Housing, Litigation

Settlement Talks between Farm, APA Stall over State Demand

From PostStar.com, Will Doolittle, 27 Apr 2011.

ALBANY [NY] — Settlement talks between representatives of the Adirondack Park Agency and an Essex County organic farm over legal fees the APA owes the farm stalled on Tuesday, according to one party to the talks.

The two sides agreed on a figure, but the talks foundered on a condition insisted upon by the APA, according to Sandy Lewis, owner of Lewis Family Farm in Essex.

Lawyers for the attorney general’s office, representing the APA, wanted the judge in the case to vacate his own decisions in the case, so they cannot serve as legal precedents, Lewis said.

Essex County acting Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer ruled last year that the APA had to reimburse Lewis Family Farm for the money it had spent suing the APA in a dispute over farmworker housing.

The APA had previously asserted jurisdiction over housing the farm had built for workers. But the Lewises, backed by the New York Farm Bureau, argued that because farms are largely exempt from APA jurisdiction, the farmworker housing was exempt.

Lewis Family Farm won the case, then won again when it sued for legal fees under the state’s Equal Access to Justice Act.

On Tuesday, the two sides met with a state settlement officer to negotiate the amount the APA will reimburse Lewis Family Farm for its legal fees. Lewis said the sides agreed on about $72,000, a figure that had been set by Judge Meyer.

Lewis had been seeking more than $200,000.

State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, said she had been in touch with state officials before the talks and had expected that a settlement would be reached.

“I don’t really understand it,” she said, of the talks’ collapse.

Daniel Manning, the Essex County attorney, said none of the circumstances under which cases are vacated seem to apply to this one.

And, Manning said, it would be strange to condition a settlement upon the consent of a third party – “any third party.” In this case, Judge Meyer would be a third party to the settlement talks.

Essex County Clerk Joseph Provoncha said, in his experience, court decisions are rarely vacated.

Lewis said the APA is trying to ensure that the cases do not set a legal precedent for other people seeking legal fees from the state.

“It’s government at its worst,” he said. “They want to hide the record.”

Lewis’ lawyer, John Privitera, refused to comment on the settlement negotiations.

But Privitera had said earlier that $72,000 was the largest award he knew of ever granted under the state’s Equal Access to Justice Act.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever said agency officials would not comment on the negotiations.

Loretta Simon, one of the lawyers from the attorney general’s office involved in the settlement talks, also refused to comment.

Source: PostStar.com, “Settlement Talks between Farm, APA Stall over State Demand” by Will Doolittle, 27 Apr 2011.

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