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Highway official's suit against own town is tossed - but he can sue again

Cheektowaga Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner, who sued other town officials for defamation will have to start over if he wishes to pursue his case, thanks to an appellate court ruling dismissing his lawsuit.

And this time, he needs to be more specific about how he was defamed.

Wegner intends to do just that, his attorney said.

In 2016, Wegner sued the town and the board for going public in 2015 with what he said they knew to be false allegations of misconduct by him and others in the highway department.

After trying to find criminal misconduct in highway department operations, the town gave up on its investigation a few months after it started.

"Shoddy bookkeeping" is what started the chain of litigation, Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski said.

"This is why the board just approved the hiring of a secretary for the highway superintendent," said Benczkowski. "It's unfortunate that this became a witch hunt, because it did tarnish the highway superintendent's reputation. However, he did win re-election."

In his lawsuit, Wegner said the damage done to his reputation left him open to lingering public “disgrace and ridicule.”

He named former Supervisor Mary Holtz and council members Gerald Kaminski, James Rogowski and Christine Adamczyk as defendants in his lawsuit. They, in turn, appealed to the Appellate Division in Rochester after a State Supreme Court justice denied their motion to dismiss the complaint in July 2017.

The appellate judges sided with the town, but only partially. They granted Wegner permission to replead his case in the lower court.

The problem, the appellate judges said, was the lack of specifics in Wegner’s initial complaint. Wegner did not set forth in the complaint "the particular words complained of ... and the complaint did not state the time, place and manner of the allegedly false statements and to whom such statements were made,” the judges wrote.

They added that Wegner cannot use a discovery motion, also granted in July by State Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister, “to remedy the defects in his pleading,” by making the defendants dig up the statements he alleges were said that proved to be damaging.

Wegner, however, can do his own research into when and where the alleged defamatory remarks were made. All that requires is a simple Google search, said Michael J. Stachowski, Wegner’s attorney.

“They’re still sitting there online,” Stachowski said of the public statements and news reports. Headlines include “Possible misuse of taxpayer money in Cheektowaga” and “Council seeks state probe of Wegner allegations.”

Those reports came after the Cheektowaga Town Board received the results of a private investigation into the highway department. The board paid for the investigation in 2014 and sent it to the State Attorney General’s Office. The state Attorney General's Office, and subsequently the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, both determined there was nothing to prosecute in how the highway department operated.

The Appellate opinion notes that Wegner “commenced this defamation action seeking damages based on allegations that defendants made false accusations that plaintiff engaged in ‘monetary waste, abuse and criminal actions . . . in his deployment of manpower’ in his role as the Highway Superintendent.”

The appellate court added “there may be a basis for a defamation cause of action against our defendants” in granting him the chance for a do-over.

The ongoing litigation between departments has not disrupted town services, Benczkowski said.

"The Highway Department is its own department run by an elected official," said Benczkowski. "The Town Board sets its budget, that's all. The Highway Department is one of my priorities. I oversee it closely, and we work together. We have better communication than before."

 

 

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