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An angry client’s letter to his lawyer wasn’t defamatory even though it was served though a deputy sheriff who happened to be the Democratic town chairman in the lawyer’s hometown, New Haven, Conn., Superior Court Judge Antonio C. Robaina has determined. Robaina sided with Waterbury, Conn., construction worker Salvatore DePrimo and his brother, Michael, a Connecticut Bar admittee who lives in Mississippi and came to his sibling’s aid in a long-running dispute against Hamden attorney Joseph Chiarelli. In September 1999, Salvatore DePrimo signed a $5,000 fixed-fee agreement with Chiarelli for a custody battle over one of DePrimo’s eight children. The contract said: “I will represent you so long as all proceedings in your case take place at the New Haven, Connecticut courthouse.” After five days of litigation, the case ended in a mistrial and was transferred to the Regional Family Trial Docket in Middletown. Chiarelli, invoking the escape hatch clause, said his representation was over unless DePrimo paid him a lot more money. When Sal DePrimo balked at paying the new fee, Chiarelli warned his client to never contact him again. On the advice of his brother, Michael, Sal DePrimo wrote a letter to Chiarelli urging him to remain as his lawyer, but also threatening him with a grievance if he refused. Because Chiarelli had warned DePrimo never to contact him, he had the blistering letter delivered by Neil Longobardi, a deputy sheriff and local Democratic Party stalwart. The letter made note of Chiarelli’s “courtroom antics,” citing the 1999 state Appellate Court case of Ford v. Ford, in which Judge David W. Skolnick is quoted as saying “I’m going to recuse myself from all of [Chiarelli's] matters … because I do not approve of the way you handle yourself.” Chiarelli fired back against what he called the “blackmail and extortion letter,” with a Nov. 15, 2000, lawsuit against DePrimo and his brother for defamation, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress. But granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment Sept. 30, Robaina found there was no publication of the letter and thus no defamation. The judge found that Longobardi was involved in the dispute only in his capacity as a deputy sheriff. “The Court finds that the delivery of a document, even if defamatory, to a marshal for service of process is not ‘publication’ as a required element to maintain an action for defamation,” Robaina wrote. “After five years, we’re pleased a judgment has been rendered in our favor,” Michael DePrimo said last week.

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