Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz argues he has immunity in defamation case

Former P.S. 24 asst. principal Manuele Verdi describes motion as echoing Trump


There has been some movement in the long-running defamation case filed by a former P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil assistant principal.

After a state supreme court judge in Manhattan ruled last year there was no truth to comments Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz made about then-school administrator Manuele Verde at a parent association meeting nearly a decade ago, the lawmaker filed a new appeal last month arguing he is actually immune to such actions because he wasn’t just anyone making those comments — he was an Assemblyman making those comments.

“There’s a significant issue here that has not been addressed anywhere,” Dinowitz’s attorney, Charles Moerdler, told The Riverdale Press. “It’s called the ‘absolute privilege.’ It’s a legal issue. When the concept of privilege arose in England, the privilege that was accorded to legislators in the parliament and legislatures in the local community was identical with that accorded to judiciary.

“It was essentially in any event, unless you could show there was animosity or malice of a real substantial nature. If a person was a judge or legislator and they were actually engaged in the performance of their job, what they would say was not the subject of a defamation action.”

Except this is not the first time Dinowitz sought an immunity defense. An amicus brief submitted by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in 2018 claimed a legislator entrusted with addressing concerns of the state’s education responsibilities is speaking as a legislator, not just a lay person.

Verdi described the immunity motion as absurd, and even claimed it echoes a defense former President Donald Trump is trying to use to sidestep several court cases he’s involved in.

“I mean Assembly members are part-time employees,” Verdi told The Press. “They’re considered part-time employees. And to think he walks around with constant veil as Speaker Heastie says ‘a veil of immunity,’ is Trumpian to me. What party do they belong to?”

The case stems from Dinowitz allegedly accusing Verdi of being responsible for P.S. 24 losing annex space at The Whitehall when the Spuyten Duyvil school was overcrowded. This exposed the now-retired school administrator to ridicule and public contempt, Verdi claimed.

“He said basically that I was responsible for losing a lease,” Verdi said. “He tried to turn public opinion in the school against me, and he said that I was responsible for the overcrowding, taking any and all comers to the school, which is a falsehood.”

P.S. 24 rented annex space at The Whitehall before Verdi arrived at the school, and many believed the lease was good for 10 years. Instead, it expired after five.

Dinowitz already knew who made the decisions about renewing a lease, Verdi told The Press, and that was the city’s School Construction Authority. When he blamed the assistant principal, Dinowitz knew that was false, Verdi claimed.

These were comments made far away from Albany that had nothing to do with any legislation, so Dinowitz is not eligible for any immunity if it even exists, Verdi said.

After losing The Whitehall annex lease, Verdi says he was investigated a number of times. There also were several meetings with top-level officials at the city’s education board trying to get his job taken away. He even believes some electeds were gunning for him.

Moerdler — a longtime leader at Community Board 8 — says Verdi’s original complaint described Dinowitz’s presence at the parent association as one that reflected the lawmaker’s official role in the Assembly. Speaking to them was performed in his official capacity and in the course of his duties.

“That’s the test,” Moerdler said,

“That’s always been the test. And yet, the courts have not focused on that. So, whether we come out of that will depend on whether they are waiting to do it.

“They ducked it in the past. My hunch is they may try and duck it again. Which is why I put it in the brief, so that it will be there for the Court of Appeals to finally have to deal with.”

Verdi seeks millions in damages, claiming if Dinowitz had never defamed him, Verdi would have eventually been elevated to principal at P.S. 24.

Verdi ultimately settled with the city in 2018 for $230,000 over a whistleblower suit claiming the education department retaliated against him after he tipped off investigators with his claims Dinowitz was interfering with the admissions process at the school in an effort to stop certain students of limited means from enrolling.

Verdi has until Friday to file a response to Dinowitz’s appeal.

Manuele Verdi, Jeffrey Dinowitz, defamation, lawsuit, P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil, Charles Moerdler, appeal, The Whitehall