Above: These houses on Sarah’s Trace belong to three families seeking money from the town following damage they say happened during construction of Cole Middle School in 2010-11.
Residents of three houses are accusing officials of willfully ignoring their plight
Four residents of Sarah’s Trace and former School Committee Chair Jean Ann Guliano addressed the School Committee during public comment Oct. 11, saying fraud was the reason they were never compensated for damage done to their homes during the construction of Cole Middle School in 2010-11. Find a video of that meeting HERE.
Guliano said she wanted the School Committee to disregard advice from the committee’s lawyer and ask the Town Council to either put a bond referendum before voters to compensate the homeowners or use the money leftover from the $52 million school bond referendum approved by voters in 2008 to build the new Cole and other school construction.
For the homeowners and Guliano, this is an issue of fairness and making right a wrong that happened more than a decade ago.
Homeowner Keith Amellotte, during his statement, said his house and the two others “were knowingly sacrificed for the greater good but under false pretenses.”
“Fraud has no statute of limitations until it is uncovered,” said Wendy Amellotte during her public comment. “Not acting now makes you complicit.”
For school and town officials, it is not that simple, since the homeowners sued the town, the school district, the contractor, and the contract management company in February 2011 and the court case that followed ended in a decision in favor of the homeowners and an agreement signed by all involved parties, including the homeowners.
In the lawsuit, the Sarah’s Trace residents contended the school department failed to stop using vibratory rollers after the homeowners had told school officials their houses were being damaged by the vibrations. Guliano, at the time, had wanted the use of the rollers to stop but the contractor, Gilbane Construction, said it would not be able to guarantee the structural integrity of the building without their use, so the rollers continued to be used. Seismic montitoring done
As of spring 2014, no settlement had been reached, so the suit landed in state Superior Court. Following a three-week trial, the jury awarded the homeowners $240,000 plus interest for a single claim of nuisance against the town.
Superior Court Judge Bennett Gallo had dismissed the homeowners’ damage and negligence claims a few days earlier, saying the plaintiffs (homeowners) had not proven which cracks were caused by the construction and which had pre-existed construction, making it impossible to determine damages. Gallo also did not allow the plaintiffs’ expert to testify on damage estimates – the plaintiffs had wanted an architect to present evidence about needed repairs.
Because the judge dismissed the damage and negligence claims against the contractor and other firms associated with the construction, the homeowners were forced to pay the court costs borne by these companies. According to Sarah’s Trace resident Keith Amelotte, after paying those costs out, the homeowners ended up with only a third of that original award.
In August 2015, the homeowners, the town, the school department, contractor Gilbane Construction and several other subcontractors signed an agreement releasing all the defendants (the Town of East Greenwich, EGSD, contractor Gilbane Construction, etc.) of all liability past and future:
Whereas this mutual settlement and joint release agreement is to serve as the full and final settlement agreement between the plaintiffs [aka homeowners] and defendants [town, school, contractor and subcontractors] and serve to resolve all claims between and among the plaintiffs and defendants relating to the claims asserted by the plaintiffs, the cross-claims asserted by defendants and any and all claims that were or could have been asserted by the plaintiffs against the defendants in the lawsuit.
In effect, the homeowners, the town (which had been found liable for nuisance), and all the other parties agreed the case was over. Find the agreement here: Sarah’s Trace signed settlement agreement.
Despite the $240,000 (plus interest) award, this was not the victory the homeowners had hoped for. At the recent Oct. 11 School Committee meeting, Sarah’s Trace resident Tom Hogan, another party in the lawsuit, said the homeowners had no choice but to sign that paperwork. “We didn’t settle,” he said. “We had to accept the terms that were imposed upon us.” Lamendola has said they didn’t appeal the verdict because they couldn’t afford to.
In 2018, Chris Lamendola said he’d learned new information that made him decide he needed to keep fighting for money to repair their homes – settlement or no settlement. He said it was a surprise to him that a lawyer hired by the school department in 2010 to handle the homeowners’ concerns – Christopher Whitney, who specializes in construction law – had also represented Gilbane in other matters. Whitney was hired in June 2010 (see engagement letter here: Whitney-EGSD Engagement Letter July 2010); his last bill to the town was dated May 2012.
