Politics Said to Stymie New Courthouse Project

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A developer wants millions from two state court judges and a commission of judges it says worked to stymie its building of a new civil district courthouse in Orleans Parish.
     Community Facility Partners, a Minnesota-based company, says it’s out almost $1 million, which includes $400,000 it says it spent to secure land for a new civil district court on Canal Street near Claiborne Avenue.
     In the 26-page lawsuit filed in federal court last week, CFP says the commission of judges ended its agreement with the company about a year ago, pulling the plug on the Canal Street plan.
     But the commission isn’t solely at fault, the lawsuit says. Civil District Judge Christopher Bruno is personally liable for more than $4 million in fees that the company should have netted on the $112 million project, the lawsuit says.
     Despite never attending commission meetings, Bruno, CFP was told by another district judge, “was trying to sabotage” the company’s efforts to find a new location for the courthouse “in order to benefit the Mayor,” the lawsuit says.
     Mayor Mitch Landrieu had set his sights set on using the historic Charity Hospital building that has been empty since Katrina to house both the new civil district court and City Hall, but an architect hired to inspect the building reportedly said it would take excessive amounts of money to do.
     In a June 2014 news article, Mayor Landrieu said the project would be too expensive and would cost nearly $400 million, according to the lawsuit.
     So CFP found a new building, on Canal Street, and put money on it, but since the mayor wasn’t happy with the proposal, it flopped, according to the lawsuit, which claims Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Christopher Bruno was the “back channel” through which the mayor would communicate with CFP.
     “Throughout the performance of the Professional Services Agreement, the CFP’s representatives were made aware that the Mayor would only communicate through the back channel that was Judge Bruno,” the lawsuit said. “Throughout the performance of the Agreement, Judge Bruno attended none of the meetings intended to obtain the information needed to design the courthouse and none of the meetings of the Executive Committee. The Judge abandoned his responsibilities to the JBC in order to benefit the Mayor. The Judge made the performance of the Professional Services Agreement difficult by disparaging the efforts of the CFP and its representatives and encouraging the other Board Members to resist the efforts of Judge Reese and the Executive Committee to build the facility.”
     On October 19, 2015, the commission of judges notified the CFP it was terminating the contract for services immediately through its counsel, Rick Richter, the lawsuit says.
     Later, CFP met with Judge Reese, who, the company claims, said Bruno was responsible for the deal flopping.
     According to Reese, “the termination was a culmination of the intentional efforts of Judge Bruno to make the performance of the contract by CFP onerous and burdensome,” the lawsuit says.
     The plaintiff says the court had a finite amount of time to secure a new site for the courthouse or find a building to rent, at which time civil filing fees were supposed to increase to pay for the new facility.
     When time ran out, Mayor Landrieu extended the given time until 2021, so fees have yet to increase.
     If it wasn’t for the mayor’s extension, “fees for civil filings would have increased eight-fold while the enhancement due to the JBC for jury trials would double,” the lawsuit says.
     On top of that, civil class actions would go up another $1,000, and an additional $10 civil filing fee would go into effect.
     “The loss caused by Judge Bruno’s actions is substantial both to the JBC and to the Company. It, in effect, is a breach of the public trust. The litigants and the users of the courthouse had the right to expect that the JBC would construct a new courthouse that would satisfy their needs,” the lawsuit says.
     Dane Ciolino, Bruno’s attorney, told Courthouse News on Monday the lawsuit will be dismissed.
     “Bruno intends to seek sanctions for bringing a frivolous lawsuit,” Ciolino said.
     In a separate interview with the Baton Rouge Advocate, Ciolino said, “To file a lawsuit against a judge acting in his capacity as a public official and attempt to sue him personally is extraordinary.”
     “At the end of the day we’re convinced he’s going to prevail and the lawsuit against him will be dismissed, and he will seek sanctions against them for bringing a frivolous lawsuit in the first place,” Ciolino said.
     Rich Richter of Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert LLC in New Orleans, represents the JBC along with Steve Klein. On Monday he told Courthouse News he had no comment on the lawsuit.
     In addition to breaching the agreement, the commission has left $953,000 unpaid to plaintiff, the complaint says.
     The plaintiffs say Orleans Parish Judicial District Court Building Commission and Judge Bruno are responsible for the new courthouse not coming to fruition, the lawsuit also names Judge Reese as a defendant, saying it wasn’t in his authority to direct funds in the first place.
     Richard Goins, who filed the lawsuit, told the Advocate CFP didn’t know why the contract was suddenly cancelled.
     “That was the most mystifying thing,” Goins said.”At some point there was an argument that Judge Reese did not have the authority” to direct funds for courthouse real estate.
     “Whatever’s going on there we can only speculate,” Goins said. “My client is simply interested in getting paid for the work he performed.”
     CFP of New Orleans LLP seeks damages for breach of contract and the outstanding invoice.

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