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 that at least 88 things are 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 occurred this month 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.
The scientist, who works for Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, a Columbia manufacturer of measuring instruments, said he doesn't think he did anything wrong.
Said Mr. Kukucka 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.
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 acknowledged 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, the scientist has refused their offers.
"Dr. Kukucka has acted somewhat irrationally," said Anne Madison, a Ryland spokeswoman.
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.
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.