BY MICHAEL VOLPE
Several more litigants have stepped forward to complain about State Supreme Court Judge Victor Alfieri’s handling of their cases after an open letter written by Deb Goodman was published in October in the Rockland County Times.
Several visits to Alfieri’s court room by the Rockland County Times turned up no evidence of incompetence by Alfieri, but numerous complainants have painted a similar picture of his courtroom demeanor and handling of their cases. They claim Alfieri is a jurist prone to making random and inexplicable rulings and sometimes forgetting decisions he has made in the recent past. Each complainant claimed Alfieri’s manner of handling their case needlessly wasted precious time and many thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Tina DeLuca said she felt she could relate with Deb Goodman’s experience after a dispute with a neighbor turned into a legal nightmare.
“It seemed simple enough, a lawsuit to prevent my neighbor from diverting water by means of a pipe,” DeLuca said in a letter to RCT.
DeLuca said that though her neighbor refused to show up to court or answer summons for about two years Alfieri inexplicably allowed the defendant to reopen the case. “He stopped the case in the middle of the trial to permit (the) defendant a right to reopen his default.” DeLuca said in her letter. “He requested written papers to vacate the default.
Then he ruled against the defendant and the case continued. During the continued trial, he changed his mind yet again and this time without any papers reversed himself.”
DeLuca’s case started in the summer 2010 and she won a default judgment in 2012, after the defendant failed to appear for two years. With Alfieri then hearing DeLuca on damages, Alfieri said the defendant’s counsel had “neglected the case” and ordered the case started from the beginning.
Alfieri, during a recent hearing, said he made this decision because he determined the defendant had a “meritorious” case. “There’s enough on the record as to why I vacated the default. I did that in the interest of justice. I believe the defendant had a meritorious defense and, foolish as he was, he should have had a lawyer from the beginning.”
But DeLuca’s attorney pointed out that Alfieri had already made up his mind before hearing the evidence. “You indicated in open court there was a meritorious cause of action and excusable default before hearing all the evidence.”
They’ve asked him to remove himself from the case due to bias, citing this as one example. The case has dragged for more than five years with a trial date finally set for February 2016 and her entire case file, according to Rockland County court records, includes over 100 motions, hearings, and other legal proceedings.
Zev Lewinson has been in front of Alfieri for more than two years litigating his divorce and said Alfieri issued a restraining order during his divorce keeping him away from his ex-wife even though his ex-wife had not asked for a restraining order; Lewinson said he and his ex-wife continued living in the same home while the divorce unfolded.
Lewinson said an appeals court overturned Alfieri’s ruling a short time later, a rarity as appeal’s courts generally cede to the judgment of bench judges in family court, but Alfieri still found a way to remove him from his home.
“Alfieri decides to circumvent the issue by granting my wife sole use of the residence. I got served with an hour’s notice to vacate my own home. It’s a kangaroo court,” Lewinson said.
Lewinson said he was told this ruling would also likely be overturned but another appeal fight proved too costly.
Because Lewinson’s ex-wife makes far more income, Alfieri ordered her to pay him alimony, however, Lewinson said Alfieri has refused to enforce those orders after his ex-wife failed to pay, which left Lewinson strapped for cash and forced to represent himself for months at a time.
Alfieri then ordered the division of a retirement plan, which normally is only done after the divorce is granted and instructed Lewinson to use those funds to hire an attorney, and after that, he proclaimed that Mr. Lewinson is no longer in need of alimony “because you have some money.”
“I have been so railroaded by the system of divorce; I never imagined it could be this painful and that divorce court in the United States of America could be more medieval than a Taliban court,” Lewinson said.
Lewinson, 62, is a teacher and publisher of children’s stories with five children and two grandchildren with no history of domestic violence and no prior trouble with the law. “If they can do this to me,” Lewinson said to RCT, “they can do it to anyone.”
Lewinson’s divorce lasted for 26 months when it ended suddenly after his ex-wife gave him an offer which he accepted. “My wife offered a settlement today which I accepted. I gave up a lot (probably $300K), but I saw that Alfieri was pining to bury me. So believe it or not, I’m happy,” Lewinson said in an email.
Joe Lafemina said he also had trouble with Alfieri after he issued a restraining order during his divorce. Lafemina said Alfieri issued a restraining order against him in April 2015 forbidding him from having any contact with his ex-wife.
About a month later, LaFemina said, the parties were back in court over a financial dispute; at that court hearing, LaFemina stated, Alfieri chided the parties for not discussing finances with each other, forgetting his order forbidding them from having any contact.
“He often seems confused and not focused,” Tina DeLuca’s attorney stated in a formal complaint of Alfieri. “He loses files. He fails to remember what has occurred.”
“He can’t find his files and his staff desperately tries to help him,” DeLuca said, describing Alfieri’s memory loss. “He asks what is this case about after listening to two days of testimony.”
Several others spoke with the Rockland County Times both on and off the record recounting similar stories.
Alfieri has been in charge of cases of great political impact. Vincent Reda is the former Rockland County Republican Party Chairman and he recalled Alfieri playing a critical role in the disputed Orangetown supervisor’s election in 2013 between Democrat Andy Stewart and Republican Walter Wettje, a race won by Stewart by two votes.
Reda said a couple originally from Japan, both in their 90s, who spent time in World War II in internment camps came to court to have their ballots validated. According to Reda the couple, both long-time registered Republicans, said they accidentally put each other’s ballots in the wrong envelope and hoped to testify to the error.
Reda said Alfieri, a Democrat, disqualified their ballots without allowing them to testify. That was one of several decisions that went the Democrats way during the case. Sources in the Rockland County legal community said Alfieri had possible motive to be partial to the Democrats in the hopes of earning a longer appointment to a vacancy on the NY Supreme Court. As it currently stands, 2016 is scheduled to be Alfieri’s last year on the bench.
An appellate court upheld Alfieri’s decision, but the impression of possible bias remained, undermining trust in his court amongst a segment of the Rockland community.
A phone call to Judge Alfieri’s chambers was left unreturned and Arlene Hackel press person for the New York State Courts, which oversees all New York State Judges including Alfieri, declined a formal comment when reached by phone.
Goodman told RCT that she hoped this exposure would lead to substantive change.
“I hope our voices will be heard and that action will be taken to make sure that the issue of a Judge who shows a clear pattern of not being fit to be on the bench is addressed and that the Judge is removed from his position. No Judge should be allowed to remain on the bench if he/she shows such patterns of abuse for whatever reasons.”
Several Rockland County lawyers told the Rockland County Times that Alfieri has always had a reputation as being a wild card or even a loose cannon, but that since he had a stroke in 2012, his faculties have come under further question. He also lost partial hearing due to the stroke, further complicating matters.
Michael Volpe is a nationally published freelance journalist who focuses on judicial issues