Putnam D.A.'s Defamation Suit Against Sheriff Goes Forward

, New York Law Journal

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A defamation suit filed by Putnam County District Attorney Adam Levy against the county sheriff who claimed Levy is trying to protect his one-time personal trainer from child rape charges can go forward, a Putnam judge has ruled.

Supreme Court Justice Lewis Lubell (See Profile) ruled on Dec. 19 in Levy v. Smith, 2019/13, that Sheriff Donald Smith is not protected from the defamation suit by absolute immunity, though he did dismiss parts of the suit for other reasons.

The dispute between the two men centers on a rape case against Alexandru Hossu, an immigrant from Romania who worked as Levy's personal trainer and whom Levy has described as a personal friend. Hossu is charged with raping a 13-year-old girl in 2010.

On March 20, 2013, following Hossu's arrest, Smith issued a news release about the arrest that gave Hossu's address as Levy's address.

The next day, Levy, the son of television's "Judge Judy," Judith Sheindlin, issued a news release saying Hossu did not live with him as Smith had claimed. He also said he had immediately recused himself from the case because of his personal connection with Hossu.

Later that day, Smith issued another news release in which he said that it was an assistant district attorney from Levy's office, not Levy himself, who called attention to the relationship between Levy and Hossu while Hossu was being investigated. According to that prosecutor, Smith said, Hossu did live with Levy. Smith went on to say that even after the conflict was pointed out, Levy continued to interfere in the investigation in order to protect his friend.

Levy sued Smith for defamation in August.

Smith moved to dismiss the case, arguing that, as sheriff, he enjoys absolute privilege protecting him from defamation claims.

Lubell, however, found that absolute privilege would only apply to statements Smith made as part of his duties as a public official, which Smith had not shown.

"Notably, Smith's only support in this regard is his reference to various paragraphs in the complaint which simply recount his alleged actions," the judge wrote. "They do not provide authoritative support for the proposition that the issuance of 'news releases' and the conducting of interviews with the press fall within the ambit of the responsibilities and the performance of duties of a county sheriff."

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