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First amendment prevails for local advocacy group

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On Tuesday, July 15, members of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition breathed a large sigh of relief as they heard the judgment that’s been warily hanging over their heads for the past four years – dismissed.

The court battle began in December of 2003 when angered landlords sued the tenant group for posting flyers that they claim “defamed” them and spearheaded the end of their relationship with Washington Mutual Bank.

After the bank decided not to refinance the property mortgage, the landlords retaliated with a restraining order in hopes of eliminating NWBCCC’s community advocacy that highlighted the northwest Bronx’s substandard housing conditions.

“They got them shut out from going into the buildings for nine months,” said Wendy Stryker of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, PC, the law firm that assisted NWBCCC with the case.

The coalition was bringing attention to the falling ceilings, cascading water leaks, faulty security systems and vermin infestation in apartment buildings at: 1055 Grand Concourse; 2205 Walton Avenue; 2315 Walton Avenue; 2268 Washington Avenue and 2334 Washington Avenue, when the case was brought against them.

In court, Steve Tobia represented himself as the owner of the corporation that managed the buildings.

 “This litigation has always been a thinly veiled effort by landlords to use the courts to avoid tenant pressure to make desperately needed repairs,” Ray Brescia, Urban Justice Center counsel, said.

With assistance from Kurnit Klein & Selz, PC, as well as the Urban Justice Center, NWBCCC not only successfully fought the restraining order, but also filed an “anti-SLAPP” counter-claim to protect themselves from similar landlord assertions in the future.

“The ‘anti-SLAPP’ law protects advocacy groups from harassment by deep-pocketed landlords,” Stryker explained. “Without the ‘anti-SLAPP’ provision, groups assisting under-served communities would be unable to avoid being shut down by costly litigation.”

While the defamation claim was dismissed in 2006, it wasn’t until recently that a judge also dismissed the $1.8 million that Frank Palazzolo, who signed as the building’s corporation president on all bank loans, claimed in damages for a so-called “tortuous interference” with WaMu.

“This sends a clear message to landlords that tenant organizing cannot be stopped by frivolous claims,” Brescia said.

Thrilled with the court’s decision, Urban Justice Center project director Harvey Epstein said it’s not over yet.

“We’re going to go back to court and get attorney’s fees and counter claims,” he said about rightfully reclaiming the money they’ve lost throughout the bogus legal battle. “We’re talking in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Continuing their 30-year tradition of uniting northwest Bronx residents and institutions to discover solutions for community problems, NWBCCC board member Myra Goggins said it’s great to once again work worry free.

She said, “We’ve had the threat of this lawsuit hanging over us for years and we’re so relieved that we can once again focus on helping tenants.”

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