Members of the Little Fresh Pond Association are celebrating what they see as another victory in a long struggle against a proposed day camp project in North Sea.
A State Supreme Court justice last week dismissed a $45 million libel lawsuit filed against John Gorman and John Barona, both members of the Little Fresh Pond Association. The association opposed camp owner Jay Jacobs and his application in 2011, via Southampton Day Camp Realty LLC, to renovate and expand a tennis camp on Majors Path into a summer camp for kids.
Mr. Jacobs and his corporation had sued the two North Sea residents after they were listed as contacts on a flier that said, among other things, that Mr. Jacobs and his proposal would “destroy our way of life,” and that he was “lying his way to get an exemption.”
Justice John J.J. Jones Jr. dismissed the lawsuit, calling it a “SLAPP” lawsuit designed solely to discourage public opposition to the project and ordered a summary judgment on July 3 on behalf of the defendants. Justice Jones ruled that the $45 million libel lawsuit was filed “without a substantial basis in fact,” since the plaintiff wasn’t able to prove that Mr. Gorman and Mr. Barona were aware the statements were false, or that they had anything to do with the flier or its circulation.
Further, the justice ruled in favor of the defendants’ countersuit charging that the lawsuit violated the Civil Rights Law as a SLAPP—which stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation—lawsuit. Justice Jones declined to level punitive damages against Mr. Jacobs or his corporation, but the plaintiff must pay the attorney’s fees and other court costs for the defendants. A hearing will be held in Riverhead on August 8 to determine the extent of those costs and fees.
Still planning to pursue legal action, Southampton Day Camp plans to return to court in the near future.
The law firm of Harris Beach PLLC., on behalf of Southampton Day Camp, released a statement on Tuesday saying Southampton Day Camp intends to appeal the July 3 decision. “Our lawsuit was never intended to block free speech,” the statement said. “Our lawsuit was based on protecting the business interests and reputation of Mr. Jay Jacobs. We believe the defendants engaged in deceptive and libelous behavior with the sole purpose of defaming Mr. Jacobs.”
Little Fresh Pond Association Secretary Jimmy Silber said he and members of the association were expecting an appeal to be filed. “That’s everybody’s right in the court system,” he said. “I think that the judge’s decision is going to be held up, because it was based on fact.”
Mr. Silber said Southampton Day Camp would still need to come up with the money for the attorney’s fees and court costs, which would be held in escrow during the appeal.
But for now, the “big burden and dark shadow hanging over” the association seems to be clearing away, Mr. Barona said.
“The judge was very wise and recognized that it was just an illegal intimidation tactic by some rich and powerful political person who thought he could push his way around with the little people in the Hamptons,” Mr. Barona said. “There was no basis for the lawsuit at all.”
According to Mr. Barona, news of the ruling came on Friday, when their lawyers from Phillips, Nizer LLP sent the justice’s decision in an email. Mr. Gorman and his family called Mr. Barona immediately.
“I’m very glad we won,” Mr. Gorman said. “Our attorneys were able to prove that the lawsuit was simply for intimidation beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now we are more determined to prevent Jacobs from destroying the pond.”
Mr. Silber likened the legal battle between Mr. Jacobs and members of the Association to the story of David and Goliath.
“We had no experience and no money to fight somebody of the stature of Mr. Jacobs,” he said. “In the end, I have to say, justice prevailed.”