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RI developer accused of 'shoddy' and substandard work ordered to pay over $750K in damages

PROVIDENCE - A Superior Court judge on Monday upheld an arbitration award of more than $750,000 to owners of a condominium complex who say the developer performed shoddy and substandard work when he renovated their building in 2019.

Judge Christopher K. Smith rejected an appeal by developer Sathuan K. Sa, who claimed he didn’t know the arbitration hearing was taking place last fall. His attorney also took issue with how the arbitrator – a retired state Supreme Court chief justice – determined the dollar amount for damages.

What happened at the hearing?

In a 24-minute decision delivered from the bench, Smith rejected nearly every defense Sa’s attorneys made when they appeared before him to argue their case back in January. Smith said that notice for the hearing was sent by certified mail, and signed for at Sa’s last known address - and that the judge was not going to grant “a second bite at the apple” after the award was issued.

Sa has been subject of multiple Hummel Report investigations, published over the past two months in The Providence Sunday Journal. The initial four-month investigation outlined complaints by residents at two renovation projects in Providence that Sa completed, four years apart.

Chapel Hill East Condominiums were the product of a rehabilitated former parochial school on the East Side, off Camp Street; Sa also renovated 50 Ashburton Street, the former National Casket Company, into 38 units on the city’s north side last fall.

Smith’s decision confirms an award by the arbitrator - Retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams - of $732,843 for remedial work that the Chapel Hill East homeowners association had to make for multiple issues throughout the building from the time it opened in the fall of 2019. The award also includes $35,308 in attorney’s fees.

“(Williams) is highly capable of making determinations as to the weight and credibility of evidence,” Smith noted in his decision.

Response to the ruling

“It’s a long time coming,” said Judith Glynn, who bought her third-floor unit at Chapel Hill East in 2019.

Glynn also has a lawsuit pending against Sa and the real estate agent who represented him, Debbie Gold of Coldwell Banker. Glynn said numerous delays in closing, and repeated misrepresentations by Sa and Gold cost her more than $66,000 in capital gains taxes. Her lawyer will be in court next week asking for a decision on that claim.

“My feeling is that with all of the exceptionally bad press (Sa is) receiving, a good public relations gesture would be to pay us off and not appeal. What’s to appeal?” Glynn said after Monday’s decision.

Sa’s attorney, Christopher C. Whitney did not initially respond to a text from The Hummel Report asking if his client planned to appeal. He later referred us to The New Harbor Group, a Providence public relations firm, which did not immediately have an answer as to whether Sa will appeal.

What comes next?

Smith ruled that Sa did not have to pick up the entire $3,600 bill for arbitration, as ordered by Williams, saying instead the parties had to split the amount. And the judge did not allow Chapel Hill East to claim $71,625 for expenses to prepare for the arbitration, including a 159-page exhibit.

That puts the total award at $768,151, but Girard Visconti, an attorney who represented the condo association in the arbitration appeal, told The Hummel Report that state law provides for 12% interest from the date the damages were first discovered, so it could boost the award substantially.

Williams, the arbitrator, also noted in his decision that Sa is personally liable for the amount because he had let the registration of his company Chapel Hill East LLC lapse, and it had been revoked at the time by the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office.

Zoom out: Background on the case

Glynn, one of the first to buy a condo in 2019 at Chapel Hill East Condominiums, has also been critical of the city of Providence for signing off on certificates of occupancy, when her building had to have a total rehabilitation of its HVAC system at a cost of $306,000 and $227,000 in roof damage.

“The city approved our certificate of occupancy and the city said everything was built to code,” Glynn said. “And it’s not.”

Chapel Hill East hired experts to examine the HVAC system. The Hummel Report investigation found that the owner of a company brought in to do remedial work said he wouldn’t take the job. “’We’re not going to touch your building,” he told one of the condo owners. “’ve been in business for 45 years, this is one of the worst jobs I’ve ever seen. How did that developer get a permit from the city?”

The HVAC expert cautioned against turning on the heat because of potential for carbon monoxide poisoning.

More:Providence condo owners say developer's shoddy work cost them thousands. They want answers.

Gold, the rest estate agent, who has worked with Sa for 15 years, also faces an investigation after multiple condo owners filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation, which licenses real estate agents in the state.

And just last week, Mark Bird, the president of the homeowners association at 50 Ashburton, sent a nine-page document to Coldwell Banker’s regional attorney, David Caristi. It includes a raft of complaints about Gold from condo owners who had purchased through her.

Glynn said she’ll feel better when Chapel Hill East is made whole, but that the judge’s decision is a good start.

“It’s done, we can breathe,” Glynn said. “(Sa) should clean up his act, and his pay us. I think he needs to step up the plate - he’s harmed a lot of people.”

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