The co-owner of a closed dance studio has sued her former lawyer, contending that his mishandling of her divorce caused an "unrelenting legal battle" with her estranged husband.
Debra Jo Clifton claims in court documents that attorney Michael Reuter advised her to take half of the property from the couple's home and all the equipment from their studio without informing her husband.
Ms. Clifton, a resident of Pasadena, is seeking $500,000 in damages from Mr. Reuter and his Columbia firm, Reuter & Tuma, according to documents filed in Howard Circuit Court last month.
"We don't believe her claim has any merit at all," said Malik Tuma, Mr. Reuter's partner. He declined further comment on the suit's allegations.
Ms. Clifton could not be reached for comment. David Whitworth Jr., a Crofton attorney for Ms. Clifton, said he does not believe that Mr. Reuter committed the alleged acts intentionally, but he declined to discuss details of the suit.
Meanwhile, Mr. Reuter has sued Ms. Clifton over unpaid legal fees. The attorney claims in court papers that Ms. Clifton owes him $3,632.
Mr. Whitworth said he will argue that his client should not have to pay the legal fees to Mr. Reuter because his services were not adequate.
Ms. Clifton claims that Mr. Reuter's negligence caused her to suffer monetary damages, financial embarrassment, humiliation, ridicule and mental anxiety, states the suit, filed April 8.
Mr. Reuter and his firm "failed to exercise a reasonable standard of care to protect Ms. Clifton's interests, by instructing her to pursue a path that was bound to and did escalate marital friction," the suit states.
Ms. Clifton operated the Starlight Ballroom studio in the 9700 block of Route 99 in Ellicott City with her husband, Raymond Clifton Jr. The Cliftons ceased dance lessons last year as their divorce proceeded through Circuit Court. The divorce is pending, according to court documents.
Ms. Clifton says in the suit that she went to Mr. Reuter in June 1991 to represent her in divorce proceedings and to oversee the sale of the couple's dance studio.
The plaintiff instructed Mr. Reuter that she wanted to resign from the dance instruction company with "as little hassle as possible" from her husband, the suit states.
Ms. Clifton said she told the attorney that she had preliminary negotiations to sell the studio to one of its instructors for $100,000, the suit states. But Mr. Reuter instructed Ms. Clifton that she must continue working as the company's president.
The suit says Ms. Clifton followed the attorney's instructions and removed half of the property from the home she shared with her husband.
Mr. Clifton retaliated by refusing to authorize expenditures to operate the dance studio, became rude and abusive to the company's staff, and removed documents and property from the studio, the suit says.
Mr. Clifton, acting as the studio's landlord, then sent Ms. Clifton a letter on Aug. 29 informing her that if she didn't sign a new lease within two days he would begin eviction proceedings, the suit states.
Mr. Reuter instructed Ms. Clifton to load up the property from the dance studio and put it in a storage facility -- without informing her husband or customers, the suit states.
With the closing of the studio, 12 students filed suit against Ms. Clifton to get back their deposits, the suit states. Many students went to a competing studio opened by a former employee of the Starlight Ballroom.
Mr. Clifton offered Ms. Clifton $25,000 for the return of the corporate assets and marital property, but Mr. Reuter did not pursue this offer, the suit states.
In a meeting between Ms. Clifton and Mr. Reuter, the attorney acknowledged that he had gotten her into a "quagmire of events" and advised her to seek another attorney to represent her, the suit states.