Princetown’s deputy supervisor is suing the town’s lone justice for $500,000 in damages, claiming she slandered him by publicly claiming he killed another man.
In the lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court of Schenectady County Tuesday, Norm Miller accuses Michelle Van Woeart of “wantonly and maliciously publish[ed] falsehoods” about him during a Town Board meeting two months ago. The lawsuit accuses Van Woeart of stating Miller “killed a man … if you want to say it that way … the poor man never had a chance to protect himself.”
Among other things, the lawsuit claims Miller suffered shock, humiliation and shame because of Van Woeart’s comments during the public forum at the meeting. The legal action also claims Miller suffered damage to his professional reputation as a result of Van Woeart’s comments.
William Reynolds. Miller’s attorney, declined to comment on the matter outside of the language used in the lawsuit. Stephen Denigris, an attorney representing Van Woeart in other legal actions involving the town, said his client vehemently denies she slandered Miller.
“We view the lawsuit as a frivolous lawsuit,” he said Friday. “We’ll be taking the appropriate action in Supreme Court.”
Miller and Van Woeart have had an acrimonious relationship since before he was appointed deputy supervisor in 2012. As chairman of the Princetown Republican Committee, Miller asked the state comptroller’s office to probe the town’s budgeting practices after its attorney fees spiked in 2010, claiming that some of the money was spent as a result of legal action against Van Woeart; in specific, he accused the town of spending money to defend the justice before the state Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics.
Van Woeart fired back by proving she hired her own lawyer in the matter. She also questioned how the ethics case involving her — one that would have otherwise been confidential — was leaked to The Daily Gazette after Miller was appointed deputy by Supervisor Mike Joyce.
Van Woeart’s distaste for Miller spilled into the public comment period on March 12, when the justice asked the board to remove Miller from his position during a roughly three-minute long statement that was captured on video and posted online. Her comment cited in the lawsuit was apparently a reference to Miller’s criticism of now-deceased Altamont Fair director Reid Northrup during the late 1990s.
As a member of the fair’s board of directors, Miller called for an accounting of Northrup’s tenure. The issue ultimately led to an investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office, which concluded fair officials needed stricter accounting and management practices.
Northrup resigned as director and moved from the region. He later died of lung cancer, leaving some of his friends to believe the attacks on his job as director led to his demise.
In her comment, Van Woeart also insinuated Miller’s attacks for aiding in demise of Muriel Peterson, Princetown’s longtime supervisor. Peterson’s health declined in 2008 and she died while still in office.
“I saw what was done to Mrs. Peterson during her term here too, and her health declined,” she said. “And I attribute most of that to Mr. Miller’s actions.”
In addition, Van Woeart accused Miller of inventing several different fictitious personas and then authoring messages through them to other town residents. In these missives, she said she was falsely accused her of pilfering money from the court.
“I think our supervisor should look at that unethical behavior on the part of the deputy supervisor,” she said during the meeting.
Van Woeart, who started working as a clerk in the court in 1985, and retained the position after she was appointed to replace retiring Justice Christopher Cernik more than 15 years ago. She has soundly won re-election ever since, often running unopposed; she faces re-election this year for another four-year term.
Van Woeart was forced out of a court clerk’s position last fall after the state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion advising the clerk’s post was subordinate to the justice, “rendering the two positions incompatible.” She then filed an Article 78 lawsuit against the town, which was subsequently dismissed by a state Supreme Court justice; she has since appealed the ruling.
Van Woeart also filed an unemployment insurance claim for losing her clerk’s job. The town contested the claim, but an administrative law judge sided with Van Woeart earlier this year; the town has since appealed this decision.