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Rockland County Supreme Court Justice Paul Marx To Dismiss Michelle Worob’s Defamation Claims Against Brian Campbell and Matthew Worgul
By Tina Traster
A ruling last week on a defamation case brought by the former Pearl River Chamber of Commerce’s treasurer against four former officers shows, “You don’t need to be a celebrity or an elected official to be a public figure,” said New York Attorney Scott Doherty, who represented the defendants in the case.
A Rockland County Supreme Court Judge indicated from the bench last week he will dismiss a defamation suit filed by the Chamber’s former treasurer Michelle Worob against the two remaining defendants because the plaintiff was deemed a public figure, despite Worob’s efforts to amend her complaint. Two of the defendants had already been released from the case.
“If you’re a public figure, you can’t complain when people say something negative about your activities,” said G. Oliver Koppell, co-attorney for the defendants. “This is basically a freedom of speech principle. This ruling is a big victory for freedom of speech.”
On Friday, Justice Paul Marx said in court he intends to issue a ruling to dismiss the remains of the defamation suit filed in February 2021 by Worob against former Chamber directors Brian Campbell, past president, Matthew Worgul, past treasurer, Lisa Williams, past vice president, and Jenna Fabio, past secretary.
The defamation lawsuit against the former directors claimed their negative public characterizations of Worob’s work as treasurer amounted to defamation. In her lawsuit, Worob, owner of Luigi O’Grady’s Deli in Pearl River, alleged the defendants made statements suggesting she, who served as treasurer from 2011 to 2019, “misappropriated monies for her own benefit and gain.”
Worob, who was seeking $1 million in damages, had disputed any allegations of wrongdoing in her role as treasurer and touted her accomplishments over many years with the Chamber in the suit.
In October 2021, Marx dismissed the case against one of the four defendants, Lisa Williams, and another defendant, Jenna Fabio, was later released by stipulation between the attorneys representing both sides.
In dismissing the case against Williams, Marx wrote the allegations were “inadequately drawn,” and the plaintiff Michelle Worob could not prove that Williams had said the words she was alleged to have uttered. In addition, the judge had said Worob’s role as the Chamber’s treasurer made her a “public figure,” and that the bar for a defamation case is higher when a public figure sues.
“Unless you meet the standard of malice – and malice doesn’t mean hatred or antagonism – it doesn’t rise to the standard of a public official,” said Koppell, referencing the recent victory of The New York Times’s defense against Sarah Palin. “To defame, you must know the statement is false, or have every reason to believe it’s false and publish it anyway.”
A jury rejected Sarah Palin’s libel suit against The New York Times after the judge said he would dismiss the case if the jury ruled in her favor because her legal team had failed to provide sufficient evidence that she had been defamed by a 2017 editorial erroneously linking her to a mass shooting.
Koppell went on to say, “Unless you meet that standard, you can talk freely about a public figure without worrying about getting sued. Even if ultimately what you say is found not to be true.”
Worob’s attorney Brian Condon did not return an email or a call seeking comment. Condon filed a notice of appeal after the Judge ruled on Williams.
The lawsuit arose after the former directors, who left in late 2020, became vocal over the nonprofit’s history of accounting practices.
In February 2021, the Chamber’s then new president, Susan Perzigian, along with the new directors, hired forensic accountant James DeMinno CPA of New City to get to the bottom of the allegations.
The auditor concluded, in a report issued in July 2021, “the financial position of Pearl River Chamber of Commerce for 2018, 2019, and 2020, and the results of its operating activities and its cash flows for the year then ended in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the U.S.”
However, in a separate section of the audit called “Notes to the Financial Statements,” the auditor says: “there were numerous checks (of small amount[s]) that were issued to “Cash”. We could not decipher the endorsement signature, verify who the payment was made to. No check should be issued to Cash. The recipient’s name and the purpose of the check should be reflected on each check.”
The notes also say reimbursement checks should not be issued without accompanying receipts, that anyone receiving a check of $600 or more should be issued a 1099. And the notes point out that “multiple checks written to different catering venues for gift certificates lacked names in the memos. The notes also question a $351 payment on July 31, 2018 to O&R.
Koppell said the audit confirms statements made by the defendants were accurate. The court never took up the merits of the accusations against Worob’s bookkeeping practices.
The case also embroiled the Chamber, which has been struggling under the weight of the legal battle.
In a “third-party complaint” against the Chamber filed by Campbell last year, the defendant and third-party plaintiff alleged that officers are entitled to two types of protection: indemnification under the bylaws for “claims, damages, losses and expenses arising out of, or resulting from the performance” of his duties as president. The suit also alleged the Chamber was required to secure insurance to protect officers for any claims of damages not covered by the indemnification provision of the bylaws.
In response, the Chamber asserted his acts, if proven to be true, were “a form of gross negligence,” that were beyond the pale of an officer’s behavior. The Chamber’s response essentially boiled down to the notion that it is not obligated to cover an officer for “intentional torts” such as defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Additionally, the Chamber also says that if, indeed, there was inadequate insurance, it was Campbell’s fault because he was president at the time.
However, the filing also cites that Campbell’s successors have since obtained insurance.
Now, the underlying matters of the case are moot, said Koppell.
More recently, Perzigian, along with the Chamber, was sued by Williams, (also known as Lisa Leote) in a pro se lawsuit in which she is seeking payment for her legal costs in the defamation lawsuit.
“We are saddened by the conflict involving our past board members,” said Perzigian. “We look forward to the day when litigation between them is over and hope they can find some peace. We just want to get back to doing the charitable things that the Chamber was set up to do.”