Guilford County couple Joseph Wooten and Erica Bishop looked forward to getting married this year.

But the lovestruck couple’s dreams of marital union turned into a financial nightmare when Jim Hardin Jr., a former Durham County district attorney and retired superior court judge, filed a complaint in superior court claiming they owed him nearly a quarter of a million dollars after he evicted them from a commercial building he owns.

The couple, directed to the downtown Durham space by a local property consultant, say in court filings that Hardin is holding them liable for unpermitted upfitting work upon the reference of the consultant, which took so long to complete that they were never able to get their business off the ground.

“We were going to be married this year,” Bishop told the INDY this week. “Now, we are using the [wedding] money to fight this case.”

Hardin is one of the Triangle’s most well-known legal figures. In the early 2000s, he attracted global attention as the lead prosecutor in the trial of Michael Peterson, the former Herald-Sun columnist, novelist, and Durham mayoral candidate who was convicted in 2003 for the brutal murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

Hardin retired last year after serving for nearly three decades in Durham’s legal system and judiciary.

It’s not clear when Hardin became president of the Couch Development Company, but last year The News & Observer reported he was retiring “to turn his attention to his family’s commercial real estate business and horse farm.”

On April 29, Bishop and Wooten filed a complaint in Durham County’s superior court claiming they were wrongfully evicted by the retired judge, among multiple other issues listed in their 31-page affidavit.

Late last year, Wooten and Bishop were excited to open a “selfie museum” on Durham’s Ninth Street, one of the city’s most eclectic retail corridors.

“It is part portrait studio, part art gallery, and serves as a flexible space for special events and other gatherings,” the couple’s attorney, Garrett Davis of Durham, stated in their complaint. “Due to the growth in photo-oriented sites like Instagram, [selfie] studios are popping up all over the country.”

Bishop says the museum, although it never officially opened, was booked as an event space through March of this year. On September 8, the couple, at the behest of property consultant Durham-based Property Advisory Services, signed a lease to open the Bull City Selfie Museum, a 3,500-square-foot space in the basement of the historic Couch Building at 714 Ninth Street.

The aged, dark-red brick building was built on Ninth Street between 1965 and 1968 on two vacant lots where millhouses, demolished in the late 1940s, once stood, according to Open Durham. The building was firebombed following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and rebuilt immediately.

Bishop says the couple paid nearly $40,000 on the same day she and her fiancé signed a 36-month lease. The funds included the first and last months’ rent of $12,220.66, the first and last months’ operating costs of $3,089.34, and a “reconstruction/reclamation deposit” of $12,000.

Hardin and Couch Development Company held an additional $12,220.86 in escrow, according to a verified complaint filed February 23 in Durham County Superior Court on behalf of Hardin by Durham attorney J. Gray Wilson.

Five months after signing the lease and, according to the couple, investing more than $180,000 in the venture, Wooten and Bishop say Hardin’s Couch Development Company evicted them and threatened to charge them with trespassing. It was one day after Hardin had penned a letter demanding that the tenants pay the first in a series of installments, they say, that the retired judge showed up at the property and personally evicted them.

That day, February 8, the couple pulled into the parking lot of the Couch Building and saw someone changing the locks of the main entrance door. According to their complaint, Wooten went to another door that provided access to the museum and “noticed that some decorations had been taken off the wall and that some other things were missing or not in their original place,” according to their affidavit.

Wooten, according to the complaint, “went back to his truck, told Erica what he saw, and said, ‘Hardin is kicking us out.’”

The museum tenants say Hardin then went upstairs to his office and returned with a typed letter “dated February 9, 2022, but that had been marked through with a handwritten date of February 8.”

Bishop says Hardin then told the couple they were trespassing and that they needed to hand over their keys and leave.

Wooten and Bishop shared a copy of the letter with the INDY, which appears as described. The date is marked through and a handwritten statement indicates it was delivered to Wooten shortly after noon.

