$400K driveway? Owners, landscaper in tangle of suits

JULIE LANE PHOTO | The disputed driveway at the home of Melissa Koh and husband S. Douglas Hahn on Gardiners Bay Drive.

A landscaper with a small family business alleges he’s caught between deep-pocketed Shelter Island homeowners and the landscape contractor who hired him to the tune of $400,000.

What Matthew Daly of MGD Horticulture in  Mattituck  said he wants is to be paid for the work he and his crew did. This includes both landscaping and creating a granite and “Belgian block” driveway at 34 Gardiners Bay Drive — a house owned by hedge fund manager Melissa Ko and publisher S. Daniel Hahn. Mr. Daly maintains he submitted a proposal for the work to Dirtworks, a New York City landscaping architectural firm, and said the job actually came in below budget. (Note: The NYC Dirtworks has no connection with S.C. Dirtworks, Inc.)

But Robert N. Zausmer of the Garden City law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, representing Ms. Ko and Mr. Hahn, aid his clients were in Korea when they first learned about the driveway work — work they didn’t approve and for which they do not want to be held responsible.

“They had no idea it was being put in,” Mr. Zausmer said about the driveway. “They weren’t happy.”

What’s more, Ms. Ko and Mr. Hahn said Mr. Daly lacked a home improvement contractor’s license necessary to undertake the driveway construction. Mr. Daly said no such license is necessary on Shelter Island and argued the work was done in conjunction with new construction, not a home improvement.

The case has gone national, with the Wall Street Journal running a feature article on the charge and counter charge controversy.

MGD was paid $225,818 of a $226,088 bill for the initial phase of landscaping, but a subsequent bill of $405,595 for additional landscaping and the driveway has gone unpaid. That’s what put the homeowners in court with Mr. Daly.

It’s also why Mr. Zausmer said he’s bringing suit against Dirtworks for any money the court decides is owed to Mr. Daly by his clients. That includes money New York State Supreme Court Justice Emily Pines ruled in April should be paid for landscaping, although the amount has yet to be determined. Mr. Daly said he’s owed $276,902 for landscaping, while Ms. Ko and Mr. Hahn put the amount at $249,172 according to court papers.

While the court ponders the amount to award Mr. Daly for the landscaping, he complains he’s out the full $405,595 — money he said he paid for materials and workers to do the job he said Dirtworks authorized. He added he used up an $89,000 line of credit including his personal credit cards to cover his costs.

He questioned Dirtworks officials about the bill before the job was done, but said he was assured he would be paid.

“I smelled a rat,” Mr. Daly said. What concerned him was a bill he sent to Mr. Hahn that went unpaid. When he questioned Mr. Hahn, he said he was told the check must have been left at his office and would be mailed, but he never got it.

He subsequently questioned Dirtworks about not being paid and was assured the clients would be paying for the work, so he completed it. But after August 2011, when the job was done and no money was forthcoming, Mr. Daly filed suit.

Reporter phone calls to Dirtworks President and Founder David Kamp have gone unanswered. Efforts to reach Ms. Ko and Mr. Hahn resulted in Mr. Zausmer saying only he would speak for his clients.

Mr. Zausmer compared the situation to someone planning to remodel a kitchen for a modest cost and then returning to town to learn that a million dollar kitchen had been installed.

Ms. Ko and Mr. Hahn, meanwhile, counter sued Mr. Daly for “willful exaggeration” of his qualifications.

Mr. Daly’s attorney, Edward Boyle of Manhasset, has filed a motion with the New York State Supreme Court asking for a re-argument of the case. The court could act on that motion as soon as June 4.

Since the completion of the work in August 2011, there was the possibility of negotiating a settlement, Mr. Zausmer said. But a previous attorney for Mr. Daly was “aggressive” and there was no opportunity “to negotiate this before the war broke out,” he said.
“We would be very happy to come to a reasonable resolve,” Mr. Zausmer said.

Meanwhile, he’s filing suit against Dirtworks for any money his clients would have to pay Mr. Daly if Judge Pines stands by her original ruling that Ms. Ko and Mr. Hahn are responsible for landscaping costs.

Dirtworks, in turn, presumably could bring suit against the unnamed architectural firm originally hired by the couple if it cleared Mr. Daly’s proposed costs with that firm before authorizing any work.