Town loses appeal against former animal shelter volunteer

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Attorneys representing Southampton Town lost the latest appeal in their case against a former town animal shelter volunteer and critic who successfully sued the municipality almost two years ago for violating her First Amendment rights after she was terminated from her position in 2004.

In the ruling handed down on Tuesday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier decision issued by U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt in February 2007 that stated that volunteers retain the same constitutional rights held by paid employees.

A jury had unanimously awarded Ms. Lynch $251,000 in damages in February 2007, after Judge Spatt determined that the town had violated her rights when she was let go from her position as a volunteer dog walker. Ms. Lynch, who lives in Southampton Village, has been a longtime critic of the town’s animal shelter, located in Hampton Bays, and contended that she was “fired” as a volunteer because of her outspokenness.

Southampton Town appealed the decision and Ms. Lynch, who did not challenge the original appeal, had her award reduced to $50,000 in July 2007. The town then filed a second appeal in an attempt to not pay her any monetary damages and, this time, Ms. Lynch and her Carle Place-based attorney, Steven Morelli, fought the town.

Now, in addition to paying the $50,000, the town will also have to cover Ms. Lynch’s lawyer’s fees. In February 2007, the court had ordered the town to pay Ms. Lynch a total of $71,000, in addition to the $251,000 settlement, to cover her attorney costs. It was not clear on Tuesday what the final figure will be for her lawyer fees.

Town attorneys could not be immediately reached for comment.

Though relieved by her victory, Ms. Lynch said she is concerned about how recent cuts to the shelter’s operating budget will affect its operation.

“I am pleased with the victory, but it is bittersweet because of the changes going on at the shelter,” she said. “I had hoped things would be better for the animals, but now staff is being fired and the bad old days appear to be coming back.”

Mr. Morelli noted that the appellate process had dragged on for far too long in Ms. Lynch’s case. “Quite frankly, I think it has taken a long time,” he said. “It’s taken a tremendous toll on Ms. Lynch.”

Mr. Morelli added that he was pleased with the final outcome, even though it comes nearly two years after both he and his client thought the lawsuit had been settled.

“She did it for the right reasons,” Mr. Morelli said of Ms. Lynch’s original lawsuit. “She proved that they have to treat people with dignity. I’m happy that she’s been vindicated and that it’s over.”

Vera Chinese

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