Hardin, in the letter, indicated his company would “defer and forebear action” if Wooten and Bishop made a rent installment payment of $2,221.70, along with a late fee of $200, by February 9.

Hardin, in response to the couple’s complaint, stated that the letter “specifically reserved” his company’s “rights to take any and all actions available to it under the Lease or other applicable law, and that Bishop and Wooten never countersigned the letter indicating their agreement to the terms therein.”

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For Bishop and Wooten, things had gotten squirrely one day before the lease signing, when Rodney Allison, president of the consulting company Property Advisory Services, sent the couple a text stating that Michael Moore, owner of Moore’s Construction, a limited liability company, would attend the lease signing and “was going to be the contractor for the upfit work for the selfie museum.”

While Allison, according to the complaint, “liked Erica and Joseph’s business plan” and connected them with Hardin’s company, Bishop and Wooten said they “had not had any input or discussion about Mr. Moore’s or his company’s involvement in the contemplated upfit work,” according to their complaint.

Bishop and Wooten claimed that the construction company’s “general contractor’s license is currently invalid” and that they were not made aware of the company’s invalid license.

“If Erica and Joseph would have known the facts regarding Mr. Moore and his company’s license issues, they would have not proceeded with the lease and upfit project as they did,” Davis, the couple’s attorney, stated in their complaint.

Nonetheless, the couple said, “Moore’s Construction got to work on the space” a day after the lease signing.

Bishop and Wooten envisioned a basement space featuring 24 photo booths and 40 exhibits where customers could take and pose for photos, “camera-friendly lighting,” related electrical work, a “significant amount of painting,” three dressing rooms, a waiting room, and a patio.

From the outset, Bishop and Wooten say the project was plagued by issues posed by the building. As a consequence they ended up paying for “work related to the entire building and common areas,” according to the complaint, including an additional $6,750 paid to Moore’s company “to locate old building wiring connected to the whole building’s electrical system, which had pre-existing problems.”

Two months after the upfitting process began, the selfie museum tenants say Hardin told them “Couch didn’t have the money” when they approached him about reimbursing them for the unexpected expenses. Instead, their landlord provided the reimbursement with an amended lease the tenants received on November 17, according to the complaint.

“The first month of the amended lease term was February 1, 2022,” Davis, the couple’s attorney, stated in the complaint.

Bishop and Wooten noted that the basement was used as storage space when they rented it, and they spent about $10,000 just to have all of the unwanted items carted out of the place.

“For this reason, a significant portion of [the] September 16 invoice billed to Erica and Joseph was practically a charge for cleaning up the Couch Building’s basement,” their attorney states in the complaint.

Moreover, Bishop and Wooten say the place had not been used as a commercial space “for several years,” according to the complaint, adding that “the last tenants of the basement space were office tenants.”

Allison and Moore could not be reached for comment. But Moore’s attorney David O. Lewis of Durham, in an amended response filed in superior court regarding the former tenant’s claim, states that his client did not have to be a certified contractor to do the work.

“The work performed between September 9 and November 8 consisted primarily of building removable ‘wing walls’ and painting and did not require a building permit,” Lewis stated in the complaint. He added that Bishop and Wooten actually owe the construction company a little over $38,000 for the work performed between September 9 and February 10.

Meanwhile, Allison, in a July 2 response filed on his behalf by Durham attorney Richard F. Prentis, denied that he misrepresented the qualifications of Moore and his construction company to Bishop and Wooten.

Wilson, Hardin’s attorney, told the INDY this week that his client was not involved in the selection of Moore’s company for the project.

Meanwhile, Hardin, in his response, stated that the building “was in compliance with all applicable electrical and building codes, and that any electrical issues arose solely” from Bishop and Wooten’s “upfit activities and attempts to secure an alcohol license for the premises despite Couch’s direct instruction not to do so, and despite their lack of authority under the lease to do so.”

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Following their eviction on February 8, things got worse for Bishop and Wooten.

