Rare is the adolescent resident of a high-rise who hasn't converted his balcony into a laboratory for a detailed study of gravity. Young inquiring minds, several stories up, need only the simplest materials to explore important scientific concepts such as the parabolic trajectory and terminal velocity of a soggy toilet-paper roll. Equally rarely do such investigations attract the interest of attorneys and provoke threats of lawsuits. Unless, of course, the junior experimenters happen to live in a condominium where rules don't always accommodate the quest for scientific knowledge.
For fourteen-year-old Jose Padial, Jr., August 20, 1990, was a fine day for research. His projectiles of choice were ice cubes and raw eggs, his lab was the balcony of his fourth-floor condominium in the C tower of Brickell Place, a four-building group overlooking Biscayne Bay on Brickell Avenue near the Rickenbacker Causeway. With his parents away at work, and with several buddies serving as co-scientists, the experiment was destined to be a success.
Jose and his pals launched the debris toward the pool deck below, unaware that they weren't the only ones observing the project. Several people, including the condominium's chief of security, witnessed the impressive barrage. Later that evening, yet another vigilant officer saw Jose hanging out with a friend who was roller-skating outside the building, a flagrant violation of condo regulations.
Soon after, two spotlights on the fifteenth floor of neighboring building D mysteriously plummeted to the ground below and shattered. Again, a security officer had seen Jose and friends loitering around the building, and he reported the sighting to his supervisor. "Maybe pure coincidence, but they were mad because security kept talking to them for breaking the rules," wrote then-Chief of Security Jesus Mauri in his incident report, adding, "No eyewitness to the incident."
An inconsequential detail for Edgardo Defortuna, upholder of order and general manager of buildings C and D, who sent the security reports describing the evening's activities to Jose's father. He enclosed an itemized bill for $445: a $25 charge for cleaning up the eggs, a $50 fine for roller-skating, a $320 charge for breaking the floodlights, and, for "damage to property," a $50 charge. "In addition, we request you to have full control over your children and supervise them at all times," wrote Defortuna, who is also a member of the board of directors of Brickell Place Phase II Association, which manages buildings C and D.
"That was my first brush with these people," says a rueful Jose Padial, Sr., a pale and soft-spoken public accountant who moved to Brickell Place in December 1988 with his wife, daughter, and two sons. "We moved from a house in Kendall because we wanted to upgrade our living conditions and we wanted to live in a secure place where our family would be able to go outdoors. We wanted to live in a better environment."
Defortuna's bill, says Padial, was also the first he had heard of trouble involving any of his children. Padial sent the general manager a terse note, apologizing for the egg tossing, denying the other charges, and refusing to settle the bill. After Defortuna reduced the charge to $75 several days later, Padial agreed to pay up. But the levying of the fines, says Padial, marked the beginning of a conspiracy to run his family out of the condominium.
Defortuna denies that he handed out blame precipitately or unfairly. "This wasn't the first time the kids had been in trouble," he says of Jose, Jr., and his younger brother Victor, now eight years old. "The kids and their friends were really creating problems for the rest of us in the building. It's not fun to enforce the rules. Why would I make up that their kids were in trouble?"
As the condo administration scrutinized the behavior of the Padial boys, its own security staff came under scrutiny. In March, Victor told his father that one of the male security guards had fondled him. Padial reported the incident to Defortuna, who says he fired the guard three days later. But the firing didn't take place, insists Padial, until after he had hired a lawyer to write a letter about the allegation.
Brickell Place didn't waste time introducing its own attorneys to the Padials. In early May, Padial received a letter from a law firm representing Brickell Place Phase II, threatening legal action if the boys continued to misbehave.® "It came as a surprise," says Padial. "I had not been made aware of any of their complaints. The August 20 incident was the only incident I'd seen in writing." Thomas Spencer, Jr., Padial's lawyer, responded on May 14 with his own letter. "We categorically reject each and every outrageous statement of your client's alleged facts," wrote Spencer. "We hope they are prepared to prove them up in court.... We look forward to a jury resolving this."
During the next several days, Padial says the building where he lives became an Orwellian nightmare, as security officers followed his sons around the complex and lurked in the stairwell outside his apartment. Although Padial says he hadn't been told the boys were under suspicion, it seems infractions by Padial's sons had been accruing at a rapid rate since the egg-tossing incident, as Defortuna's staff of about fifteen security guards compiled a file of the boys' alleged exploits. January 6, 1991: Victor, Jose, and eight other kids were seen "playing football and making a lot of noise in the playground area." Valentine's Day: Victor was throwing beer on doors in building C. March 3: Jose and friends were knocking on doors in the condominium, running through the hallways, and pestering a valet by "trying to put their hands in the groceries" he was carrying to an apartment. March 20: Victor and two other kids were "playing in the tennis courts unsupervised." April 3: Jose and friends, "under alcoholic influence," were insulting condo residents.
