City attorney’s husband bought a house that had $271,250 in fines. Now there’s a lawsuit

Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez and her husband have been sued over allegations they orchestrated a scheme to enrich themselves by buying and flipping a Little Havana home from a man who said he was convinced to sell the house below market value.

Jose Alvarez, who inherited his family home in the 900 block of Northwest 30th Avenue after his mother died in 2017, is suing Méndez, her husband, Carlos Morales, and the city of Miami after what he claims was a coordinated effort to convince him that he needed to sell Morales his house for less than what it was worth because there were fines for code violations amounting to $271,250.

In the lawsuit, Alvarez, 70, claims that he sold the undervalued home to Morales after Méndez referred Alvarez to her husband, who owns a company called Express Homes Inc. Morales did not answer the Miami Herald’s questions about what his company does.

The three-count civil complaint, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court late Tuesday, states that after Morales purchased the property from Alvarez, he then renovated the house mostly without permits and used political connections at City Hall to have the violations wiped out by the city’s code enforcement board. Morales sold the home for $165,000 more than he paid for it.

In July 2018, Morales emailed City Hall officials, including an assistant city attorney who works for his wife, to request an appearance before the city’s code enforcement board six days later. According to an email cited in the lawsuit, Morales said he was on a tight timeline because he was scheduled to close on a sale of the home, and the unaddressed lien would cause him “serious financial loss” if he couldn’t close.

Morales’ request was granted. During his appearance, the lawsuit says, a member of the code enforcement board said “somebody said we had the Santa Claus suit on” before a motion was made to wipe the fines out. The board granted the request after a short conversation.

“The City waived $271,250.00 in fines for the property now owned by the City Attorney’s husband after a one-minute explanation,” the lawsuit reads.

Original owner’s lament, city attorney’s response

“This is not the outcome I wanted for the house,” Alvarez told reporters at a Wednesday press conference announcing the lawsuit. “I wanted to keep the house, and unfortunately, because the city wouldn’t work with me, I was not able to do so.”

On Wednesday in a text message, Méndez called the allegations “patently false” and said she would never try to steer a citizen to her husband’s business.

“This is libel,” Méndez told the Herald, referring to a notice about the press conference.

Morales did not answer a phone call from a reporter and only communicated through text messages.

“I’m disheartened that a frivolous lawsuit like this would be filed,” Morales wrote. “I look forward to addressing in court.”

Alvarez’s attorney, Jeffrey Gutchess, said Alvarez should be paid $200,000 for damages.

City of Miami Attorney Victoria Méndez speaks during a City of Miami Commission meeting on Jan. 12, 2023.
City of Miami Attorney Victoria Méndez speaks during a City of Miami Commission meeting on Jan. 12, 2023.

Lawsuit’s allegations

At a press conference announcing the lawsuit Wednesday, Gutchess said Alvarez had retired from AT&T to take care of his mother in the home when she started to show signs of dementia. As the disease worsened, Alvarez moved his mother for more intense care, and he rented the three-bedroom, three-bath house to pay for medical costs.

The attorney said a tenant who was evicted for not paying rent complained to the city in 2015 about an unpermitted interior wall that was built years ago in order to rent a portion of the house.

After he inherited the home, Alvarez claims he contacted Méndez in early 2017 to figure out how to address the $271,250 in fines from the violation. According to the lawsuit, Alvarez said Méndez referred him to her husband.

Express Homes Inc. does not appear to advertise or maintain a website. Morales, who did not answer the Herald’s questions about his line of work, appears to have applied for a license to inspect homes, according to records at the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

The lawsuit states that Morales told Alvarez the value of the home was “substantially diminished” because of the violations and fines, and that it would cost Alvarez “an inordinate amount of money” to clear the house of its permitting issues. Alvarez claims Morales told him his only hope was to sell the home “at the below-market price of $205,000,” according to the complaint. Miami-Dade property records show Morales’ company purchased the home for that price in August 2017.

Alvarez’s attorneys allege that Morales did renovations without permission, pulling only one $60 permit for new windows and doors, and that Morales somehow skipped a series of permitting processes and obtained a record of compliance from a code enforcement officer faster than usual.

Property records show that Morales sold the property for $370,000 in August 2018.

Alvarez said he now lives in The Villages, a retirement community in north-central Florida.

Crossfire involving an unrelated suit

Méndez claimed the lawsuit is a pressure tactic related to other lawsuits against the city. In a statement, she said Alvarez had been “bamboozled” by lawyers and plaintiffs in unrelated cases.

Gutchess, of AXS Law Group, also represents Little Havana businessmen Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla in a lawsuit against the city and Commissioner Joe Carollo over allegations Carollo sicced code enforcement on certain businesses as political retaliation after Fuller support one of Carollo’s opponents in the 2017 municipal elections. Fuller is co-owner of the Ball & Chain nightclub on Southwest Eighth Street.

That case, which began in October 2018 and has stalled for years due to repeated appeals, is set to go to trial in April.

The company that owns Ball & Chain, The Mad Room LLC, separately sued the city for $28 million in September 2021 over alleged harassment and unfair treatment from municipal government officials related to code violations and permitting.

In multiple written statements, Méndez said Alvarez’s lawsuit against her and her husband is part of a “strategy to continue to harass me and now my family” due to the other litigation. She said attorneys from the Mad Room case have appeared in the Fuller case.

“They have tried to bully me into submission in order to not continue to do my job as the City Attorney,” Méndez wrote. “I have never seen such an intentional scheme to thwart justice and prevalent corruption in city business owners in my close to 19 years in the City, as I have seen in the Madroom and Fuller v. Carollo plaintiffs.”

Records show the cases have some of the same plaintiffs but different attorneys. According to U.S. District Court files, attorneys representing The Mad Room LLC are from law firm Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson.

Two Stearns Weaver lawyers, Maria Fehretdinov and Jason Koslowe, provided a written response to Méndez’s comments.

“We have a great deal to say on behalf of our clients,” reads the statement. “We will stick to saying it in the courthouse.”

Herald research director Monika Leal contributed to this report.