Pa. high court upholds fraud verdict against Judge Willis Berry

Willis W. Berry Jr. is a Common Pleas Court judge.
Willis W. Berry Jr. is a Common Pleas Court judge.
Posted: June 04, 2011

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused Friday to hear the appeal of a 2009 civil-fraud verdict against Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr.

The one-sentence denial of review from the state's high court ends the legal contest about the propriety of the verdict by a Common Pleas Court jury.

The jury found that Berry defrauded Denise Jackson in the sale of a North Philadelphia lot. The jury awarded Jackson damages totaling almost $200,000 against Berry and his real estate firm, Reddberry Development Corp.

"I'm really disappointed about this," said Berry's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton. "I thought we had some really good issues there."

The legal battles, however, are not over. Pending is a hearing before the trial judge over his decision to cut the punitive damages the jury awarded from $180,000 to $20,000.

Jackson's attorney, Barry S. Yaches, said he expected the Supreme Court's ruling on the verdict in the case but was girding for the hearing on punitive damages before Judge Charles B. Smith.

The hearing before Smith, a retired federal judge and former Chester County Court judge, was ordered by the state Superior Court in a parallel appeal after Smith reduced the punitive damages.

Smith was specially appointed for the civil trial because Berry, 68, has been a city judge since 1995.

The land dispute dates to 1993, when Berry was a North Philadelphia lawyer investing in real estate.

At issue is whether Berry cheated Jackson out of thousands of dollars by persuading her to sign over to him for $1,500 a vacant lot at 1533 W. Girard Ave., next to his law office.

Jackson, then known as Denise Cleveland, had slipped and hurt her back in front of the lot. She sued the owners, using Berry as her lawyer, and the property came to her through a convoluted process that Berry handled.

Jackson, however, testified that she never knew she owned the lot. She said Berry asked her to sign several papers and told her she was getting $1,500 as the settlement for her lawsuit.

Jackson testified that she learned she had briefly owned the lot only when an Inquirer reporter writing about Berry's real estate business showed her copies of deeds and papers with her signature.

She said she learned the property was last sold in 1988 for $25,000 and by 2009 was appraised at $180,000.

The litigation and Inquirer coverage of Berry's business dealings led to the judge's suspension for five months in 2009 by the state Court of Judicial Discipline for violating ethics rules by running his real estate office from his judicial chambers.


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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