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Oasis Therapeutic Life Centers, Inc. v. Wade

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 10, 2018

OASIS THERAPEUTIC LIFE CENTERS, INC., Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
PETER G. WADE and SUSAN WADE, Defendants-Respondents, and NAVESINK INVESTMENTS LLC; ROBERT PHILLIPS and LOREN PHILLIPS, Defendants.

          Argued October 2, 2018

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-1287-17.

          Steven H. Holinstat (Proskauer Rose, LLP) of the New York bar, admitted pro hac vice, argued the cause for appellant (Proskauer Rose, LLP, and Gasiorowski & Holobinko, attorneys; Steven H. Holinstat, Alychia L. Buchan, and Ronald S. Gasiorowski, on the brief).

          Brian J. Chabarek argued the cause for respondents (Davison, Eastman, Munoz, Lederman & Paone, PA, attorneys; Brian J. Chabarek, of counsel and on the brief).

          Leslie A. Koch argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Defense Association (Methfessel & Werbel, attorneys; Leslie A. Koch, on the brief).

          Before Judges Fisher, Geiger and Firko.

          OPINION

          FISHER, P.J.A.D.

         Plaintiff's complaint alleged that defendants' interference with plaintiff's efforts to purchase property for use as a group home for autistic individuals violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49. We conclude, as the LAD makes clear, that it is, in fact, unlawful to discriminate against a buyer because of the disability of a person intending to live on the premises, even if the buyer does not fit within the protected class, N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1, and that it is, with a discriminatory intent, unlawful to interfere with another's transaction, N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(n). Plaintiff asserted actionable LAD claims and the motion judge erred in dismissing the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief might be granted. R. 4:6-2(e). And we reject the judge's determination that defendants' alleged interference with plaintiff's attempt to secure a monetary grant from a nonprofit foundation to assist with its purchase was protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine[1]because it was not shown the nonprofit foundation was a governmental or quasi-governmental body.

         I

         Joan Mai Cleary, a nurse and mother of an autistic child, possessed an interest in developing educational programs for the autistic.[2] In considering the difficult transition of autistic children from childhood into young adulthood, she and her husband, John Cleary, formed Ongoing Autistic Success in Society (Oasis), a nonprofit charitable organization, to create transitional residential adult independent learning (TRAIL) centers; these centers were intended as a transition program similar to the college experience and, for students who successfully complete that program, to establish permanent farm centers where attendees could live and work into the future. The Clearys believed the peaceful and natural setting of a farm would provide a rewarding and therapeutic working and living environment for challenged individuals.

         In establishing its first TRAIL center, Oasis purchased a twenty-six-acre Monmouth County estate. Given the program's success, Oasis sought a second site as a permanent place to live and work for those who "graduated" after four or five years at the first TRAIL center.

         In February 2015, Oasis offered to buy from its owner a large residential property on Navesink River Road in Middletown for the purpose of establishing a new Oasis farm. Oasis offered $2, 200, 000 contingent on a $600, 000 grant from the Monmouth Conservation Foundation (MCF).[3] A few months later, MCF's acquisitions committee approved a resolution for the $600, 000 grant subject to full board approval. Approval of the full MCF board, however, was delayed when one board member, who apparently lived near the property, expressed a concern about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and a possible link between autism and that tragic event; as Oasis alleged in its complaint, this assertion was based on the misguided leap that "autistic individuals are inherently deranged murderers." This circumstance, according to Oasis, marked the beginning of the harassing and discriminatory conduct that followed.

         Undeterred by this "unfounded fear," Oasis and the property owner contracted in April 2015; their agreement was contingent on the anticipated MCF grant. Before the next scheduled MCF vote, however, defendants Peter and Susan Wade (defendants) and others in the neighborhood began a door-to-door campaign, compiling signatures on a petition objecting to the anticipated MCF grant. Oasis claims this campaign provoked the MCF into denying the grant.

         Defendants and other neighbors also cobbled together a sham offer to induce the property owner to back out of his commitment to sell to Oasis. Upon learning this, Oasis offered to drop the MCF contingency in its contract, but Oasis claims the neighborhood pressure was enough to cause the owner to terminate his relationship with Oasis. But defendants dragged out the contractual process and, on the eve of closing - having heard Oasis decided to look for property elsewhere - defendants and their comrades walked away from the deal. In May or June 2015, the property owner again approached Oasis, and the deal - this time without the MCF contingency - was resurrected.

         Anonymous individuals - who did not identify themselves - wrote to the property owner, reminding him that "[w]e have all been good neighbors" and "up until now you have been a good neighbor." "Why," they rhetorically asked, "would you do this to us?" And: "[h]ow can you live with yourself?" They claimed that what the property owner was "doing to us" was "hurtful" and the cause of "much anxiety."

         These unidentified neighbors asserted that they were "still prepared to purchase the property" and "quickly." They urged the property owner to "PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE give us this opportunity." Within a few days of this anonymous letter, defendant Peter G. Wade (Wade) telephoned Mai Cleary, expressing regret about "the grievous error of withdrawing [his] offer" to purchase the property. He offered to make a $250, 000 contribution to Oasis in exchange for an assignment of Oasis's contract rights; Oasis rejected this "donation/bribe." Oasis also alleged that Wade offered to pay the seller $250, 000 to break his contract with Oasis. That offer was also rebuffed, and Oasis's transaction closed on July 2, 2015.

         The closing, according to the complaint, did not deter defendants' discriminatory conduct. In fact, days before the closing, Wade asked that Oasis discontinue its use of a shared driveway; Oasis declined but, "as a courtesy," said it would limit its use. Wade responded that he believed the prior owner had "already abandoned the easement" and that he would "proceed[] legally to have it [so] declared."

         According to the complaint, defendants' actions devolved from churlish to destructive. In November 2015, Oasis residents woke to find and be alarmed by what is described in the complaint as "enormous, garish and frightening graffiti" that included depictions of snakes and fire covering "approximately 600-700 square feet on and at the [Oasis] driveway." Wade admitted "we did that."

         The following month, defendants allowed to trespass onto Oasis's property their "very aggressive goat," which "head butt[ed]" Mai Cleary. They also allowed a horse to graze on Oasis's property, leaving piles of manure. Indeed, the complaint alleged defendants dumped "literally ...


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