Federal Court Hearing Likely in Habitat Case
Opponents of a planned Habitat development in Pinebluff want to take their case to federal court.
Habitat for Humanity of the NC Sandhills sued Mayor Earlene McLamb and others they say were involved the sale of property on Thunder Road where Habitat hoped to build homes. "They have filed a notice of removal to federal court," said Tim Dwyer, president of the local Habitat chapter. "It would move the jurisdiction for this proceeding from Superior Court of Moore County to federal court in Greensboro."
The lawsuit includes several claims for relief based on alleged violations of federal civil rights and fair housing acts.
At a meeting of attorneys for the various defendants, Pinehurst attorney Mike Newman proposed taking those questions to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
"It was my suggestion we all think about whether it might be better to be in federal court," Newman said in a telephone interview Thursday. "We all agreed to that, and Elizabeth (Martineau) filed the motion."
Charlotte attorney Elizabeth A. Martineau represents the town of Pinebluff, the mayor, the town commissioners and town attorney William Morgan, all of whom are named in the suit personally as well as in their official capacities. Frank Thigpen, of Robbins, and Newman represent other defendants. All agreed with moving the case from Superior Court to federal court in Greensboro.
Dwyer said Habitat's attorneys are contesting the removal on a number of procedural grounds.
"We hope to have the case remanded back to the state court," Dwyer said. "We believe that since this entire episode took place in Moore County, the complaint should be heard by a Moore County court and jury."
The real issue turns on whether the nonprofit organization ever had a valid contract to buy the Thunder Road property in the first place. Habitat contends that it did. Newman disagreed, and filed a motion to dismiss.
"Habitat entered into a contract with Phillip Jackson to buy this land, but he did not own that land," Newman said. "Robert and Brenda Edwards owned the land. Six months later, those real owners sold the property to Jackie Upchurch. A year later, Mr. Upchurch sold it to the present owners."
Habitat has always maintained Jackson was acting as an agent for the actual landowners, and that therefore it had a valid contract for the property, which it contends the defendants interfered with -- the claim is called "tortious interference."
Habitat's suit says Pinebluff officials and the town attorney worked to help buy the land out from under it, despite the organization having a contract on it, after the town lost its appeal in state courts over illegally denying a conditional-use permit.
A motion to dismiss filed Aug. 3 by attorneys for the defendants says Habitat did not have a valid contract and asks the federal court to throw out Habitat's case on the grounds that without a real contract it would have no standing for any of its claims.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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