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Brian McGrory

Couple prevails in lawsuit against Back Bay tycoon

It’s all too rare in this life for the underdog to prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s rarer still when wealthy people are told point-blank that all the money in the world doesn’t give them the right to act like raging, insufferable jerks.

This is exactly what happened in Suffolk Superior Court one recent day when a jury of 12 ordinary citizens returned from the deliberation room and delivered a verdict in the name of common sense. And in this case, that jury didn’t just speak, it shouted.

Specifically, this is about Jerome and Bernadette Wodinsky, who readers may or may not remember from past appearances in this space. Jerry is an 84-year-old Brandeis University professor. Bernadette, 69, works at Nieman Marcus in Copley Square. The couple has lived in the same fourth-floor condo in a grand Commonwealth Avenue townhouse for well over 30 years.

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They planned to live in their condo until the end of time, even as their neighbors seemed to have another idea. Those neighbors would be Michael and Frances (Demoulas) Kettenbach, best known for being on the losing side of the infamous and unseemly Demoulas family supermarket feud, also known as the 1990s Full Employment Act for Boston lawyers.

The Kettenbachs bought a huge downstairs unit in the McKim, Mead & White-designed building in 1996, then proceeded to buy up three other units, until they owned everything but the Wodinskys’ floor-through condominium. They made an offer to the Wodinskys that was declined. Then, a couple of years ago, some funny things started to happen. A state inspector ordered repairs on the common elevator in 2009, prompting the Kettenbachs to instead replace it, which took nearly a year. You could build half a downtown tower in the time it took a new elevator to go in. This meant that the elderly professor, who has emphysema and three stents in his legs, among other ailments, was forced to climb four flights of narrow stairs every time he left his apartment.

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There’s more. The Kettenbachs set their sights on improving the common spaces. When the 10-year-old roof leaked, they put on a brand new one. They installed a brand new heating system, overhauled the electrical system, and put in new skylights.

The Wodinskys didn’t want any of it, partly because they couldn’t afford the Kettenbachs’ expensive tastes, but it didn’t matter. The Kettenbachs owned enough of the building to vote through repairs. The Wodinskys had no say, but they got their share of the bills, to the tune of more than $200K. Still, they stood their ground. When the Kettenbachs sued the Wodinskys for a portion of the improvement and repair money, the Wodinskys sued them back. Suffice it to say there’s been no building-wide holiday party recently.

When these suits went to trial, the Wodinskys’ lawyers, Don Sweeney and Steven Perlmutter, pressed the point that a phony condominium board took fraudulent votes to drive the Wodinskys out of the building.

When the jurors spoke last week, they were gin clear. They ruled against the Kettenbachs’ suit. Then they awarded the Wodinskys $1.85 million. The Wodinskys also get 12 percent annual interest (already $440K), plus yet-to-be-determined lawyers fees. The Kettenbachs are looking at a payout of more than $3 million, plus their own legal bills. “The pressure is off,’’ said Jerry Wodinsky. “I don’t feel like I’m going to be forced out of my home.’’ Still, he said he’s probably going to sell his unit because Bernadette doesn’t want to live under the same roof as the Kettenbachs.

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Here’s the problem: The Kettenbachs lose court cases like John Lackey loses baseball games, meaning they’re used to it, and they’ve given every indication they will appeal. I called their lawyer, Valerie Carter in Lexington, to inquire about that. “We have no comment,’’ the receptionist blurted out when I gave her my name.

“You don’t know what I’m asking yet,’’ I said. “We know who you are,’’ she replied. Why thank you.


McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.