Before he was hired, Whitney had told the construction management firm overseeing the project (SBS, now known as Colliers*) about his firm’s work with Gilbane. Lamendola said school officials were never told. Lamendola alleged then and continues to allege, along with the other Sarah’s Trace homeowners involved in the original lawsuit, that officials in charge of the project kept Whitney’s association with Gilbane a secret and that Whitney’s subsequent involvement in the case meant he was not really working on behalf of the school district. Jean Ann Guliano, who was chair of the School Committee in 2010, said in 2019 she did not recall whether or not she was ever given that information. More recently, Guliano said upon further review, she now believes she had not been made aware that Whitney had also represented Gilbane**.
Lamendola brought his allegations about Whitney to the School Committee in 2019. They subsequently hired James Callaghan to investigate. Callaghan’s recommendation after his investigation was for the School Committee to take no further action (find his letter here: Sarah’s Trace – Outcome of Investigation). Lamendola said he also brought his allegations about Whitney to the State Police, the state Ethics Commission, and the R.I. Attorney General’s office. A spokesperson for the State Police told East Greenwich News in 2019 there was nothing for them to do because it was not a criminal matter. According to a spokesman from the Ethics Commission, that panel only investigates issues relating to elected or appointed state or local officials, not private contractors such as Whitney.
Jean Ann Guliano and another former School Committee member, Susan Records, recently brought the matter of Whitney’s possible conflict of interest to the AG’s office. They were told such matters could be pursued by the Judicial Disciplinary Counsel, which disciplines lawyers who run afoul of the rules of professional conduct. According to a spokeswoman at the Judicial Disciplinary Counsel, investigations are not made public unless there is a finding of wrongdoing. A search of Christopher Whitney’s name in the R.I. Supreme Court’s lawyer database shows no history of disciplinary action. Lamendola said he has been told he could not bring this to the Disciplinary Counsel because he, as a homeowner and not the client, did not have standing.
School Solicitor Aubrey Lombardo issued this statement about the homeowners’ recent request:
“… The homeowners had a trial with a full and fair opportunity to pursue and adjudicate their civil claims. The homeowners then signed a settlement agreement in which they voluntarily agreed not to file an appeal and instead agreed to resolve all claims that were asserted or could have been asserted by the homeowners.
As to the homeowners’ allegations that they learned of wrongdoing after signing the settlement agreement in 2015, in March of 2019, some of the homeowners sent a letter to the School Committee alleging that certain individuals, including a former employee of the School Committee and two former attorneys retained by the School Committee were engaged in behavior that was “deceitful, unethical and unprofessional” and requested that the Town Council and School Committee or Rhode Island State Authorities perform a “full, independent investigation.” In response to the aforementioned March 22, 2019 letter, the School Committee formally retained Attorney James Callaghan, to investigate the allegations made in the letter and to provide legal advice regarding the same. After a thorough investigation, Atty. Callaghan concluded that the School Committee should take no action in the matter and subsequently sent a final letter to [the Lamendolas, the Hogan-Pelosis and the Amellottes] stating the same.”
Lamendola and Guliano also spoke to the Town Council Sept. 28, making the same request that they asked the School Committee, to “make them whole” by giving them the money the court did not.
In terms of using the remaining $5.75 million from the $52 million bond referendum approved by voters in 2008, as suggested by Guliano, Town Manager Andy Nota said it would not be possible to use that money to give the homeowners anything.
“These funds cannot be used for any other purposes other than what was originally approved by voters in the bond resolution that authorized the bond,” Nota said.
The town did lower the homeowners’ property assessments after the homeowners brought a lawsuit (read more HERE). Beyond that, said Town Solicitor Andy Teitz, “In light of the fact that there was a court decision following a jury trial, the town can do nothing further.”
*Colliers is the same company the school district is working with on its current building project.
**According to a 2019 email exchange shared by Chris Lamendola, Guliano wrote to him, “I honestly don’t remember,” regarding whether or not she had known Whitney was also representing Gilbane. Notes from an interview EG News had with Guliano in 2019 reflect the same information. Earlier this month, Guliano said this: “On the issue of remembering if we were informed of any conflicts, when originally asked on the fly, I could not specifically remember. However, after giving it some thought. I did recall an executive session meeting when [Whitney] was brought on board for the building project. Since it’s in executive session, it’s confidential. However, I recalled that he mentioned that a lawyer at his firm used to represent Gilbane on a matter and if that issue came up again, that attorney would handle it but it would not affect [Whitney] or anyone working with [Whitney].”
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