Opinion Is Not Defamatory | Return Rent | Town Restricts Political Party Office

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Principal Cannot Bring Defamation Claim

Principal Cannot Bring Defamation Claim

The New York Daily News, often talked about more for the not-so-subtle word-play on its cover, than the journalism, escaped liability in a suit brought by a former Bronx County school principal, after the newspaper reported that the principal had authored racist writings and had ties to a white supremacist group. The allegedly defamatory statements included the author’s questioning of whether the principal should be overseeing a school with a large minority population in light of these controversial writings. Silverman v. Daily News, L.P., 129 A.D.3d 674 (2d Dept. 2015).

The newspaper argued that the complaint must be dismissed because the statements in the article recited either facts — which is a complete defenses to a defamation action — or non-actionable opinion. “Since falsity is a necessary element of a defamation cause of action and only ‘facts’ are capable of being proven false, it follows that only statements alleging facts can properly be the subject of a defamation action. In distinguishing between facts and opinion, the factors the court must consider are (1) whether the specific language has a precise meaning that is readily understood, (2) whether the statements are capable of being proven true or false, and (3) whether the context in which the statement appears signals to readers that the statement is likely to be opinion, not fact. The dispositive inquiry is whether a reasonable reader could have concluded that the statements were conveying facts about the plaintiff.” For example, remarks by the owner of a baseball team, characterizing an umpire as “not capable,” who “misjudges” plays and “has it in for the team,” were held to be opinion and not actionable. Parks v. Steinbrenner, 131 A.D.2d 60 (2d Dept. 1987).

The court ultimately held that a reasonable reader would conclude that the author’s remarks about the principal’s fitness in that position was opinion, and not fact. Also, in all instances, the Daily News defendants made the statements with express reference to the written materials authored by the plaintiff, including quotations from the books. Thus, the statements of opinion were non-actionable on the additional basis that there was full disclosure of the facts supporting the opinions. As a result, the case was dismissed.

A Landlord May Have To Return All the Rent Paid

A Landlord May Have To Return All the Rent Paid

Recently, in Schwartz v. Torrenzano the renter of a Sag Harbor vacation home has been granted the right to sue for all four years of rent she had paid to her landlord – nearly $150,000 – by a State judge in Suffolk County interpreting a Town of Southampton ordinance which requires landlords to obtain permits as a condition of being able to rent homes in the Town.

The tenant, Deborah Schwartz, a New York City criminal attorney, had brought a pro se action in May 2013, first claiming the heating system in her waterfront cottage was damaged beyond repair by Hurricane Sandy. The tenant had prepaid the year’s $3,000-per-month rent for the vacation home and initially demanded it be refunded, claiming the one-bedroom cottage was uninhabitable and violated Southampton Town Code and safety regulations. She also claimed the bulkhead sea wall had been destroyed by Sandy’s storm surge, making the beach in front of the home inaccessible.

However, the tenant amended her complaint seeking the return of all the rent for all four years she rented the year-round vacation home, based upon the Southampton Town Code requiring a permit to rent premises — which the landlord here failed to obtain until after the fact (the deceptive way the landlord obtained the permit during the litigation was also the subject of a sanctions motion). The 2008 ordinance specified that no rent could be collected unless a permit was in force.

The landlord moved to dismiss the causes of action based on the Town Code arguing, among other things, that the ordinance did not create a “private right of action.” The Court disagreed, reasoning that “without the threat of recoupment of rent, aside from the possibility of administrative enforcement, there is no incentive for a landlord to obtain a license, which is an overriding concern of the town.”

Using the New York Court of Appeals’ three-factor test for determining whether a private right of action exists, the Court ruled that it was required to decide: “whether the plaintiff is one of the class for whose particular benefit the statute was enacted; whether recognition of a private right of action would promote the legislative purpose; and whether creation of such a right would be consistent with the legislative scheme.”

The Court concluded that all three factors applied, stating that “particularly in the Second Department, when a statute is not simply remedial in nature but is directed toward protecting the health and well-being of a particular class of individuals, a private right of action has been found to be fully consistent with the legislative enforcement scheme.” Here, the Court recognized the legislative purpose behind the ordinance was to prevent “landlords from profiting from the rental of substandard or dangerous housing,” and to protect the “occupants” of such dwellings which “pose a serious threat to the health, safety and welfare of the occupants and their neighbors.”

Town’s Restriction On Holding High Office Within A Political Party Is Upheld

Town’s Restriction On Holding High Office Within A Political Party Is Upheld

Recently in Haas v. Riverhead, a Suffolk County justice dismissed a lawsuit by an elected Town of Riverhead official seeking to overturn a new Town of Riverhead law prohibiting elected officials from holding leadership posts for political parties.

Mason Haas, is an elected town assessor for the Town of Riverhead, and also served as chairman of the Riverhead Republican Committee. In July, the Town Board approved an amendment to the Town Code prohibiting elected officials from serving on the executive board of any political party committee. In his Article 78 petition challenging that amendment, Haas alleged that he is the only elected official in and for the Town of Riverhead who serves as an executive board member of a political party committee, and that the law was specifically enacted to target him. He further alleged that the Town Board’s action is “extraordinarily prejudicial to him and will cause him irreparable harm should it be enforced against him” and that the law “infringes on his right of political association and accordingly violates his first amendment and fourteenth amendment constitutional rights.”

But Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley Jr. ruled that the constitutionality of laws prohibiting office holders from holding certain political positions is well-established and the laws have withstood equal protection, due process, free speech, and rights of association claims.

“The constitutionality of laws that prohibit high public office holders from simultaneously holding certain political offices is well established. Such laws have consistently withstood challenges on the grounds that they violate federal and state equal protection and due process rights as well as fundamental rights of association and free speech. Courts have uniformly held that a restriction on holding high office within a political party does not unduly burden public office holders’ right of political association, as such individuals may still associate with whatever party they prefer and engage in a broad range of political activities short of leadership roles.

Here, the Court concluded that “the local ethics law is neutral in its application and the burden it imposes on certain elected officeholders does not ‘depend upon political affiliation or political viewpoint.’ The fact that petitioner is allegedly the only public official presently affected by the law does not give rise to a claim of due process or equal protection violations. Moreover, the fact that other jurisdictions do not presently prohibit the activity proscribed by the Town of Riverhead’s local law does not provide a legal or factual basis for deeming the law unconstitutional.”

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