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Mosque claims Detroit cemetery 'shake down' during pandemic

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Dearborn — A Dearborn mosque has sued a legendary Detroit cemetery in state court, alleging the cemetery has breached a 2017 contract to handle burials for its community and is attempting to squeeze the community for more money during a global pandemic. 

At issue is a 2017 agreement for the American Moslem Society to purchase 1,000 burial plots at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit for $625,000. The lawsuit, and a motion seeking summary judgment in the mosque's favor, were filed in Wayne County Circuit Court on May 22 by the mosque's attorney, Steven Cohen of Farmington Hills.

Mahdi Ali speaks Friday regarding a burial plot dispute between American Moslem Society and the neighboring Woodmere Cemetery.

"Defendant's power play to double its burial prices at a time of global pandemic is ham-handed, shocking and, as a matter of law, utterly unjustified," reads the motion for summary judgment.

At a press conference Friday, Imad Hamad, executive director of the American Human Rights Council, said the issue with Woodmere is not about the treatment of one mosque and its members but rather a "community concern."

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said Woodmere's alleged actions "breached the community trust" and are "completely disgusting and uncalled for."

"As a Muslim, burial rights are sacred," Walid said. "The timing is also highly problematic."

Henry Cooney, an attorney with Plunkett Cooney representing the cemetery in the lawsuit, said the cemetery has treated the community fairly.

"This is a breach of contract claim against Woodmere Cemetery. We deny there was a breach of contract," Cooney said. "We’ve always treated them fairly and treated their community fairly and with respect."

The American Moslem Society has contracted with Woodmere Cemetery for 30 years, starting when it bought a section of 50 in 1991, the lawsuit says.

Over the next 10 years, it would buy 500 more, and in 2002, it bought 1,522 more. The mosque buys plots in large numbers so that its members can be buried as they lived life, as a community.

In June 2017, the suit says, the mosque reached an agreement with Woodmere for 1,000 burial plots for $625 each, a total cost of $625,000. After a $100,000 down payment, the mosque would pay $8,750 monthly for the next 60 months.

In April, the mosque had used most of the 2,000-plus plots it had already paid for and approached the cemetery about using the new 1,000.  

That's when the cemetery cited an addendum to the contract and argued it required the 1,000 plots to be paid for in full before they can be used.

The lawsuit argues not only the addendum was never included in the signed deal, but that even if it were, the paid-in-full requirement would apply only if it wanted to sublease to others, not to the use of its members. It argues that 650 of the 1,000 plots already have been paid in full. 

The lawsuit claims that Woodmere offered the mosque two choices: pay the remaining balance in full before using any of the 1,000 plots, or renegotiate the contract, such that "the cost of graves and related products and services is roughly doubled."

"Defendant's unjustified refusal to allow burials in (the special section of 1,000 plots) at a time of great suffering and need in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly part of a grossly improper attempt to shake down (the mosque) and its members," the summary judgment motion reads.

Woodmere Cemetery management did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

While community members say they would rather repair the relationship with Woodmere, and continue doing business with the neighboring cemetery, they will not wait idly for it to improve, said Shakeel Ahmed, of Masjid Umar Bin Khattab.

"Don't think you're the only cemetery able to accommodate Muslims in the area," Ahmed said.

Ahmed said the members of the Muslim community in western Wayne County have purchased 1,000 burial plots in a cemetery in Washtenaw County.

But ideally, Ahmed and others said, the arrangement with Woodmere would continue, and things would go back to the way they used to be.

Mahdi Ali, president of the American Moslem Society's board, said even before the alleged breach of contract, "the service we've been getting has not been to our standards," arguing the sections bought by the mosque are not maintained to the level of the rest of the cemetery.

Conditions had improved since the lawsuit was filed, he said, but it was "too little, too late."

Woodmere Cemetery is the burial grounds of several industrial titans of old, including James Vernor, who invented Vernor's ginger ale, and James Scripps, founder of The Detroit News.

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75