The Lewis Family Farm will be able to recover some of the legal fees and expenses it incurred in a legal battle with the state Adirondack Park Agency over farmworker housing, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Acting Essex County State Supreme Court Judge Richard Meyer said the farm, owned by Salim "Sandy" Lewis and Barbara Lewis, is entitled to an award of counsel fees and other reasonable expenses under the state's Equal Access to Justice statute.
Meyer hasn't determined just how much the state should pay. That decision could come at a hearing the judge scheduled later this month.
Sandy Lewis addresses the Essex County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 4 in Elizabethtown.
(Enterprise file photo — Nathan Brown)
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the agency is still reviewing the decision and isn't sure whether it will appeal.
"We're obviously disappointed," he said.
Last July, in a unanimous decision, a mid-level state appeals court upheld a ruling from Meyer that found three cottages Lewis built on his 1,200-acre organic farm in the town of Essex do not require APA permits. Meyer said the single-family dwellings were exempt from APA jurisdiction because they're for agricultural use.
In August, after the state decided not to pursue another appeal, Lewis' lawyer, John Privitera, filed a motion to try and recover more than $200,000 in legal fees and expenses Lewis incurred in the case.
Under the Equal Access to Justice Act, the award of fees and expenses to a party prevailing against the state is mandatory, unless the state can prove its position was "substantially justified" or there are special circumstances.
Meyer found the APA failed to establish either substantial justification or special circumstances.
"Lewis Family Farm prevailed in the underlying proceeding because of the clear and unambiguous language of the APA's statutory scheme which excluded from APA jurisdiction 'an agricultural use structure,'" his ruling states. "Both the APA's administrative determination and its defense in the underlying action were contrary to state statutes, and as such cannot be considered substantially justified."
Meyer also said the APA exceeded its authority in an effort to "assert jurisdiction, impose a $50,000 civil penalty, and, incredibly, require Lewis Family Farm to waive 'the right to challenge Agency jurisdiction and the review clocks otherwise applicable.'"
The state had argued that the farm's officers and shareholders can afford to pay legal fees, which made the farm ineligible for an award from the state. But Meyer said the financial well-being of the farm's shareholders is "irrelevant."
The Lewis Family Farm submitted a bill to the court showing it incurred $208,000 in counsel fees from March 2008 through August 2009. The APA is challenging $87,000 in that bill.
Meyer ruled that Lewis can recover attorney fees arising from the Article 78 lawsuit he filed against the APA but not for any expenses he incurred in defending the farm against the state's enforcement action, a 2007 case and any administrative proceedings before the APA. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for Feb. 26.
Lewis said Meyer's decision was "right on the law."
"This is one of the best written opinions I've ever seen," he said. "We've not completed the analysis of the decision, but, on balance, the broad sweep of this guy's mind sets the standard for the state. He has guts and integrity."
Privitera said Meyer applied Equal Access to Justice standard correctly.
"The law was designed specifically for this situation, so a small business can recover from the expense of carrying a fight that is not justified," he said. "It's a good result for the farm, farmers and small businesses in the state."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.