredibly lame to blame me for his design inadequacy. Nelson also:

said he offered to fix [his design] problem, which he estimated would have cost $3000 to $5000, but the Martins chose to take legal action.

Nelson's design defects were much more major than he was ever willing to fix. The Judge assessed them at over $18,000, a fact Mr. Nelson did not mention at his news conference. Nelson is also quoted as saying:

"When this first started, I came here with a level and couldn't find any slope in the floors. I did tell them it might be an optical illusion. But what came out in court is the Martins are extremely sensitive people. They could feel the uneven floors. But they had to use surveyor's equipment to find out where the sloping was. And the slope was five-sixteenths of an inch."

What came out in court is that Nelson didn't properly investigate something obvious to practically everyone else but him: sloping floors. And he was the architect! In any case, the sloping was far greater than 5/16 inch. Finally, the "surveyors' equipment" was brought in by Mr. Cooper's expert, not by anyone we hired. Nelson did get one thing right, however:

"...the sloping floors, which were noticeable, were caused by flexed beams and basement columns set too low in the foundation, a construction error."

So Nelson blamed me for his design mistake and lay the other structural problems on Murdock. Then, for the reporters, he tried to make it look like we wouldn't let him fix what was wrong with the house. So much for the integrity of our architect, who not only designed the dwelling but was hired to inspect it during construction! And what did Jake Cooper claim? The following is also from the suburban newspaper articles of July 13, 1989.

"I never heard from [the Martins]. They drew up the contract with me and passed all responsibility on to the builder and architect..And I responded to the builder when he gave me copies of their letters to him."

Despite having received a total of nine letters from us and our lawyers Cooper claimed he never heard from us. And the "builder... gave me copies of their letters"? ALL THE LETTERS WERE SENT DIRECTLY TO HIM! What else did Cooper claim?

"Everybody wanted to do the right thing. But [the Martins] were encouraged by somebody that they could get $2 million, so they didn't let the builder complete the repairs to the house...That's why they brought all their experts in."

What a baseless assertion! The builder was demonstrably incompetent to fix our house and never made any attempt to repair it properly and Cooper knew it. The court case proved this singular fact. To imply that I would drag my family through three years of hell and risk loss of my home for a monetary gain is simply monstrous. This comment, perhaps more than any other, shows the true character of the man we had done business with. But there was more.

Mr. Cooper said he did offer to settle out of court, contrary to the Martins' claim, and [Mr. Cooper] also claimed [the Martins] are the ones who reneged on an out-of-court settlement.

And quoting Cooper directly:

"The whole thing got blown out of proportion. I was not unhappy with the house. That's why I didn't appeal the case."

"I'll be lucky to get $375,000 for [the house]. You just don't get $400,000 on this block...I wish they would have stayed and let [the builder] fix their house."

Cooper was "not unhappy with the house" because he knew he had been handed a windfall by the court: the house and lot at 1985 prices (in a rising market) and money to make the repairs. In the aggregate, Cooper's and Nelson's comments showed that we didn't have a chance in hell of getting our house fixed properly during the litigation. Even after the trial and our experts' testimony and the Judge's written opinion, neither Cooper nor Nelson admitted to the defects or displayed any understanding of why we went to trial. Nor, of course, did they have the slightest remorse for what they had done to us.

FOOTNOTE. What was Murdock's reaction to all this publicity? On July 18 our attorney sent us the following letter:

Dear Larry and Ruth,

I have been reading the articles in the various newspapers concerning the house. The only person I have had contact with in connection with the articles is Harold Pierce [Murdock's attorney] who expressed concern about the adverse impact the articles may have on Murdock's business. I told Pierce that, from what I have read, the articles are truthful [as regards Murdock], though not always complete. Pierce stated that he hoped the newspaper "campaign" was over and that he did not want to look into a claim of "business disparagement" against you. I told Pierce that I thought you had every right to express yourself (truthfully) and that I read nothing that would rise to the level of `business disparagement.'

