Daniel Rodgers, a Southampton attorney who represented 14 East Hampton Town residents charged with trespassing during a 2021 civil-disobedience action at what is popularly known as Truck Beach on Napeague, has sued the judge in the case, State Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley Jr., for defamation and libel.
The move follows the recently retired judge’s referral of Mr. Rodgers for disciplinary consideration to the Grievance Committee for the Tenth Judicial District. Mr. Baisley made the referral on the day of his retirement, Aug. 31.
That same day, after ruling favorably for the Napeague homeowners who claim ownership of the ocean beach in front of their properties, the judge made “false, defamatory, libelous, and injurious claims” against him, Mr. Rodgers said in his notice of claim, filed on Monday, “when he publicly stated: ‘Here, Rodgers has demonstrated a continuing brazen pattern of misinforming and misleading his clients as to the status of this matter. . . .’ ”
The lawyer stated that the judge’s words have caused him “significant personal and professional harm,” including financial and reputational harm, “as a direct result of the negligent actions and conduct” of Justice Baisley. He seeks $25 million in damages. New York State and its Unified Court System are also named as defendants.
In the homeowners associations’ lawsuit, which dates to 2009, the defendants are the East Hampton Town Trustees, the town, and several individuals. But, Mr. Rodgers has asserted, neither he nor his clients were ever party to the lawsuit on which Justice Baisley was ruling. He does not, nor has he ever, represented the trustees, he stated, going on to say that Justice Baisley’s claims are false because “they have no factual basis.” Neither he nor his clients “have ever personally appeared before Justice Baisley at any time in any other matter.” There are no allegations by his clients that he misled or misinformed them, he added, nor of misconduct.
The judge acted with malice, Mr. Rodgers stated, “when instead of writing directly to the Grievance Committee” with his referral, “he chose to issue a false declaration, publicly in a written Decision and Order which he then published to the Unified Court System” online database. This was illegal, he wrote, a violation of the state’s Judiciary Rule 90(10), which requires confidentiality regarding grievance complaints. Reputational and personal damage continue while the referral remains online, Mr. Rodgers noted.
The now-retired judge, he argued, “may not benefit from the judicial immunity ordinarily granted to sitting judges, as the specific conduct complained of was not performed as part of any judicial function.” The attorney was “denied the ordinary protections afforded litigants against adverse judicial determinations, such as an appeal,” he added.
Because there was no judicial relationship between Mr. Rodgers and Justice Baisley, and the disciplinary referral was never requested by any party, the judge’s claims about Mr. Rodgers, he said, “are nothing more than complaints to the Grievance Committee . . . made publicly and maliciously in violation of Judiciary Law 90(10), without any personal knowledge or basis in facts.”
In September, Mr. Rodgers asked the grievance committee to expedite its investigation. On Oct. 3, he said in his notice of claim, counsel for the committee informed him that there was no pending investigation against him, and advised that he contact the State Commission on Judicial Conduct with any concerns about Justice Baisley’s conduct. Mr. Rodgers noted that he later determined that the commission does not accept complaints against retired judges.
He subsequently inquired of the grievance committee whether Justice Baisley had refused to cooperate with their investigation, or whether he himself had been exonerated by it. He has not received a reply.
Finally, Mr. Rodgers said in his complaint, he contacted the Suffolk County Supreme Court, where the Truck Beach case remains active, to request additional information and asked that false and offending information be removed, amended, or redacted. There has been no reply to that either.
In representing the 14 town residents, many of them baymen, Mr. Rodgers asserted that a reservation in an 1882 deed, in which the trustees conveyed some 1,000 acres of Napeague to Arthur Benson, allows the public to operate and park vehicles along the beach, including the portion determined to be owned by the private property owners. The deed contained a clause that “reserved to the inhabitants of the Town of East Hampton the right to land fish boats and netts to spread the netts on the adjacent sands and care for the fish and material as has been customary heretofore on the South Shore of the Town lying westerly of these conveyed premises.”
Charges against the 14 residents were dismissed last year, as no property owner came forward to file a complaint against those charged by Marine Patrol officers with trespassing. Outside Southampton Town Justice Court in Hampton Bays following the dismissals, Mr. Rodgers promised continued defiance in the form of civil disobedience.
“This is a definite win for us,” he said, “because after today we’re going back to the beach. . . . We have the reservation, and that is a legal property right that belongs not just to baymen, not just to recreational fishermen, it belongs to 28,000 people who live in the Town of East Hampton.”
In a statement dated Sunday, the lawyer said that “in Suffolk County, our system of rules tends to favor those with connections to the right people, those with power and influence. Unfortunately, those same rules handicap the rest of us.”
Justice Baisley’s referring him to the grievance committee and then retiring, Mr. Rodgers said, has left him in limbo, powerless to effect redress and to repair his reputation. “After Judge Baisley made his false claims, he ran away,” he said in the statement. “The committee where he made his referral for discipline said there is no pending investigation against me. And I can’t find out why, because [New York] Judiciary Rule 90(10) protects Judge Baisley’s confidentiality.”