Familiar echoes in Florida ruling against Danielle Pendergraft

Familiar echoes in Florida ruling against Danielle Pendergraft

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Danielle Pendergraft (left) appeared with attorney Kristen Schuler Scammon in Edgartown District Court on May 29, 2012, in connection with outstanding debts.

A Florida judge on Friday rejected a claim filed against a Gainesville landlord by former Edgartown resident Danielle Pendergraft, who now uses the name Danielle Dobiecki. The case included testimony from two Edgartown residents with direct knowledge of Ms. Pendergraft’s litigious, three-year residency on Martha’s Vineyard.

On September 10, 2013, Danielle Pendergraft filed a civil lawsuit in Alachua County District Court in which she asked the court to compel John “Wes” White to honor a lease he had signed several weeks earlier for a house he owned. Ms. Pendergraft sought to rent the house for $2,250 per month. Mr. White canceled the deal based on concerns about Ms. Pendergraft’s previous business dealings.

After hearing evidence in a bench trial that included testimony from two Edgartown residents, Alachua County Court Judge Denise Ferrero rejected all of Ms. Pendergraft’s claims for damages and cited her “long standing pattern of misleading people.”

Testimony in the Gainesville case, and interviews with attorneys, landlords and others, echo the controversies that surrounded Danielle Pendergraft and her husband, Scott, while they lived on the Vineyard. The couple and their three children arrived here from Texas in 2009 and quickly became part of Edgartown’s social fabric.

While they lived in Edgartown, the Pendergrafts rented a $4 million home on South Water Street, joined the Edgartown Yacht Club, and threw lavish parties. Ms. Pendergraft also agreed to help the Edgartown Library Foundation in its fundraising efforts.

Ms. Pendergraft billed herself as the head of Holiday Public Relations & Events, a Houston-based firm with the worldwide ability to handle a wide range of public relations work and events. The company did not live up to its billing.

While living on the Island, Ms. Pendergraft and her husband actively promoted a vineyard and winery project on a 45-acre property in West Tisbury listed for sale at $3.8 million.

Prior to their departure in 2012 they initiated lawsuits against individuals and charity organizations that had once welcomed them. Ms. Pendergraft was also the subject of claims made against her by two Island businesses in small claims court. In one case, she claimed that her company, and not she, was responsible for payment. She did not appear in court for the second claim. The court found for the businesses in both cases.

Betrayed

In the one-day trial on April 22, Marc Warner, a Gainesville attorney who represented Mr. White, called 10 people to the witness stand to rebut Ms. Pendergraft’s allegations and testify about her character. The witnesses included Wendy Harmon, principal broker at Point B Realty in Edgartown.

During their time on Martha’s Vineyard, Danielle Pendergraft engaged Ms. Harmon as a real estate broker. Ms. Harmon told The Times she felt betrayed when Ms. Pendergraft used Ms. Harmon’s social connections to solicit large sums of money for the ill-fated winery project.

In a phone interview with The Times, Ms. Harmon said she was at first reluctant to travel to Florida because she was busy with her real estate firm. “But I really wanted to help Wes White,” she said. “I just kind of understand the whole predicament she put him and his family in, and I felt obligated.” She said a camaraderie quickly developed among the witnesses, some from Houston, others from Florida, who were waiting to testify.

“I would say her reputation is one of being a con artist and a grifter,” Ms. Harmon told Judge Ferrero, according to a video recording of the trial.

Susan Cahoon, treasurer of the Edgartown Library Foundation, also testified in court.

“I would say she’s notorious,” Ms. Cahoon said in court. “She has embarrassed and extorted and behaved in a fraudulent manner.”

Over a period of two years, the library foundation paid Ms. Pendergraft $63,500 for event planning and public relations services under a contractual agreement, according to tax records. After her relationship with the library foundation soured, she sued the organization, and Ms. Cahoon personally, charging they violated copyright law and unfair trade practice laws for using some of the public relations material she developed.

That lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Just before leaving Martha’s Vineyard, Ms. Pendergraft’s firm, Holiday Public Relations and Events, filed a lawsuit against SQuire Rushnell and his wife Louise DuArt, who founded Network of Neighbors. The charity was meant to introduce Island residents who needed help to people who wanted to help them, through an online exchange.

The lawsuit demanded more than $43,000 for public relations services Ms. Pendergraft did as an employee of Holiday. Both sides remain tangled in court.

Verdict

The judge referred to the witness testimony in her verdict.

“The testimony established that Plaintiff (Ms. Pendergraft) has a long standing pattern of misleading people and then threatening or engaging in litigation when the facts come to light,” Judge Ferrero wrote in her opinion. “In this case, she obtained information about Defendant from people he knew, contacted him, and lied about her means to purchase the property.

“Through these actions, she was able to persuade Defendant to lease the property to her while she secured funding to make the purchase. She did not have that funding and had no intention of obtaining it. She then obtained access to the property under the guise of measuring for curtains and rugs, but proceeded to move two truck loads worth of her belongings into the house without permission.”

The judge also noted that Ms. Pendergraft pursued litigation against Mr. White as an indigent person who was not required to pay the usual court fees, while maintaining that she was ready to fulfill the lease.

The judge said that Mr. White should have done more to check out Ms. Pendergraft’s background before signing a lease. “He conducted no investigation, Internet search, or inquiry into her driver’s license, prior lease history, criminal arrest or conviction history, bankruptcy history, litigation history, or whether she had been known by any other names,” Judge Ferrero said. “He also did not check the public records in Houston or Martha’s Vineyard, even though Plaintiff told him she had owned property in both places.”

In her verdict, the judge wrote that Mr. White is entitled to recover court costs from Ms. Pendergraft, for expenses such as depositions, transcripts, court reporter fees, and other costs over more than eight months of litigation. The verdict also allows Mr. White to ask the court for attorney fees, by filing a motion before Judge Ferraro.

On May 21, 2014 an Alachua County Court issued a final divorce decree, dissolving the marriage of Scott and Danielle Pendergraft, according to court records.

Under the terms of the divorce decree, Danielle Pendergraft was granted the legal right to use the name Danielle Dobiecki. The decree states that any proceeds from an ongoing lawsuit against Mr. Rushnell and Ms. DuArt would go to Scott Pendergraft, and any proceeds from the lawsuit against Mr. White would go to Danielle Pendergraft.

Efforts to reach Ms. Pendergraft by e-mail for comment were unsuccessful. In an email to The Times Wednesday morning filled with religious references, Mr. Pendergraft blamed Mr. Rushnell and Ms. DuArt for unfairly harassing his family.

Reached Wednesday morning, Ms. Pendergraft’s attorney in the Gainesville trial, Leonard Ireland, Jr., declined to comment.