According to our attorney, Cooper's lies and blatant distortion of our motives were not sufficient grounds to sue for slander. Although my friends knew Cooper was lying I nonetheless had to set the re-cord straight. I countered with a letter to the editor (see Appendix B). Tom also sent a strong letter to Cooper's attorney, serving notice that his client should stop distorting the case or face a possible lawsuit. Did the lies end there? Not at all. Cooper proceeded to deceive prospective homebuyers. On August 3, 1989 he put the house up for sale, advertising in the classifieds:

BY OWNER. VERY SPECIAL...5 bedroom Contemporary. 2 Acre fully wooded lot on quiet cul-de-sac street...Ready now for occupancy. Low 400's.

This ad appeared well after Cooper publicly stated "you just don't get $400,000 on this street." Also, it is interesting to note that three different experts estimated it would take at least three months to fix our house properly. We moved out June 22 and Cooper's ad ap- peared less than six weeks later. Cooper did not sell the house `by owner' so he signed up with a large real estate company. Perhaps to explain how the house came to be vacant, the realtor had Cooper write a letter to show to prospective purchasers. Cooper's letter is a masterpiece of deception and revisionist history .

Cooper's letter was shown to prospective buyers throughout the summer and early fall. Try to read this letter two ways: first, as an interested buyer who knows nothing about what happened; then, as someone who knows the whole story (which you do if you've read this far). In the former context you would probably find the letter not unreasonable, even plausible. In the latter context, statements that the house had only minor problems and that we had a personality conflict with the builder become obvious for what they are: lies. But the bigger lie in Cooper's letter is what was left out.

Our lawyer agreed that Cooper's outrageous letter should not go unanswered. On September 29, 1989 he sent a strongly worded letter to the president of the realty company, with a copy to the individual agents involved in marketing the house (See Appendix B). While all this was going on Cooper found a buyer, a couple with two kids moving from Florida to Cleveland. They were shown Cooper's letter. Cooper met with them. He led them to believe that he had bought the house back from us because we were moving out of town. He didn't mention the lawsuit, the trial, the experts' reports, the newspaper publicity. He told them only one area of the house was defective (the area under the mudroom floor, about 10% of what we proved in court) and that it had been fixed with some new posts. This out-of-town couple bid $368,000 for the house and it was accepted.

Then they found out we were still in town and called us. We told them the simple truth. The house had major defects. There was a lawsuit. A trial. A judgment. They got a copy of the judgment and were appalled, not as much by the judgment itself as by the disparity between the true story and what Cooper had led them to believe. Needless to say, they backed out of the deal. (After they backed out Cooper's lawyer called them and asked repeatedly if they talked to us and what we said; he was apparently looking for some excuse to sue us. It probably never occurred to him that the deal fell through because Cooper had not properly fixed the house and had lied.) A similar scenario was repeated two more times over the next few weeks. People who had seen the house and been shown Cooper's letter (presumably before the end of September) called us. We heard the same story as with the first couple. The nature of the defects and the reason for Cooper owning a vacated house were misrepresented. Cooper said the defects were only minor, confined to one section of the house, and that everything had been fixed. No mention of the trial, the legal judgment, or the fact that all three levels of the house not just the basement area were proven structurally defective. On both occasions the interested party sought a copy of the judgment (a matter of public record), read the truth, and backed out.

