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School Board Trustee Suing School District

Mineola School Board Trustee Laraine Salvatore is suing the school district for legal costs she incurred to bring action against the district because it failed to defend her during a defamation lawsuit filed against her by former district superintendent Dr. Lorenzo Licopoli. Salvatore will not be running for her 2010 board position.

Irene Perino, the only person to send in a petition to run for the board, will assume Salvatore’s position next year. Salvatore was elected to the board in 2007.

“I really feel that I have a lot more to do on this board and we’re really getting to the nit and grit of what’s going on with possible schools closing,” Salvatore said. “This is my third year and I really felt I had a lot to contribute, but how can you do that when you’re suing the district.”

In October 2008, Licopoli sued Salvatore for statements she made at a public board meeting pertaining to his yearly evaluation. This case is still ongoing. Salvatore said she has incurred costs in excess of $40,000.

According to Salvatore’s attorney Richard Hamburger, the school district did not provide defense for Salvatore in the lawsuit filed against her by Licopoli.

“I asked the board to provide legal defense for me since I acted in my capacity as a board member when I made the evaluation,” Salvatore said.

Salvatore brought an Article 78 on Jan. 6, 2009 against the school district and won. An Article 78 can be brought against a “body,” in this case the district, if it fails to perform its duties enjoined upon it by law.

According to Article 78, the court ruled that Salvatore was entitled to have her defense costs covered by the school district when she was sued for what she said in the evaluation of the superintendent. The court directed, “the Board of Education of the Mineola Union Free School District to reimburse petitioner Laraine Salvatore for all reasonable legal fees and expenses incurred in the defense of the Superintendent’s Defamation Action from October, 24, 2008, to the date of judgment herein.”

The decision by the court required the board to pay her legal expenses until the conclusion of the defamation suit. However, the ruling states, it does not obligate the board to cover her expenses if she is found liable in the suit.

Hamburger said he learned at that point, the district had insurance and was puzzled as to why the school district didn’t give the case directly to the insurance company when the case was initiated in the first place. This likely would have prevented any future legal action, hence the Article 78 and present lawsuit.

“We learned at that point, that the school district had insurance, and they gave the case to the insurance company to pay the legal fees,” Hamburger said. “The question I asked at that point was why didn’t they give it to the insurance company in the first place when it came in [the lawsuit against Licopoli]?”

According to case proceedings, because Salvatore did not serve the lawsuit to the district clerk, and only served individual members of the board, the case did not go to the insurance company immediately. Hamburger said Salvatore spent more than $20,000 to bring action against the school district, directing them to pay the legal fees. However, she only received relief for the legal fees incurred in the defamation suit filed against her by Licopoli, which also totaled that amount, according to Hamburger.

“When [Licopoli] sued her, they should have defended her because that’s what the law requires,” Hamburger said. “That’s what the court said the law requires. That’s not just me speaking. It’s what the court said the law requires and she wouldn’t have had to spend her own money to get a court to say that, if they would’ve reported it to the insurance company initially.”

Jack Feldman, the school board’s attorney during the Article 78 proceedings, said, “I think the damages she is seeking in this case were decided in the first case because she asked the judge to award her damages for the underlying Article 78 proceeding,” Feldman said. “A lot of what she’s now suing for is what the judge initially in her first Article 78 refused to award her.”

Feldman is no longer representing the school district in the lawsuit. Mark Rushfield of Shaw, Perelson, Lambert and May LLP is defending the school district in the current lawsuit. Rushfield was not available for comment.

According to legal documents pertaining to a previous case, Salvatore was involved, not directly, in a suit brought against Licopoli and then-deputy superintendent Michael Nagler in February of 2008. Former administrative assistant to the superintendent, Ulana Illiano filed a lawsuit, alleging that the defendants created a sexually-hostile work environment.

Illiano’s case was dismissed because no sufficient evidence surfaced to prove the allegations against Licopoli and Nagler, which is also stated in the case file. Salvatore sent a petition of appeal to the New York State Department of Education on May 30, 2008, requesting the commissioner of education to reinstate Illiano to her position. The petition requested further investigation of actions of the superintendent, deputy superintendent, John McGrath and two former board members (former vice president Steve Siwinski and former trustee Mary Ellen Williams), which the petition alleged that the board failed to take remedial action.

Legal proceedings stated that the board maintained the petition failed to state a cause of action and that Salvatore failed to present any evidence or other proof to establish her allegations. The appeal was dismissed as well. McGrath said the board took a vote in 2008 to decide to pay her legal fees and that it was a split decision, with Salvatore as the fifth board member unable to vote.