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State Supreme Court: Sagtikos Manor suit fits

The State Supreme Court has denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, granting the Sagtikos Manor Historical Society a chance to prove in court that it deserves to be a beneficiary of the trust.

Members of the historical society that maintains the late 1600s-era Sagtikos Manor in West Bay Shore sued the foundation in June, arguing the manor should benefit from the $80 million trust left after Robert David Lion Gardiner died in 2004 and his wife, Eunice Gardiner, died in 2011.

The Gardiner family owned the manor for about 200 years, and Robert David Lion Gardiner lived there for years before it became a living museum in 1964.

Lawrence Donohue, attorney for and a longtime member of the historical society, said there's $62 million in the trust account, "being handled by people that don't acknowledge that the historical society has any right to any of it. Our claim is that Gardiner set this [trust] up to preserve Sagtikos Manor."

The foundation's Manhattan-based attorney, David McCabe of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, said there is a "strong likelihood" of an appeal.

Gardiner signed the deed to the manor over to Islip Local Traditions Association Inc., a nonprofit set up to preserve it, in 1985. In 1987, the name of the nonprofit was changed to the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation Inc. Its trustees, defendants Joseph Attonito, James Mahoney and Robert Watkins, have controlled the trust and its funds since Eunice Gardiner died.

The court's decision to deny the dismissal request states that "while the Foundation defendants are correct in their assertion that plaintiff is not specifically listed as a beneficiary in the certificate of incorporation or certificate of amendment, plaintiff has established a special or definite interest in the Foundation, giving it standing to bring the action."

The decision indicates that the foundation's application for real property tax exemption stated that its charitable purpose was to educate the public about the manor's historical significance. The foundation stated the same purpose when it applied for tax exempt status from the IRS, records show.

Donohue said the historical society also hopes to have some of the foundation's trustees removed, and to have the court appoint new trustees from the historical society and from Suffolk County, which purchased the property for $1.5 million in 2002.

"The only way we think we're going to be successful is to have the current trustees removed because they apparently have no interest in preserving the manor," he said. "The trust, as we understand it, was set up to preserve the history of Long Island."

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