Schoharie defamation suit to proceed

A planning board chairman’s defamation suit against a citizen advocacy group can continue, an appeal

A planning board chairman’s defamation suit against a citizen advocacy group can continue, an appeals court ruled last week.

Richmondville Planning Board Chairman Harold Loder brought the suit in August 2010 in state Supreme Court, Schoharie County, against Schoharie Valley Watch and its directors.

Loder alleged in the suit that the group’s letters to officials and press releases to the media targeting Loder were “undertaken with an utter disregard of [Loder’s] professional and personal reputation and livelihood, and were otherwise malicious in nature.”

Four separate allegations were made in the suit. Two of the allegations were dismissed by a lower court. The group appealed that ruling to the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court, arguing the entire suit should have been dismissed.

The appeals court, though, ruled in favor of Loder, allowing the suit to continue.

Peter G. Barber, attorney for the group, called the ruling unfortunate.

“It is our firm belief that criticism of a public official for their public actions is absolutely protected speech,” Barber said.

The two claims that were dismissed were found to be the group’s opinion, and protected, Salvatore Ferlazzo, attorney for Loder, said. Loder did not appeal any part of the ruling himself.

Two other claims, though, survived, because the court found they were not protected by the opinion defense, Ferlazzo said.

“They were serious allegations of fact and that allows the defamation case to go forward,” Ferlazzo said.

Ferlazzo called the decision an important one, saying it allows people who volunteer or get paid small amounts for public positions to bring actions and pursue them when allegations have no basis in fact.

The original suit pointed out letters to town officials starting in August 2009 in which SVW criticized Loder’s handling of development project reviews.

Some of the letters, announced at times in press releases, have accused Loder of colluding with relatives at real estate firms or not following the law as it relates to the state’s Environmental Quality Review process.

The group also alleged that Loder helped guide development projects through the planning process as chairman of the board and alleged he had some benefit to gain from doing so.

SVW co-director Bob Nied has said in a press release that Loder’s lawsuit is an effort to silence the group that seeks to hold public officials accountable for protecting drinking water in the face of gas drilling or ensuring any industrial wind turbines are sited responsibly.

SVW started targeting Loder when assailing a proposed development for a dozen homes on Brooker Hollow Road in the village of Richmondville.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply