The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed against former city council member Jim Graham over a disputed Metro real estate deal.
Last year, development company Banneker Ventures sued the former Ward 1 council member for illegally interfering in its efforts to build a residential and retail development on Metro-owned land while he was on the transit agency’s board. A federal judge dismissed the case last year, saying that Graham was immune from legal action because he was acting in his official capacity as a member of the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
But Banneker appealed the decision, and D.C. Circuit Court Judge Cornelia Pillard reversed the decision Tuesday, saying Graham’s claim that a public official’s immunity may not protect him or the board from claims of tortious interferences.
Writing for the court, Pillard reversed the dismissal of Banneker’s contract claims against Metro and its tort claims against LaKritz Adler. The court did affirm the dismissal of Banneker’s fraud claims against Metro.
“Because the absolute official immunity questions have yet to be analyzed by the district court . . . we vacate the dismissal of the tort claims against Graham and remand for further proceedings,” Pillard wrote.
In an e-mailed statement, Graham said he would have preferred the Court of Appeals to affirm the previous decision, but he said he’s ready to tell his side of the story.
“Banneker’s lies and distortions have carried them to the US Appeals Court,” Graham wrote in the statement. “Once all of that is presented I am sure that I will be vindicated entirely and this matter will finally be put to rest.”
Mark Grannis, attorney for Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis who represented Banneker in the appeal, said his client should have ended up with a contract for the property.
“When the bidding for public contracts isn’t done by the book, it’s the public at large that really loses,” he said. “They fail to get the best services at the best price, so it’s really important to hold someone accountable.”
A spokesman for Metro said the organization does not comment on active litigation.
The original case involved a proposal, known as a Term Sheet, between Metro and Banneker for plans to develop a part-residential, part-retail building on the Metro-owned property at the Florida Avenue Metro station. Banneker’s Term Sheet with Metro guaranteed an exclusive five-month negotiating period for the two parties.
But Graham resisted the negotiations with Banneker, working to secure the property for politically-supportive developer LaKritz Adler, Banneker charged in court documents. Graham offered to help Banneker officials to obtain a contract with the D.C. Lottery in 2008 if they agreed to pull Banneker from negotiations for the property, court documents show.
Ultimately, the Metro board ended negotiations with Banneker and the property was sold to JGB Cos. in 2011.
In dismissing the suit last year, District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that because the company’s agreement was not approved by the board, it was not a “valid and enforceable contract.”