FOOTNOTE. I have purposely avoided any psychiatric analysis to this point. After all, I was hurt as a woman, mother and homemaker, not as a psychiatrist. The men who desecrated my home couldn't have cared if I was a doctor or candlestick maker. I will use this footnote to explain something about the psychology of people like our developer, what makes them `tick.' This information may help you avoid the pain we endured. In my opinion, Cooper's treatment of us exemplifies the behavior of people who inflict pain on others without feeling pain themselves. Chances are you have run into this type, known in psychiatric jargon as the "antisocial personality disorder." A personality disorder is a pathological (not normal) `equilibrium state' in which the individual displays both occupational and interpersonal dysfunction. The antisocial personality maintains his (or her) state of equilibrium by inflicting pain on others, and feels no pain while doing so. The most extreme examples are serial murderers, rapists, and chronic wife beaters. The disorder can manifest in less extreme ways. The vast majority of these "bad people" people who hurt others without feeling pain are certainly not murderers or rapists or criminals in any sense of the word; they have what psychiatrists call an antisocial character trait, a tendency toward antisocial or deviant behavior that arises in certain situations. For example, we heard nothing about Cooper's lack of business integrity before our dealings with him. His antisocial trait became apparent when he was faced with the choice of acting responsibly (and risking the loss of money) or acting irresponsibly and inflicting pain on others (us). His trait became flagrant externalization (he blamed us) when he was proven to have breached our contract and was publicly exposed. The equilibrium of people with the antisocial personality trait is maintained by taking advantage of others, hurting people needlessly, telling obvious lies, being physically or verbally abusive, etc. Such behavior helps maintain their psychologic equilibrium. Only their victims feel pain. People with the antisocial personality trait lack "conscience," or what psychiatrists call the superego. In psychiatric jargon, these people have "holes" in their superego. If you end up in an argument with such a person it is best to understand early on what you are up against. You can't fight these people, except in a narrow legal sense, because they feel no pain for their dishonest behavior. The thing that matters the least to this type of person is you, your feelings, your sense of injustice. Don't waste time hoping he will change behavior or attitude because of your pain and suffering. He won't. Finally, don't rely on his good will or sense of decency to do the right thing. If you have been hurt by someone with antisocial tendencies, understand that he (or she) is beyond feeling any pain, remorse, or guilt for what he did to you. If you try to reason with him or appeal to any sense of decency or ask for succor you will just be hurt further. That is a path to total frustration. What are signs of people with antisocial personality tendencies? Here are some strong indicators often apparent in the business world:
  • They don't return your phone calls or answer letters, even when they have a moral or ethical obligation to do so.
  • They make no attempt to reason with you, explain their actions, or negotiate honestly.
  • They lie about you to others. Not white lies, but blatant, provable lies, often blaming you for a problem they created.
  • They don't care what you say or whom you say it to (unless it costs them money). Nothing you say to or about them seems to affect their bad behavior (unless it costs them money).
  • When forced to recount events concerning a dispute (i.e., in court, to the press) they present convincing revisionist history; the story they tell is apt to be a gross distortion of the truth to suit their purpose and maintain psychological equilibrium.

* * *

I am sure you have questions. Why didn't Emerald Heights make Cooper fix the house according to the legal judgment? Why did the Judge award Cooper money to fix the house and not take measures to assure that it was properly repaired? After all, the Judge did not grant us funds to make repairs because (as he wrote) if we fixed the house and later tried to sell it we would be selling another lawsuit. How did one of the largest real estate companies in Ohio allow Cooper to misrepresent the house? Why didn't the media follow up on the story? How could Cooper continue to treat people this way and get away with it? These are good questions but I don't have any good answers.

* * *

We doubt Jake Cooper intended the case to end this way. We don't think he ignored us with the conscious expectation of going to trial and getting rewarded for reneging on his contract. From the time he sold us the house his intention was just to make a quick profit without any risk or obligation. In my opinion, once he became aware of the defects his antisocial character structure led him to believe, since he had not actually built the house, that he had no responsibility; to this end he fabricated a whole series of lies and became extraordinarily vindictive. His `quick-profit-no-responsibility' plan backfired, but really only for a while. He didn't make the quick second profit he probably expected when he bought the house back, but I am confident he didn't lose any money either (especially considering the $50,000 profit made the first time around). Nor, I feel certain, did he lose any sleep in the three years between our first letter asking for his help (December 1986) and the time he re-sold the house (March 1990).

To men like Jake Cooper litigation such as we experienced is only a minor annoyance, like a mosquito at a picnic that you finally brush away. Unhappy homeowners, angry letters, lawsuits, trials all part of doing business as a builder and developer. No big deal. The defendants in our case had it easy. Their home wasn't disrupted, their dreams weren't shattered, they were not ordered to move out at enormous financial loss, they did not feel the awful sting of injustice. What Jake Cooper and his two cronies did to us has left a scar on our lives. We hope time will ease the pain.

-- continued --