A Brooklyn appellate panel has reinstated a defamation action stemming from a letter that Long Island homeowners sent to public officials asserting that there were “definitely illegal” activities occurring on their neighbor’s property.
In a 2004 letter Audrey and Louis Paini wrote that Liere Farm in Yaphank had engaged in illegal dumping and bribery of local officials.
“Trust me when I tell you this is definitely illegal and people who are responsible will one day be brought to justice, and I will not stop until I see this happen,” stated the letter, which was sent to, among others, the Suffolk County district attorney, Brookhaven town supervisor and then-Senator Hillary Clinton.
The 110-acre farm’s owner, Robert Liere, sued the Painis for defamation as a result.
Deeming the letter “an impassioned plea for help” and “mere rhetorical hyperbole,” Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley Jr. (See Profile) in Suffolk County dismissed the action in November 2010 (NYLJ, Nov. 3, 2010).
But the Appellate Division, Second Department, disagreed in a unanimous, unsigned reversal.
In Liere v. Paini, 2010-11323, the panel, quoting case law, held that the allegations of “illegal activities in which the plaintiff was engaging on his farm, ‘were reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning and did not constitute personal opinion since they reasonably appeared to contain assertions of objective fact, which do not fall within the scope of protected opinion.’”
The March 27 decision is the case’s second trip to the Second Department. In October 2008, a panel upheld the dismissal of the Painis’ counterclaim that they were protected against Liere’s suit because the action was barred as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) under Civil Rights Law §§70-a and 76-a.
The Painis are represented pro bono by Victor Kovner and Camille Calman of Davis Wright Tremaine.
“We are disappointed and respectfully disagree,” Kovner said, adding that he will seek to appeal to the Court of Appeals.
Robert Cava of West Babylon, who represented Liere, called the ruling “correct” because the letter contained factual assertions, not mere opinion.
Cava added that the Painis had made similar claims to the Town of Brookhaven and the state Department of Environmental Conservation but had not been able to back up their accusations.
The DEC’s litigation against the farm ended when the Second Department in 2008 struck down the agency’s determination that it had violated solid waste regulations. Cava said he expected the town’s allegations soon to be resolved.
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