Edgardo Defortuna has no doubt that the Padial brothers, either alone or together, committed dozens of acts of vandalism, not to mention other infractions, even though their names often aren't mentioned in the corresponding incident reports. Among those reports that don't name the Padials, there is the poolside snack bar break-in of February 18, 1991; the bent water-heater pipe discovered by a security guard four days later; the graffiti scrawled on a building C stairway on March 15; and the time in early May when a cigarette lighter was found burning inside an elevator in building C. "Investigation into the matter further implicates the children either directly or indirectly," Defortuna explains. "Testimony from some of their friends and co-participants in those acts confirm their involvement."
Said testimony had emerged during an early April meeting of two suspected Brickell Place delinquents with the condominiums' security chiefs, general managers, and a member of the Miami Police Department - a meeting Jose Padial, Sr., says he and his family were unable to attend on short notice, especially since it was scheduled very close to the tax-filing deadline and interfered with his work as a CPA. (Soon after that meeting, condominium officials demanded that one of the teen-agers who'd been questioned move out of the complex, where he'd been staying with his grandmother, says Arnold Rabin, general manager of Brickell Place Condominium Association, which controls buildings A and B.)
In all, says Defortuna, the Padials have amassed an impressive file of more than 50 cases of bad behavior, far more than any other family in the condo. But much of that documentation - including reports of graffiti, an unraveled fire hose, a broken toilet-paper dispenser, and two instances of egg throwing - does not mention either Padial child. "They're in the Padials' file, but not necessarily done by the Padials," admits Defortuna. "We try to keep a record of what's going on to see if there's a pattern." Defortuna says all vandalism reports from all four condominium towers are copied to the files of the families of about seven troublesome kids, including the Padials'. Defortuna denies Padial's claims that his family was singled out by condo security, explaining that guards generally increased their presence in building C, due to the wave of vandalism there.
By the middle of last month Padial's anger and resentment had come to a boil. To make matters worse, on September 14 a condo security guard refused to permit a repair truck to enter the complex to fix his broken air conditioner, says Padial, but did allow another contractor - one he says was commissioned by Defortuna - to enter. Although the air-conditioning repairman would later state in a sworn affidavit that he had been permitted immediate entry, Padial wrote a vicious four-page letter to the condo's board of directors, in which he described Defortuna's various efforts "to intimidate us, to harass us out of the building." And, throwing aside all restraint, Padial photocopied his letter and slipped it under the doors of all 467 units in buildings C and D.
"This incident...is just an example of how Mr. Edgardo Defortuna breaks the rules of the association when it serves his interest," Padial wrote, accusing Defortuna of having "too much power for one individual." The letter continued: "I have lived in my own flesh and blood how he terrorized my family over the last several months." Padial also charged Defortuna with mixing his condominium work with his personal real estate business.
The missive didn't reach every resident. Condo rules specify that unsolicited mail requires prior approval, and Defortuna ordered security guards to remove the letters. Two days later a determined Padial circulated a second letter, calling attention to Florida's new condominium law, which takes effect January 1, 1992. Among other measures, the new law will eliminate absentee voting by proxy in the election of administrative boards. Advocates of the law say it will put more power in the hands of year-round residents and ensure more democratically elected governing boards.
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Not to be outdone in the battle of testy mass mailings, an association board member, Emilia Diaz-Fox, penned a four-page rebuttal to Padial's first letter that was circulated to condos in buildings C and D. "You might not even realize this, but you could face some very substantial liabilities for your reckless acts," she wrote. "I respect the First Amendment right of our Constitution, but I do not respect your unwarranted personal attacks against our manager."
Since then the copy machines have quieted down. This past week Padial closed a sale on his condominium. Although he's moving, Padial doesn't feel utterly defeated. "I think I accomplished my objective," he says, "because I showed everyone how [the management] harassed me, and I showed them there was a new way."
But the dispute may haunt Padial beyond his departure. Defortuna says the association will probably drop its legal action against the Padials, now that it has achieved what he calls the "ultimate objective" - ridding the condo of "the problem with the children." That won't however, stop Defortuna from personally pursuing litigation against Padial. "I think they were too serious to let pass by," Defortuna says of the two-letter campaign. "What he said was really vicious."
Attorney Thomas Spencer, Jr., finds it difficult to believe that what began with smashed raw eggs has turned into a scramble of legal action. "This is not the kind of thing that should be handled this way," Spencer says philosophically. "There just needs to be a tremendous amount of human relations and human understanding, but that's not happening.