Written by Rich Forestano Friday, 23 July 2010 00:00
School board litigation that has spanned the last two years has recently come to a close. Former Mineola School District Trustee Laraine Salvatore was sued by former district superintendent Larry Licopoli for defamation of character in 2008. The Supreme Court has dismissed that case.
Licopoli’s lawyer stated that they would appeal the dismissal.
The school district still hasn’t paid for legal fees incurred by the lawsuit on Salvatore. As of May, Salvatore had incurred over $20,000 in legal fees. That number has increased to over $60,000.
Furthermore, Licopoli filed suit in federal court against three board members as well. He alleged the board took action against him after he filed suit against Salvatore. That case is still pending.
The court decided that Salvatore stated her opinion as a board member and that she was not found to have defamed Licopoli because she was acting in the realm of her responsibilities. One of the responsibilities of the board and its members is to evaluate the performance of the superintendent of schools.
According to the court’s decision, Licopoli was given the option to hold the evaluation in executive session, but elected to conduct it in open session. The courts decision read that defamatory statements made by school board members that are related to a superintendent’s qualifications and performance at his/her position, are privileged and shield Salvatore from any prosecution.
During the summer of 2008, the board rated Licopoli on a scale of one to four (one being the lowest, four being the highest) at a 2.5 in the category of Values and Ethics. Salvatore rated Licopoli at 1.
At a meeting in Sept. 2008, Licopoli asked Salvatore to explain her rating. According to the lawsuit filed by Dr. Licopoli’s attorney, Matthew Marks of the Carle Place law firm Leeds Morelli & Brown, Salvatore provided a document with examples, stating that Dr. Licopoli “harasses employees and administrators because they are personal friends of mine” and Dr. Licopoli “takes off Fridays with no adjustments to timesheets.”
The lawsuit against Mrs. Salvatore claimed that these were false statements. However, Salvatore stood by her evaluations of the superintendent and said she believed the statements she made to be the truth.
The school board decided not to pay her legal fees in the Licopoli lawsuit. In 2009, Salvatore’s lawyer, Richard Hamburger cited Article 18 of the New York State Public Officer’s law, which states, “The public entity shall provide for the defense of the employee in any civil action or proceeding, state or federal, arising out of any alleged act or omission which occurred or allegedly occurred while the employee was acting within the scope of his public employment or duties.”
In this case, the public entity is the board of education and Salvatore is the employee. In January 2009, courts ruled that the district pay her legal fees.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” Salvatore said. “I was told that he’s trying to appeal it. I guess we’ll see what happens.”
The decision read that Licopoli argued that Salvatore committed actual malice in that it can also be shown by, “personal spite, ill will or culpable recklessness or negligence. The plaintiff is referring to common law malice where the party alleging defamation is not a public figure/public official.” Here, Licopoli was trying to argue that he is solely a private citizen.”
The document stated that Licopoli did admit that he was in fact a public official, making common law malice irrelevant in his case against Salvatore. In the absence of this, his claim had ceased to proceed, ending in a dismissal.
When Licopoli will appeal the decision made by Hon. Ute Wolff Lally is unknown at this time. Also, Salvatore’s legal woes with the school district are still ongoing.