Trio settle suit in Hempstead animal shelter case

The Town of Hempstead has settled a lawsuit by animal advocates who were banned from the shelter after voicing their concerns about the animals' treatment. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Jan. 8, 2013) Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Jan. 8, 2013)

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Three animal rescuers banned from the Hempstead Town animal shelter have accepted a judgment for $150,000, settling their lawsuit against the town and several of its officials, including Supervisor Kate Murray -- but town officials said they did not admit to doing anything wrong.

Diane Madden, Lucille DeFina and Frances Lucivero-Pelletier filed their suit in U.S. District Court in December 2010, alleging their First Amendment rights were violated when they were barred from the shelter two months earlier for speaking out about alleged mistreatment of animals. They also claimed officials defamed them by suggesting they had been dismissed for diverting dogs from the shelter and selling them for a profit. They have denied that charge.

"It's been a long road," said DeFina, 56, of Merrick, as she hugged Madden outside Nassau County Supreme Court Tuesday. "It's tough when they take away your credibility and they put doubt and many times fear. That's what we experienced."

The judgment for the three women was entered Tuesday in federal district court in Central Islip, against the town and eight named defendants, all town employees. Madden will be awarded $36,456, DeFina will receive $36,460 and Lucivero-Pelletier will get $8,750. The remaining $68,334 will go to their Garden-City based attorney, Steven Morelli.

"The township is satisfied that the settlement of a legal case involving the shelter indicates no wrongdoing on the part of the plaintiffs or the town," town spokesman Michael Deery said in a statement. He added that reviews of the shelter by government agencies and nonprofit groups have found no mistreatment or neglect of animals. "The town looks forward to continuing to provide excellent care for animals at its municipal shelter."

Madden said the trio plans to use the judgment money to help turn the advocacy group Hope for Hempstead Shelter into a nonprofit organization that would launch a campaign to privatize the shelter.

"From day one, this has been about the animals, not about the money," said Madden, 52, of East Meadow. "We will continue to be a voice for animals. We have no intention of stopping."

By paying out a judgment, the town avoids dealing with the allegations during a public jury trial, Morelli said. The trial court date was scheduled for Feb. 6, he said.

"These are three housewives that were donating their time and money, and to be called criminals, it's just reprehensible," Morelli said. "Going to trial would have been embarrassing for the town."

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