Zina Hines was just 10 years old when Philadelphia Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. stole from her dead father's estate to land a piece of property he'd had his eye on for years, according to a lawsuit filed last week.
Hines, now 23 and living in Maryland, contends that Berry, as a lawyer in a 1995 slip-and-fall case against her father's estate, used the courts to swindle her out of land now worth more than $100,000.
Hines was a minor at the time and her father's sole heir. She said she did not learn of the sale of the land until The Inquirer reported on the case last year.
Berry's actions, in a flurry of legal filings in the estate and civil cases, amounted to "theft by deception," Hines' suit said, and should be overturned.
"It's outrageous," said her lawyer, Kevin J. Murphy. "They stole this property from her deceased father."
Through his lawyer, Samuel C. Stretton, Berry said this week that he had done nothing wrong. Stretton said the Hines family had known for years that the lot had been sold to settle the lawsuit.
Moreover, he said, the statute of limitations on any claims had passed.
"I just don't understand," Stretton said. "Maybe in 1995, '96, it would have been a good suit, but 2008 seems like a stretch."
Hines' lawyer said the statute of limitations did not apply because she learned only recently what had happened to her father's land and thus could not have legally objected sooner.
As The Inquirer reported last June, the saga began with a slip-and-fall lawsuit filed by Berry. According to that suit, in March 1993, a woman fell on an icy sidewalk on West Girard Avenue, injuring her neck, wrist and shoulder.
The accident happened in front of a vacant lot owned by Zina Hines' father and next door to Berry's law office. Berry had long coveted the land and had tried to buy it at least twice.
The woman who fell, Denise Jackson, hired Berry to sue the estate of Andre Hines, who had purchased the property for $25,000 in 1988. Four years later, Hines died in a car accident at age 31, leaving no will.
By Berry's account, he repeatedly tried to contact Hines' relatives, who did not respond to letters and legal filings, notifying them of the lawsuit. So he went to the city's register of wills and had his longtime friend Henry Reddy appointed as administrator of Hines' estate. The law allows this when heirs do not come forward to claim an estate and there are pending legal claims.
Reddy, who was working in Berry's law office, did not contest the lawsuit, even though estate experts say he had a legal obligation to do so. Instead, documents show, he and Berry agreed to a settlement: Hines' estate would sell the property to Jackson for $1 as compensation for the injuries she sustained in her fall.
Property records show that she, in turn, sold the land to ReddBerry Development Corp., owned by Berry, with Reddy serving as treasurer, for $1,500.
At the time, city officials say, the land was easily worth far more than the $25,000 Andre Hines had paid for it seven years earlier. Today, it's worth more than $100,000, according to officials at the city's Board of Revision of Taxes.
Jackson, who has filed a separate suit against Berry and Reddy, insists Berry never told her that she owned the land. Both lawsuits are pending in Common Pleas Court.
Stretton said Berry fully explained the transactions to Jackson, who signed documents agreeing to the settlement and the sale of the land.
In a lawsuit filed in September, Jackson alleges that Berry defrauded her. She also alleges that Berry, now a Common Pleas Court judge, broke various rules of professional conduct by failing to explain the settlement, taking an excessive fee, and profiting from a business transaction with a client.
Berry has denied that in court filings.
Jackson also filed a complaint against Berry with the state disciplinary board for lawyers and the state Judicial Conduct Board, which is investigating.
Berry was elected to the bench in 1995 and reelected to a 10-year term in 2005. He ran unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court last year.
Reddy, who now works as Berry's judicial aide, did not return phone calls this week. He is named as a defendant in Jackson's suit as well as in the suit filed by Zina Hines.
Stretton, an expert in legal ethics, has acknowledged that Berry had made legal missteps and engaged in "sloppy lawyering" in Jackson's case. But he said Berry had done nothing "criminal or malicious."
Murphy, the lawyer for Hines, said Berry and Reddy had conspired to deprive Zina Hines of her rightful claim to her father's land.
"I think Mr. Berry and Mr. Reddy were looking to make some money for themselves," he said. "I think they hoped that by the time she reached the age of majority, this would be long forgotten."