Monday, February 9, 2009
Burress has string of debtor lawsuits
NEW YORK -- To Richard Malin, Plaxico Burress wasn't a customer, he was an ordeal.
It was 2002 when Burress, then playing for the Steelers, hired Malin, a home inspector, to look over a house he was buying in suburban Pittsburgh.
Malin quoted Burress a price of just under $500 and got the job.
He should've turned it down, Malin now says.
When it came time to pay the bill, Burress disappeared. He didn't respond to phone calls or letters. Malin appealed to one of the star's handlers for help, but still no payment. Malin filed a lawsuit, Burress ignored it.
After a judge ruled against the no-show NFL player, he sent Malin a check for $700.
"I got a note from Plaxico saying, 'Sorry for the inconvenience. Please inform the court that the judgment has been paid,' " Malin said.
"Then the check bounced."
It is a familiar story for the 31-year-old New York Giants wide receiver.
Now facing felony gun charges after he accidentally shot himself in the leg with an .40-caliber Glock at a Manhattan nightclub, Burress has a history of being sued over debts a millionaire professional athlete seemingly could have paid.
The Associated Press found that, since Burress joined the NFL in 2000, he has been sued at least nine times by people who said he failed to pay a debt, damaged their car or didn't pay his taxes.
The people seeking payment from the football star run the gamut, from a Pennsylvania homeowners association trying to collect delinquent dues to a Florida woman whose car Burress rear-ended while driving without insurance. Why? He hadn't paid the premium.
The pattern of irresponsible behavior extends beyond unpaid debts, records show.
In his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., Burress has been fined for reckless driving, noise and public intoxication, and threatened with arrest after he didn't show up in court. Last year in Florida, where he has a home, police twice cited Burress for speeding in the weeks before the car crash, which also earned him a ticket for careless driving.
Police visited his house in Totowa, N.J., twice last year on domestic dispute calls. His wife was granted temporary restraining orders both times, only to later request they be lifted, according to court records.
Burress faces a March 31 court date stemming from the November shooting, an incident that has jeopardized his future with the Giants, who in September gave Burress a $35 million contract extension. The Giants suspended Burress for the final four games of the season and the incident has cost him $2 million in income, though the NFL players' union has filed two grievances.
His defenders say the trail of legal woes does not define Burress.
"He happens to be a great kid. He really is a good kid," said Adam Swickle, Burress' lawyer in Florida. Swickle said any suggestion that Burress is chronically irresponsible because of his wealth and status "is 100 percent incorrect."
Swickle said there was nothing remarkable about the Florida car accident.
"It's a fender-bender," he said. "Those things happen to people. Until this New York thing, I always thought of him as a very law-abiding person."
Efforts to reach Burress were unsuccessful. He did not respond to an e-mail sent to him Monday. His New York attorney, Benjamin Brafman, declined to comment for this story, citing the pending weapons charges. His agent did not return several phone calls.
Although Burress' creditors say they don't enjoy going to court to collect, he usually pays up, even if it takes a lawsuit or judge to persuade him.
But the list of people left fuming after doing business with Burress is a long one.
"This is a history of him just doing anything he wants to do," said Brian Van Dusen, a Pittsburgh nightlife promoter who sued Burress in 2005 over a debt.
Van Dusen said he had a falling out with Burress midway through the 2004 season, his last in Pittsburgh before he signed with the Giants as a free agent.
Those things happen to people. Until this New York thing, I always thought of him as a very law-abiding person.
-- Adam Swickle,
Plaxico Burress' lawyer in Florida
The two men had been partners in staging a series of Monday night parties at a Pittsburgh bar featuring Steelers stars, but at some point, according to the promoter, Burress stopped paying his share of the bills. Finally, Van Dusen presented him with an invoice.
"He was drinking. He was talking to the girls. And he ripped it, balled it up, and threw it across the bar!" Van Dusen said. The two men nearly got in a fight, but Van Dusen said he took Burress to court instead and won a judgment when Burress didn't show up for trial. Van Dusen said he ultimately collected only a portion of his expenses.
In the beginning, Van Dusen said, "We were cool. We would hang out. But he just got too big, in his head. Just because you're from the NFL, it doesn't mean you can do anything every which way."
The amounts of the unpaid bills typically have not been large, but that has made no difference when it came time for Burress to pay. In 2002, a Virginia Beach homeowners association sued for $440 in dues. In March 2003, another homeowners association in Moon Township, Pa., sought $890. The school district there sued Burress a few months later for $2,745 in unpaid taxes.
In September of that year, a Tampa auto body shop, German Autohaus, filed suit over an unpaid account. A judge ruled against Burress when he again failed to appear in court.
Once the suits were filed, the cases were settled and paid.
But the pattern didn't end. In March 2005, Burress left the Steelers as a free agent and signed a $25 million contract to play for the Giants.
A few months later, a Pennsylvania car dealer loaned him a sport utility vehicle and said in exchange Burress promised to make publicity appearances at the dealership and sign autographs. But the dealer never got it in writing.
Less than a month later, the truck wound up impounded by New York police.
Two men were arrested, including Burress' cousin, after officers saw someone in the truck firing guns into the air. The case against the cousin was dropped. The other man pleaded guilty to a weapons charge and was sentenced to time served. Burress signed a statement saying he was at football practice at the time.
Car dealer Frederick Laurenzo spent months trying to get the vehicle back. He spent years trying to get Burress to pay for damage to the truck.
Not surprisingly, the matter landed in court.
"It was the only way I could get him to come here," Laurenzo said. "If he had called and was stand-up about it, man-to-man, it never would have happened. But he wouldn't take my calls."
Laurenzo said he's done similar deals with other professional athletes and never had a problem.
"He's a very likable man, and I wish this had never happened," he said. "But when someone hangs up on you, doesn't return your calls, you get angry. If we could've just talked for two minutes on the phone ... but it was like he was pretending he didn't know me."
In January, a jury ordered Burress to pay $1,700.
In the Giants' Super Bowl victory in 2008, Burress made the game-winning catch, making him an even bigger football hero.
At the same time his team was on its playoff run in late 2007, Burress was $14,471 behind on the local taxes on his house in Virginia Beach, according to city records. That bill has since been paid, city officials said.
After his accident in Florida in May 2008, Burress was sued by the woman he hit after she learned he didn't have car insurance. Allstate said it let his policy lapse because he had neglected to pay his premiums. The case is pending.
Swickle acknowledged Burress has picked up some tickets over the years, but noted that the citations have been relatively minor.
"No drunk driving offenses. No drugs in the car," he said. "Even collectively, I don't see it as a problem."
Even some of his civil court adversaries don't view Burress as a bad person, just an irresponsible one.
"I think he was just an immature screwup," Malin said. The home inspector eventually collected $700 from Burress -- after three years, a bounced check and a lawsuit. The courts couldn't even close the case. Malin said he got paid after a friendly sheriff's deputy with a connection to the Steelers intervened.
Laurenzo is still waiting for his money, but he says he's not too worried.
"I hope he gets his life straightened out and he comes back and plays for the Giants. I love watching him play, he's one of the most gifted wide receivers in the league. If he gets his life straightened out, he could have it all."
If he had called and was stand-up about it, man-to-man, it never would have happened. But he wouldn't take my calls.
-- Frederick Laurenzo, on a verbal deal with Burress the car dealer
said wasn't honored