On February 18, the couple says that “after being forcibly evicted,” Hardin sent them a letter demanding they pay $7,665 in overdue rent, plus nearly a quarter of a million dollars—$230,305.84—in “liquidated damages,” with a 12 percent yearly interest rate.

Then, on February 23, Hardin’s attorney filed a verified complaint in superior court again demanding that Bishop and Wooten “pay overdue rent and liquidated damages in the total amount of $237,960.92,” owing to a section in the lease that defines liquidated damages as the “loss of rent and other income the landlord expected to derive” during the lease period.

The couple stated in their complaint that they were shocked by Hardin’s demand for nearly a quarter of a million dollars in anticipation of money he would have made if he had rented the space to someone else.

In Couch’s letter to Bishop and Wooten on February 7, Hardin stated that the couple “encountered some difficulty in keeping [the museum]” open “for the full-time active conduct of operation” and that they were “facing some financial difficulties which are affecting … performance obligations under the lease.”

Hardin’s response also claims “that any requirement change to the permitted use of the premises was triggered by [Bishop and Wooten’s] decision to seek an alcohol license.”

Wooten said in December he spoke with Hardin about serving wine to their patrons and was told to “research” the subject but says “it’s not true” that he and Bishop breached their contract.

“That’s false,” Wooten says. “We called the ABC Board to see if they had a record of [an alcohol permit application]. All of that came from Michael Moore trying to cover up the fact that he hadn’t applied for any building permits for our space; the electrical, the walls, patio space. He didn’t pull nothing. That’s what people pay a contractor to take care of.”

Bishop and Wooten in their complaint maintain that the real reason for their difficulties in getting the business off the ground were delays in renovations by the Moore Construction Company.

They also claim in their complaint that the construction company did not have a certified contractor and the company was unable to obtain a building permit after an inspector with the City of Durham Fire Department “determined the Bull City Selfie Museum could not be granted a Certificate of Occupancy.”

An early January report issued by Durham fire department inspector Christopher Wilcox determined that the “property must go through a change of use for occupancy” as an amusement center; that the “space was not permitted for use at this time in the current capacity”; and that “exit signs were needed,” according to the complaint.

Hardin, in his court-filed response, admitted the fire department issued an inspection report to the tenants but denied the couple’s allegations that they couldn’t open the museum due to upfitting delays.

Days later, on January 18, the complaint states that “Moore’s Construction finally [applied] for a building permit, but it [was] not approved.”

Bishop and Wooten stated in the complaint that the building permit application was also disapproved by the city’s department of water management after inspectors could not locate “a domestic containment device that prevents wastewater from the building from flowing back into the city’s water lines and contaminating the city’s water supply,” according to city documents and the complaint.

“For older buildings, like 714 Ninth Street, the way the City ensures that the building has a backflow device is through the permitting process,” Davis, their attorney, explained in the complaint.

Bishop and Wooten assert that Moore, Allison, or Hardin should have known about the issues with the building and failed to tell them.

Hardin, in his response, denied the couple’s claim.

According to the complaint, the issues with the building and rent veered further left on January 31, when Bishop called Hardin and asked “what could be done with the February rent, due to the unanticipated work required to get the space code compliant and receive a Certificate of Occupancy.”

By the time the building permit was denied in mid-January, Bishop and Wooten say the delays caused by Moore “were beginning to pile up” and they were aware that February and the start of the rental payments were days away. They had already paid Moore’s Construction Company tens of thousands of dollars, according to their complaint.

Shortly after, the couple says Hardin served them with the letter from the Couch Development Company demanding a rent payment before evicting them the next day.

Bishop and Wooten recently celebrated the birthday of their daughter, who turned two on July 24. The couple is expecting their second child. Wooten says they are disappointed and struggling to get by, and they wonder why Hardin, a former judge, is suing them and not going after the construction company.

“We paid Michael Moore’s construction company over $140,000 and we paid Jim Hardin $40,000, and with all of the other expenses, we’ve spent about $250,000,” Wooten told the INDY. “And we have nothing to show for it. We just want Jim to give our money back and leave us alone.” 

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