Whistleblower’s Suit Dismissed

A Montauk resident’s civil rights lawsuit against former East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson has been dismissed.

In a Jan. 28 decision, federal Judge Joseph F. Bianco of the U.S. District Court in Central Islip concluded that Harry J. Ellis of East Lake Drive “has failed to state a plausible claim.” Mr. Ellis had charged that Mr. Wilkinson used his office to punish him for being a “whistleblower,” denying his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech, after he alerted state officials to environmental violations committed by Keith Grimes, a contractor and longtime Wilkinson political supporter and friend.

In June 2010, Mr. Ellis contended, on the day after the state Department of Conservation issued “at least 20 violations to Grimes and his wife,” Mr. Wilkinson fast-tracked the construction of a 6,000-square-foot stormwater drainage pond, parking lot, and public footpath on wetlands adjacent to the Ellis residence. Since 1974, the Ellis family had been using a part of it for their driveway.

In a separate action, filed in October 2011, Mr. Ellis sued the town, contesting its claim to ownership of the wetlands in State Supreme Court in Riverside to stop the drainage project, charging that the town was trying to use land to which he has an easement and making a title claim to the strip. The town afterward agreed to discontinue the drainage pond project until that motion is resolved.

Judge Bianco ruled that the federal civil rights claim had not been filed in a timely matter. The suit, he wrote, should have been brought within three years of the alleged incident; it was not filed until June 2014. In addition, Judge Bianco found that the damages which Mr. Ellis claimed to be a victim of had not yet occurred, writing in his 10-page decision that they “were neither imminent, nor concrete.”

The federal court did allow Mr. Ellis a 30-day window in which he could amend his complaint to include an alleged incident not described in the original filing. During oral arguments last fall over Mr. Wilkinson’s motion to have the suit dismissed, Mr. Ellis’s attorneys had claimed that in October 2011, “town officials entered plaintiff’s property and took down political signs on his lawn.” But, Judge Bianco warned in his ruling, even that incident may fall beyond the three-year time limit.

Victor John Yannacone Jr. of the Patchogue law firm Yannacone and Yannacone, an attorney for Mr. Ellis, said his client intended to continue his legal battle and would file an amended suit within the next two weeks. Mr. Ellis is fighting for the right to “speak truth to power,” the lawyer said

“This case was frivolous from the outset,” Steven C. Stern of Sokoloff Stern said Tuesday. His firm represents Mr. Wilkinson in the federal suit. “Anybody with $450 can file and claim what they want to claim,” said Mr. Stern. “It’s unfortunate that that is what gets the headlines.”

Arguments on a motion by Mr. Ellis for summary judgment in State Supreme Court, which is before Justice Gerard Asher, were heard in October. Justice Asher’s ruling is expected in the coming weeks, according to Mr. Yannacone.