Josh Flory: Classic car part of Rarity legal dispute

By Josh Flory

It's no surprise that waterfront lots and spacious fairways are in play during the legal tug-of-war between the developers of Rarity Pointe, the upscale residential community in Lenoir City.

So what's the unexpected twist? A dispute over a pink, 1956 Ford Thunderbird.

Scope readers will recall that Maryville developer Mike Ross and his estranged business partner, developer Robert Stooksbury, have been duking it out in the federal courthouse for months.

The two men, along with former Knoxville attorney Ward Whelchel, had partnered on Rarity Pointe, but the relationship (and the project) soured. In 2009, Stooksbury filed a federal suit against Ross, and earlier this year a default judgment was entered, with a jury recommending millions in damages against Ross and certain other defendants.

The dispute continues to rack up billable hours, though, and one of the ongoing tussles centers on Stooksbury's allegations that Ross and other defendants have been transferring assets, in an effort to frustrate Stooksbury's collection efforts.

One asset that's still in play is the T-Bird. According to a motion that was filed by Stooksbury's legal team, the vintage car was owned by Tellico Lake Properties, an entity behind the Rarity Bay community in Vonore and one of the defendants in the lawsuit.

Stooksbury's motion said the U.S. Marshal had executed on the car and asked the court to allow a sale, with the available proceeds going to pay off the judgment due to Stooksbury. An entity called Athena of SC is looking to block that motion, though. In its own court filing, Athena argued that it has a "first priority" security interest in the car because, among other things, Athena won a judgment against Tellico Lake in Knox County Circuit Court, and struck a deal in which the car was transferred to an Athena affiliate.

Stooksbury's attorney, Wayne Ritchie, is skeptical of the relationship between Ross and Athena, though. During the hearing on Tuesday, he elicited testimony from a friendly witness who noted that an agreed judgment in Athena's lawsuit was reached on the same day the suit was filed.

For his part, Ross has painted a different picture, saying after one recent court hearing that the man behind Athena Ted Doukas had gotten aggressive with him. "Everybody's trying to collect from me," the developer said.

The Rarity Pointe property is likely headed for a foreclosure auction, after a recent ruling in bankruptcy court. Whether the T-Bird will end up on its own auction block remains to be seen, though.

Related Story

Receiver approved in lawsuit against Mike Ross
An April 27, 2010 photograph of the Rarity Pointe development in Loudon County. (Michael Patrick/News Sentinel)

By Josh Flory

Mike Ross has lost another legal battle and another of his residential communities.

A federal judge said he will appoint a former Knoxville police chief as receiver for Ross the Maryville developer and other defendants in a lawsuit related to the Rarity Pointe community.

The order came in a lawsuit filed by developer Robert Stooksbury against Ross his estranged business partner in Rarity Pointe and several other defendants, a majority of which are business entities for which Ross is the principal.

Earlier this year, a default judgment was entered in the case after the defendants failed to adequately respond to discovery requests. A jury subsequently awarded Stooksbury $14.8 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages.

But in an order filed Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton said there is good cause to believe that certain conveyances of property by Ross and others may be fraudulent and that there is imminent danger that property will be concealed, lost or diminished in value.

"The Court finds that fraudulent conduct has likely occurred in an effort to frustrate the Plaintiff's claim, and the Court further finds that it is likely to continue to occur if the Court declines to appoint a receiver," the judge wrote.

The judge said he will appoint former Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV as receiver.

In another legal twist, attorney Lewis Howard who represents WindRiver Investments LLC, the mortgage holder on Rarity Pointe said he had taken possession of the Rarity Pointe property and golf course on Wednesday.

Howard said that according to a deed of trust, he was empowered to take that action in case of default, but had been precluded from doing so while a bankruptcy filing related to Rarity Pointe was pending. Last week, a bankruptcy judge dismissed that Chapter 11 case.

Howard said a foreclosure sale for unsold residential lots and the golf course at Rarity Pointe is scheduled for 10 a.m. on June 21, at the Loudon County Courthouse. In the meantime, he said, "everything will go on business as usual", including scheduled golf tournaments.

WindRiver's president is Joseph Ayres, whose son is married to Stooksbury's daughter.

Neither Ross nor his attorney could be reached for comment. Wayne Ritchie, an attorney for Stooksbury, said in an email that "Mr. Stooksbury appreciates the Court's thorough consideration of these important issues and also appreciates the significant number of homeowners at Rarity Bay who joined in support of Mr. Stooksbury's motion to have a receiver appointed."

The transfers in question are related to an entity called Athena of S.C. LLC, which is operated by Ted Doukas.

Last week, Stooksbury's legal team filed a motion which alleged that shortly after Guyton recommended entry of a default judgment a recommendation that happened in September Athena obtained an interest in bank notes that encumbered certain property of the defendants.

The filing alleged that Ross and other defendants "have attempted to transfer substantially all of their interests in their remaining 'Rarity' developments to Mr. Doukas' entities in a series of paper transactions which reflect no legitimate consideration."

Guyton's ruling said it appears the granting of the security interests to Athena of S.C. "likely was meant to conceal assets, or remove assets from the reach of the Plaintiff's judgment. The Defendants have presented no evidence to the contrary."

Mark Brown, an attorney for Athena, said Thursday that "Athena denies that it's been involved in any kind of fraudulent conveyances and we're confident that eventually the truth will come out about that."

The decision is only the latest setback for Ross, who earned wide acclaim as his firm developed upscale residential projects across East Tennessee. Rarity Communities was devastated by the financial downturn, though, and has faced a flurry of legal and financial challenges in recent years. In April 2010, three Rarity-related companies filed for Chapter 11 protection two days before a scheduled foreclosure sale at Rarity Mountain in Campbell County and GreenBank later took the property at a foreclosure auction.

GreenBank also took back Rarity Club, a waterfront project in Marion County, and foreclosed on Rarity Rivers in Meigs County.