Lisa Marie Cater alleges that Sam Hoyt got her a state job, then harassed, threatened and groped her – but experts in such cases and other lawyers harbor grave doubts about the merits of the lawsuit she filed against the longtime Buffalo political figure and his patron, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
They note that Cater already agreed to a $50,000 legal settlement with Hoyt and wonder if she abrogated the terms of that agreement by going public and suing him.
They can't believe that the lawsuit targets Cuomo, alleging – without evidence – that he took part in a conspiracy to protect Hoyt.
"That strikes me as a pure political stunt," said Lucinda M. Finley, Frank G. Raichle Professor of Trial and Appellate Advocacy at the University at Buffalo School of Law.
Lawyers also say they are shocked at the sloppiness of the legal complaint filed by New York attorney Paul Liggieri. The complaint twice refers to Erie County as "Eerie County." And at one point, the legal filing refers to Cater as "Springs," which would appear to mean Gordon Springs, a New York firefighter Liggieri is representing in another case.
"Maybe he was really rushing through it to get political attention," said Rachel Jackson, a Buffalo lawyer who called herself a friend of Hoyt's.
Such comments proved to be common among the half-dozen lawyers who reviewed Cater's legal complaint at the request of The Buffalo News. Many of those lawyers criticized not only the style of Cater's complaint, but also the substance.
A settled case?
The biggest challenge Cater faces, several lawyers said, is the settlement agreement she signed with Hoyt a year ago.
Cater told The Buffalo News earlier this month that the agreement called for Hoyt, without admitting any guilt, to give her $50,000. As part of that deal, Cater said she agreed to pursue no further legal action against Hoyt and to keep the agreement confidential.
Now, though, Cater's lawyer argues in his court filing that, in essence, she signed that deal against her will.
"Hoyt coerced the plaintiff to sign at her weakest point," Cater's court filing said. "With all of the bargaining power, money, intimidation and leverage; Defendant Hoyt forced the poor and destitute Plaintiff Cater to enter into a settlement agreement of $50,000."
Other lawyers, though, say that the settlement agreement Cater signed likely stands in the way of her new legal case against Hoyt.
Kevin P. Wicka, a Buffalo lawyer who handles employment law cases and discrimination complaints, said he did not want to talk about Cater's case in specific.
But as a matter of case law, he said settlement agreements are usually seen as final.
"In general, if there's a separation agreement or a settlement agreement, a case is considered to be settled with respect to the parties that entered into that agreement," said Wicka, a partner in the Tarantino Law Firm. "That would waive someone's right to file a claim at a later date against the party or parties released in the agreement."
What's more, Wicka said that filing such a lawsuit might be seen as a violation of the settlement agreement, meaning the person who took the settlement and then sued might face a counterclaim demanding repayment of the money received and possibly further monetary damages.
Cater's lawyer insisted, though, that Hoyt's pressure on his client forced her to sign a document she should not have signed.
"She was in dire mental straits," Liggieri said. "We maintain that Mr. Hoyt had leverage and that this was coercion. Unfortunately I can't comment further due to the face that we're doing a real in-depth look at the agreement and as the case moves forward, I'll have more to comment on."
Cater employed an attorney before signing the settlement agreement, but parted ways with that lawyer before signing the deal – meaning she did not have legal representation when she signed it.
The case against Cuomo
Cater not only sued Hoyt, she sued the governor, too.
"Governor Andrew Cuomo had direct knowledge of some or all of the discriminatory and unlawful events which transpired and failed to launch any investigation and/or prohibit the unlawful conduct which was well within his purview and authority," Cater's legal complaint states.
Other lawyers, though, said that they can't see how Cuomo can be held personally liable for Hoyt's supposed actions, or for what other state officials may have done in investigating complaints Cater made on the governor's website and Facebook page.
"I think it is a huge stretch legally to bring the governor into this," said Finley, the UB law professor "There's no legally credible allegation against the governor here."
Cater claims that Cuomo bears responsibility because her complaints about Hoyt went nowhere in Albany. But Finley said that as a legal matter, Cuomo can't be blamed for how his staff handled the matter.
"That doesn't personally implicate the governor," said Finley, noting that governors routinely delegate such matters to staff.
And while Liggieri's legal brief alleges that Cuomo was part of a conspiracy to deprive Cater of her constitutional rights, several lawyers noted that the brief offered no proof that such a conspiracy ever existed, or even that Cuomo was aware that Cater had complained about Hoyt's actions.
Nevertheless, Liggieri defended bringing his case against Cuomo as well as Hoyt.
"The governor's responsibility to make sure such complaints are handled assiduously and promptly, and as we allege in the complaint, that was not done here," Liggieri said. "I will not accuse the governor of a cover-up, but I will say the buck stops with the governor."
Typos and hype?
Lawyers who reviewed Liggieri's complaint in the Cater case also said it was stunningly sloppy.
In addition to misspelling Erie County twice and getting his client's name wrong once, Liggieri refers to the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics as both "JCOPE" and "JSCOPE." Some sentences are set in boldface for no apparent reason, and Paragraph 130 of the document is a sentence fragment that says: "In an official statement."
Several lawyers said, too, that the document is rife with strident language that rarely appears in such legal briefs. It says Hoyt engaged in a "predatory and unlawful game." It says Hoyt "was placed in charge of the State's nepotism," and defines him as "a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing."
Lawyers in Buffalo weren't impressed.
"In short, this pleading is a sloppy, hastily put together piece of work by an attorney shooting well above his pay grade," said Carla Cottrell, a matrimonial and children's welfare lawyer who called herself a friend of Hoyt's.
Liggieri said he had no comment on the tone of his complaint, said he was not rushed in finishing it, and dismissed the typos as insignificant.
"Those small typos have no bearing on the merits of the complaint, have no bearing on the allegations, and those scrivener's errors can easily be corrected with an amended complaint," Liggieri said.