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Court agreement silences outspoken homeowner

The man's complaints about the shoddy workmanship in his townhome have driven away customers, a developer alleges.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002

MEADOW POINTE -- Daniel Portalatin has been muzzled.

An attorney for the Sedgwick at Meadow Pointe community on Tuesday told a judge in Dade City that an agreement was reached to silence the outspoken homeowner's complaints of shoddy workmanship in his new townhouse.

Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson signed a six-page order that bars Portalatin from "making false and disparaging statements, whether written or oral, concerning Sedgwick."

Sedgwick is suing Portalatin in circuit court, claiming his vocal criticism was driving away customers.

Portalatin has complained his townhome, built by Premier Design Homes of Florida, had leaky windows and poor construction. He paid $102,400 for the 1,400-square-foot townhouse last year.

Other neighbors have also complained and have held meetings to discuss their woes, at least once with a lawyer, Portalatin said in June.

After Swanson signed a temporary injunction silencing Portalatin on Tuesday, he referred comments to his attorney, Bradley Tobin.

But in June, when Sedgwick filed its lawsuit against him, Portalatin vowed to fight.

"This is a big corporation versus John Q. Public," he said in June. "They can't stop me from speaking at homeowners meetings. They can't stop me from talking to someone who comes to my door and asks me about the neighborhood. It's my First Amendment right."

When he was talking, Portalatin said leaky windows allowed interior walls to rot, and a counter top had to be replaced. He said his floors were damaged by water, doors stick and rugs were stained by work crews.

In Tuesday's agreement, Portalatin admits no wrongdoing but agrees to abide by the injunction from now on.

Tobin said the injunction essentially only bars Portalatin from doing things that would be illegal anyway, such as threatening people. And keeping both parties apart is best for both sides, he said.

The injunction keeps Portalatin 20 feet from Sedgwick employees and contractors, forbids him to threaten anyone associated with the company, from trespassing on company property such as sales offices and model homes, from making negative statements about the company, from picketing and from contacting potential buyers.

The company alleges Portalatin's criticism has caused customers to back out of negotiations and even refuse to close on contracts.

"Overall sales of new townhomes have begun to decline dramatically," Sedgwick alleged in the order signed Tuesday.

Sedgwick attorney Karen Trafford said the injunction does not end the dispute, and the lawsuit will proceed.

Tobin said he will file an answer to the lawsuit this month and will deny wrongdoing.

"Mr. Portalatin is nothing but a scapegoat for the things that have gone wrong there," Tobin said. "We want the facts to come out."

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