Judge scolds former school official, attorney

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A former elementary school administrator’s libel case against Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz took a stumble backward Monday after a judge dismissed part of his claim against the lawmaker, while also fining both him and his counsel for their “appalling lack of civility” in the case.

Supreme Court judge Lynn Kotler blasted retired P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil assistant principal Manny Verdi and his attorney Ezra Glaser for treating the ongoing lawsuit against Dinowitz as a “schoolyard playground.”

“Use of colorful language to describe defense counsel such as ‘smarmy’ is wholly inappropriate,” Kotler wrote in her ruling, adding that Glaser’s “refusal to allow depositions witnesses to finish answering questions, and the argumentative nature of his questioning in general, all serve as evidence of counsel’s lack of professionalism.”

Daniel Bertaccini, part of a defense team from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan — including Community Board 8 land use chair Charles Moerdler — representing Dinowitz, filed a motion last October demanding, among other things, that Glaser be removed as the “counsel of record” for any further depositions made in the case, and that Verdi himself be barred from attending any of the depositions.

Kotler cited a particular exchange during the deposition of former Community Education Council district president Marvin Shelton that included multiple interruptions by both Verdi and Glaser. Kotler fined both $500 for what she described as their “frivolous conduct.”

“The record is clear that not only the parties, but the attorneys, do not get along amicably,” Kotler said in her order. “The nature and extent of their disputes is informed by the number of motions that have already been made in this case relating to discovery, and the fact that discovery remains outstanding after three-and-a-half years of litigation.”

Because of that, Kotler ordered a special referee be assigned to the case, to help move discovery along.

Verdi declined to comment Tuesday morning, saying he had not had a chance to review the ruling. Glaser did not respond to a request for comment sent to his last known email address.

Moerdler, however, told The Riverdale Press in a statement that this could be the beginning of the end for Verdi’s case.

“Justice Kotler’s wise decision says it all,” Moerdler said. “The claim has no merit, and it’s high time the circus was ended.”

That could finally move forward a case that has its roots in the 2015 announcement that P.S. 24’s education annex at The Whitehall on Henry Hudson Parkway was ending. Dinowitz openly blamed both Verdi and then principal Donna Connelly for losing the lease, according to depositions, and accused Verdi specifically of “actively recruiting” out-of-zone students into the overcrowded school.

Verdi sued the city’s education department in 2016 claiming student rights were violated when it allowed Dinowitz’s chief of staff, Randi Martos, to participate in registering kindergartners to the school after accusations Verdi and other administrators were allowing students from outside the district to enroll. Verdi originally sought more than $14 million from the city agency, but settled in 2018 for $230,000.

But not long after Verdi sued the city, he went after Dinowitz for libel, based on statements he reportedly made about the assistant principal being “derelict in his duty” when it came to losing the Whitehall lease, as well as two 2015 stories that appeared in the New York Post and the now-defunct Riverdale Review.

Kotler, however, ruled Verdi waited too long to file claim against these two reports. He can, however, move forward on what he claimed Dinowitz said at the 2015 meeting, as well as a statement Dinowitz made to The Riverdale Press in May 2016 that Verdi, “in a desperate attempt to create a smokescreen to divert attention from the fact that he’s the main reason for severe overcrowding crisis at P.S. 24” has “brought a lawsuit containing one lie after another,” as well as statements made to television station WPIX.

The biggest blow to the case, however, may have come in Kotler’s order that Verdi cannot seek punitive damages against Dinowitz, if he were to win the case. Verdi sought punitive damages on top of what he said was $5 million in actual damages.

The problem, Kotler ruled, was that Verdi failed to allege Dinowitz was “solely motivated by a desire to injure” him “when he made the allegedly defamatory statements.”

Verdi’s case — or at least the parts that remain — will move forward as both sides continue to collect evidence during discovery proceedings.

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