Federal judge’s ruling ‘vindicates’ former Riverhead Town attorney

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Larry Oxman lost his property on Route 58 to foreclosure as it got tied up in litigation. A Christmas Tree Shops is now planned for the site.
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Larry Oxman lost his property on Route 58 to foreclosure as it got tied up in litigation. A Christmas Tree Shops is now planned for the site.

A federal judge on Thursday dismissed all claims against former Riverhead Town attorney Dawn Thomas in a lawsuit filed against her and other town officials by Larry Oxman, a realtor who alleged civil rights violations after the town filed illegal clearing charges against him and others in 2004.

Mr. Oxman of Riverhead Park Corp., and partner Stanley Blumenstein, who has since died, filed the federal lawsuit in 2007.

The suit also named as defendants Riverhead Town, former supervisor Phil Cardinale, former council members George Bartunek, Barbara Blass and Rose Sanders, and former town building department coordinator Leroy Barnes.

It alleged that the town and its officials violated the landowners’ rights and were guilty of selective enforcement and “a conspiracy to deprive” the owners of their property rights.

The lawsuit named those officials individually, meaning they would be personally held liable for damages.

The town had claimed in 2004 that Mr. Oxman and Riverhead Park Corp. illegally cleared 13 acres on Route 58, just east of Riverhead Raceway, days before the town was scheduled to rezone that property to a zone that would allow less-intense development.

Mr. Oxman, in turn, claimed he was clearing the land for agricultural purposes, which was exempt from town regulations requiring clearing permits.

The actual case against Mr. Oxman for the clearing violations was dismissed earlier this year in Southampton Town Court, which was handling the case because both of Riverhead’s justices recused themselves.

Mr. Oxman lost the land to foreclosure as it got held up in litigation.

A state Supreme Court lawsuit brought by the town against Mr. Oxman was dismissed in 2010, and that ruling was upheld in 2011.

But Mr. Oxman had sought to add a claim of “malicious prosecution,” against both the town and Ms. Thomas, to the federal case, which is ongoing.

Judge Arthur Spatt wrote that “under New York law, a notice of claim must be filed in a malicious prosecution action against a municipality within 90 days from the accrual of the claim, which in this case was the Oct. 5, 2010 date when the state lawsuit was dismissed, according to Judge Spatt, who rejected Mr. Oxman’s request to add malicious prosecution to his federal lawsuit.

As for Ms. Thomas’ involvement, the lawsuit names her as a defendant because she signed the stop-work order against Mr. Oxman, prohibiting any further work on the site. But Judge Spatt wrote that Ms. Thomas only signed the stop-work order on behalf of Mr. Barnes, who had witnessed the alleged illegal clearing but was on his way out of town that week.

“The court further finds that the defendant Thomas’ involvement in the issuance of the [stop work order] was merely limited to signing on behalf of defendant Barnes as his agent,” Judge Spatt wrote.

He said the order was issued under Mr. Barnes’ authority, and that he and the town are potentially liable, under Mr. Oxman’s claim, but Ms. Thomas is not.

“I’m happy the court ruled that someone cannot be held liable for merely doing their job,” said Maureen Liccione, the attorney for Mr. Thomas.

“I was pleased, but not at all surprised, to see that the federal court has found that Mr. Oxman’s claims against me were baseless,” Ms. Thomas added in an email. “I am quite confident that the balance of the lawsuit will ultimately be dismissed and that the others named in the suit will, like me, be vindicated with regard to the actions taken to enforce Town code and protect the environment.”

Mr. Oxman could not be immediately reached for comment.

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