In a decision dated July 3, State Supreme Court Justice John J.J. Jones Jr. dismissed a $45 million defamation lawsuit against the heads of the Little Fresh Pond Association — calling the litigation "patently frivolous" — and ordered the plaintiff, day camp operator Jay Jacobs, to pay their attorney's fees and court costs.
The lawsuit arose over an anonymous flier that circulated North Sea criticizing Jacobs' plan to run a day camp off Majors Path that would abut Little Fresh Pond. Jacobs said that flier contained lies to derail his project, which was before the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, and he . Jacobs asked the court to gag Barona and Gorman from making statements against him alleging "wrongful, criminal, or fraudulent conduct," and demanded a retraction. But Barona and Gorman said they did not author the flier. They , calling the litigation a SLAPP suit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation, designed to chill free speech.
Jacobs, who owns several day camps and is the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, previously told Patch that he is obligated to stop anyone from maligning and defaming him, and that the flier, which encouraged readers to contact Barona and Gorman for more information, was obviously written by the pair.
But Barona said on Thursday, “Our names just appeared on the flier because we're the president and vice president of the association — but we didn’t make it.”
Jacobs did not respond to an email from Patch this week.
While Jacobs has said that his plan to turn a former tennis camp into a day camp with staff housing is consistent with the past uses of the property, the Little Fresh Pond Association and other community groups in North Sea said it would be a radical change that would negatively affect quality of life in the neighborhood and the health of an ecologically fragile pond.
“For him it was just another multimillion dollar business venture, and for us, it's our passion, our home and something we protect," Barona said.
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To Barona and Gorman's delight, the Zoning Board of Appeals declared on March 15 that the proposed camp — a prerequisite that will be difficult to obtain and could stop the camp in its tracks. However, Jacobs said he with his application and the need for a variance is only a minor setback.
The parties will be back in court Aug. 8 for a hearing to determine the amount of attorney's fees and costs to which Barona and Gorman's counsel, Phillips Nizer LLP, is entitled. The law firm took on the case pro bono.
But Jones' decision fell short of granting Barona and Gorman compensatory and punitive damages, saying that the defendants failed to offer evidence to establish that the lawsuit was commenced in bad faith to harass, intimidate, punish or otherwise maliciously inhibit free speech.
Barona said he does not mind that he will not receive any money as a result of the judge's decision, because the lawsuit cost him nothing out-of-pocket — only months of stress.