SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – A civil complaint filed late last year by South Plainfield Board of Education (SPBOE) member Deborah Boyle and her husband Robert against current and former board colleagues has been dismissed.
Back in October 2018, the Boyles filed a seven-count lawsuit against 12 members of the South Plainfield community, including four current and two former SPBOE members and six residents. However, on June 26, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge James F. Hyland issued a decision granting a Motion to Dismiss the Boyles’ Third Amended Complaint in favor of the current SPBOE members Ernie ‘Jim’ Giannakis, Tom Cassio, Doug Chapman, and Pio Pennisi, as well as former SPBOE members William Seesselberg and Carol Byrne. The judge's decision was a dismissal 'with prejuidce' for 'failture to state a claim.'
In October 2018, the plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging that defendant Giannakis – with assistance from the aforementioned BOE members and six named residents – 'commenced a course of conduct…intended to harass, intimidate and reduce Debbie Boyle’s standing on the SPBOE, its parent teacher organization (PTO), and within the South Plainfield community' and 'cause her to suffer emotional distress.'
The complaint contained a number of other allegations against various community members, whom the Boyles alleged had been critical of Debbie Boyle. Over the months that followed, the Boyles, through their attorney, Robert R. Levinson, Esq., submitted two amended complaints to the court.
In the decision rendered last week, the court granted the defendants’ motion, ordering that all six counts of the complaint pertaining to Giannakis, Byrne, Cassio, Chapman, Pennisi, and Seesselberg, as well as Chapman’s wife, Michele, be dismissed.
"[F]rom the motion record, it appears that Giannakis fully lawfully attended PTO meetings and expressed and shared his view by engaging in meetings and ultimately was elected by the community to become a member of the South Plainfield Board of Education. As a board member, Giannakis lawfully sought to amend the bylaws of the SPBOE in line with its duties as such,” stated Hyland in the 30-plus page court transcript issued by the court.
“The alleged diminishment to one's reputation from being forced to choose whether to remain on the board of education or remain in leadership in the PTO is not an actionable injury in any sense, especially when the dilemma arises from the lawful activity of the board itself in voting [on] its own bylaws,” added Judge Hyland.
The Boyle complaint also named six South Plainfield residents as defendants, including Michele Chapman and fellow community member Svetlana Prokofieva. In his June 26 decision, however, the judge also granted a separate motion to dismiss the complaint against Prokofieva, finding no basis for any claims against her as well. Additionally, a complaint against another resident was dismissed several weeks ago due to lack of prosecution. As of press time, the remaining counts against three other residents named as defendants in the complaint are still pending.
"My client and I are very pleased with Judge Hyland’s decision," Prokofieva's attorney Andrew Dressel of the law firm Dressel/Malikschmitt LLP told TAPinto South Plainfield in an email.
The court’s dismissal of the claims against Prokofieva as well as the current and former board members ‘with prejudice’ means the lawsuit cannot be re-filed against them; the plaintiffs, however, can appeal the dismissal.
“For the record, the defendants’ first request for dismissal of the case was denied by the judge, a month and a half ago. They appealed and now we will appeal the decision,” Debbie Boyle said, in response to TAPinto's request for comment.
Several months ago, the co-defendants had previously brought an earlier version of their motion to dismiss, but the judge denied the motion as premature, giving the plaintiffs' opportunities to amend the complaint before dismissing it in its recent order.
The current and former SPBOE members were represented by Cameron R. Morgan, Esq., of the law firm Capehart Scatchard, P.A. In response to a request for comment from TAPinto South Plainfield, Morgan said his clients were ‘pleased with the judge’s decision to grant our motion to dismiss in lieu of an answer and dismiss all six counts of this litigation pertaining to them.’
“The co-defendants engaged in lawful activity by inquiring about issues involving the PTO, discussing those issues in the community, and, for some of them, running for school board, being elected, and ultimately changing the board’s policy as to whether its members would be permitted to jointly hold positions of leadership in the PTO,” said Morgan, adding, “My clients did nothing that was tortious or improper, and the court found that there were no allegations in the complaint that could give rise to a viable cause of action.”
The residents individually named in the complaint were required to retain their own legal representation and, for some, the legal expenses were covered under their homeowner’s policies. The board of education’s insurance covered the cost of the legal proceedings for both the current and former SPBOE members.
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