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Norwood Easthill Associates v. Norwood Easthill Watch

Decided: February 2, 1988.

NORWOOD EASTHILL ASSOCIATES, A NEW JERSEY PARTNERSHIP, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
NORWOOD EASTHILL WATCH, CHRISTOPHER MARRARO, IAN MAITLAND AND YVONNE MAITLAND, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.

Michels, Shebell and Gaynor. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, J.A.D.

Shebell

Plaintiff Norwood Easthill Associates, a partnership, appeals the dismissal on summary judgment of its complaint alleging malicious interference with agreements to which it was a party by defendants, Ian and Yvonne Maitland, Christopher Marraro and Norwood Easthill Watch (Watch). We affirm.

The contracts concern the sale and development of a 151.1-acre tract located in the Borough of Norwood and owned by the Greater New York Councils of the Boy Scouts of America. In 1980 plaintiff entered into an agreement to purchase the property. The Maitlands were Norwood residents whose home was located close to the property. They and other neighbors formed Watch, a non-profit group "concerned about the [proposed] development and safety factors," which lobbied against the proposed development of the property.

On December 23, 1983, Norwood's zoning ordinance was declared void under the doctrine of Mt. Laurel II*fn1 because it failed to provide a realistic opportunity for the construction of low and moderate income housing in the municipality. In January 1985, plaintiff and Norwood's elected officials negotiated a settlement agreement.

On March 5, 1985, a public meeting was held before the mayor and borough council to explain the settlement agreement. The Maitlands were present at the meeting, as was the attorney Marraro, who represented either the Maitlands or Watch. According to Norwood's municipal attorney, at the

close of the meeting Marraro threatened that if the borough did not repudiate the settlement agreement with plaintiff, the Maitlands, through Marraro's law offices in Washington, would cause an IRS investigation of the attorney and the mayor to be initiated. The Maitlands and Marraro deny that they threatened the municipal attorney or mayor in any way.

Norwood did not abrogate the settlement agreement. However, about four weeks after the meeting, there was a hearing before the designated Mt. Laurel judge at which the parties to the settlement sought court approval of the agreement. The court denied approval as the agreement did not provide reasonable assurances that low and moderate income housing would be constructed. A revised settlement agreement was later approved by the court.

Neither the mayor nor the municipal attorney brought an action against defendants for the alleged threat. Plaintiff in its complaint asserts that defendants interfered with both its land-purchase contract with the Boy Scouts and its settlement agreement with Norwood. The allegation concerning interference with the Boy Scouts contract has not been pursued and only the settlement agreement interference remains in the case.

In granting summary judgment, the Law Division held that defendants had the right to question vigorously the actions of their government officials and that any threat made to third parties, such as Norwood's municipal attorney and mayor, did not create a right of action in plaintiff for malicious interference with the settlement agreement. According to the motion judge, since the threat was "indirect" it could not sustain the cause of action.

Plaintiff contends that the alleged threat by Marraro was actionable as malicious interference with the settlement agreement and also that there was a genuine issue of material fact which precluded summary judgment. Specifically, plaintiff notes that it is disputed as to whether Marraro actually ...


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