October 2, 2018
appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division,
Monmouth County, Docket No. L-1287-17.
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).
J. Chabarek argued the cause for respondents (Davison,
Eastman, Munoz, Lederman & Paone, PA, attorneys; Brian J.
Chabarek, of counsel and on the brief).
A. Koch argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Defense
Association (Methfessel & Werbel, attorneys; Leslie A.
Koch, on the brief).
Judges Fisher, Geiger and Firko.
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
doctrinebecause it was not shown the nonprofit
foundation was a governmental or quasi-governmental body.
Mai Cleary, a nurse and mother of an autistic child,
possessed an interest in developing educational programs for
the autistic. 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
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
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). 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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
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