During the past four months, Mark Kukucka has spent many lunch hours and weekends picketing the national headquarters of The Ryland Group Inc. in Columbia and some of its new home developments in Baltimore and Howard counties with a sign warning: "I bought a lemon. You could too."
The sign symbolizes the tart relationship that has developed between a once-happy customer and a company with a national reputation for well-built homes.
Mr. Kukucka's goal in picketing is to make prospective Ryland customers aware of his "disappointment" with a $183,000 Ryland home he purchased in October 1993 in the Parkview Trails development near Security Square Mall.
He sued Ryland in November 1994, contending there are at least 88 things wrong with his home -- from poorly installed carpeting to basement leaks.
Such defects, he claims, amount to a breach of his contract with the homebuilder.
But that was only the beginning of the Baltimore County resident's tangled dispute with the nation's third-largest homebuilder.
The latest turn came in March when Ryland filed a $750,000 suit against the 34-year-old scientist.
In its suit, the company alleges that while Mr. Kukucka has been picketing Ryland properties, he has harassed sales employees, made some fear for their safety by following them home and calling them, and prevented business at some sales centers.
"All of this behavior amounts to harassment," said David Lesser, Ryland's general counsel.
Mr. Kukucka, who works for Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, a Columbia manufacturer of measuring instruments, says he doesn't think he did anything wrong.
He said of the homebuilder: "They are nothing more than corporate bullies."
In its suit, Ryland alleges Mr. Kukucka's behavior frightened customers and employees and resulted in lost business. "Ryland employees have a right to a safe work environment," said Mr. Lesser, the company lawyer.
But Mr. Kukucka, who has kept detailed logs of his correspondence with Ryland and of his picketing activities, said: "Where I work, if a customer is unhappy we go out of our way to make it right. Ryland has done nothing but stalled."
The dispute began last summer when Mr. Kukucka began noticing what he claims are the defects in his home. Until then, he said, "I loved this house."
In phone interviews yesterday, Ryland officials acknowledge that some of the subcontractor work in Mr. Kukucka's five-bedroom home isn't up to snuff.
They contend, however, that they have offered to pay for a home inspector to review his complaints and then make any needed repairs. But, they said, Mr. Kukucka has refused their offers.
"Dr. Kukucka has acted somewhat irrationally," said Anne Madison, a Ryland spokeswoman.
Mr. Kukucka acknowledges that Ryland offered to have a contractor look at his property for repair work, but he claims his trust in Ryland was shattered when the contractor attempted to have a duplicate set of his house keys made.
Ryland's lawyer contends that incident never happened.
"Mr. Kukucka is unwilling to be satisfied," said Mr. Lesser.
Such suits are sometimes construed as "strategic lawsuits against public participation" -- called SLAPP suits -- and as such are opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Susan Goering, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland. said SLAPP suits are aimed at "scaring people into being quiet" about their objections.
"It's very scary for a private citizen to be sued like this. It tips the balance" in favor of the corporation, which has a deeper legal pocket, said Ms. Goering.
Last month the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill that would protect protesters from SLAPP lawsuits aimed at muzzling them. The bill still must be approved by the state Senate and signed into law by the governor.
Mr. Lesser said Ryland's legal action is not a SLAPP suit and is not intended to muzzle Mr. Kukucka or deter his picketing.
In connection with its suit, Ryland earlier this month asked Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe to order Mr. Kukucka to stay 200 yards away from its headquarters and sales offices, to "cease all activity intended to interfere" with Ryland's business and to bar him from calling Ryland workers at home or following them home.
On March 16, Judge Howe ordered Mr. Kukucka to desist from calling Ryland employees at home, following or videotaping them, and deterring customer traffic into Ryland sales centers.
She denied Ryland's request to order Mr. Kukucka to stay 200 yards away from its properties. The judge also said he could engage in any demonstrations protected by the U.S. Constitution.
So Mr. Kukucka continues to stage his one-man picketing several days a week on the sidewalk in front of Ryland's Columbia headquarters and at some of its sales centers.
Ryland claims victory
He said he believes Ryland's effort to have him removed from picketing near its offices is a clear sign that his demonstrations are hitting home with company executives.
"They don't want people seeing me and my signs near their corporate name, which, of course, is the point of a picket," said Mr. Kukucka.
Mr. Lesser, Ryland's lawyer, sees Judge Howe's order as a victory for the homebuilder.
He said the company sought the 200-yard requirement to protect the safety of its employees and to ensure that Mr. Kukucka did not encroach on Ryland or others' properties.
Mr. Kukucka said he now wants Ryland to return the money he spent on his house.
"I ask you, who threw gasoline on this fire?" he said.
Mr. Lesser, the Ryland attorney, said the company would still like to make repairs to Mr. Kukucka's home. "We really want to put this whole thing behind us."