Banner Banter

The bright orange protest poster outside a Bellaire home continues to bring a banner year for the legal business.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Mary and Keith Cohn received a not-so-neighborly letter from next door. They were threatened with a lawsuit if they didn't immediately remove the sign that hangs in front of their Bellaire home. It warns people not to buy houses from Casa Builders, the company that constructed their mold-infested home.

This demand letter wasn't from Casa -- but there were connections. Willowick Partners, which built a house next door, said that the Cohns' five- by 15-foot sign is preventing anyone from buying the Willowick-built home. The wording of the letter was familiar, Mary says. She looked at the letterhead and saw that it was from the same law office -- Winstead, Sechrest & Minick -- that Casa Builders hired to sue her about the sign last February.

In December, frustrated by the mold that caused them to evacuate their home, which had cost nearly $1 million, the Cohns displayed the banner across the front of the three-story house. Casa Builders sued, accusing the family's sign of bringing "extraordinary damage" to its sterling business reputation. State District Judge Levi Benton ruled that the Cohns had a constitutional right to keep the sign (see "Buyers' Remorse," by Wendy Grossman, June 20).

"Personally, I think that the people next door should be thanking us, because we're increasing the traffic flow by their house with our Day-Glo orange sign," Keith says. "They should really be writing us a thank-you note, not a threatening letter for a lawsuit."

Winstead attorney John Cannon wrote that potential buyers are "offended" by the sign. He implored the Cohns to think about how "unattractive your neighborhood would be if all your neighbors had 10' x 16' bright Day-Glo orange signs slapped across the front of their houses."

Cannon did not respond to requests for comment from the Houston Press. His letter gave the family one week to get the sign down or face legal action.

"I dare him," says Jim Moriarty, the Cohns' attorney. "I double dare him. If that builder has the audacity to march down to the courthouse and ask 12 citizens of Harris County what they think of his behavior, I think they're liable to hang him up by the thumbs. There's gonna be a bounty on these people before they figure out that they don't get to build houses of straw, charge for them like they're mansions, and then tell people to go screw themselves after they start falling apart after they move in."

Moriarty says that if Cannon tries to interfere with the Cohns' right to free speech, which includes hanging whatever sign they want to, he plans to countersue.

There may be a touch of personal animosity between the builder of the house next door and the Cohns. Mary did (anonymously) make three phone calls to the City of Bellaire to report that she'd seen the builder putting up brick without first applying a moisture barrier. Mary says she videotaped the bad building procedure and that the city made the builder tear off the brick.

"Who knows what else they did wrong," Keith alleges.

Mary plans to keep her banner. As a matter of fact, she plans to add the dozen other signs she had made for the protest she organized during the 2002 Bellaire New Home Showcase. She also plans to canvass the neighborhood and ask people to sign a petition saying her banner should stay.

"I know all my neighbors support me," Mary says.

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Wendy Grossman
Contact: Wendy Grossman