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Key Moves Due in Health Center Case

By Don Smith
Newsday, 2/16/88

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Mallon is expected this week to wind up a non-jury civil trial to determine whether the Junior Eason Riverhead Community Health and Service Center owes damages to a trust that rented it space for the past eight years. At the same time, in another court today, new owners of the Riverhead building will be seeking to evict the group.

The issue of whether the group owes money to the trust arose after an appellate court last year upheld the trust's claim that there was no valid lease in existence between Diane Ramirez, president of the center, and the late J. Leo Saxstein, a former member of the trust.

Jonathan Platt, an attorney for the trust, said it was seeking $250,000 in punitive damages from Ramirez and the center, along with $50,000 in unpaid rent since 1981 and legal fees. The trust turned over title to the building, at 76 W. Main St., to a real estate firm in December, 1985, and the firm has been trying since then to evict the group, which serves seasonal farm workers and other low-income persons.

The center has argued that the 1980 lease was valid and provided an option to buy the building in 1985, when the lease expired. Ramirez had testified that she saw Saxstein sign the lease, but that there were no other witnesses.

But handwriting experts testified during the original trial that Saxstein had not signed the lease, although his name was signed to it, and they noted that the name was misspelled.

Thomas Keegan Jr., a Patchogue attorney representing the center, said: "Everyone talks about the lease being a forgery but that was never the ruling. In the earlier trial we were not allowed to produce evidence that would have shown the lease was signed as we claimed. In the current trial we are just attempting to show that the center's costs and expenses, in keeping that building from crashing down on top of us, more than offset the charges they claim we owe."

Keegan said that the center had spent a good deal of money to maintain the building. "We just don't have the receipts for every nail and screw that we've had to put in to keep the place in good repair," he said.

According to legal sources, the trust that owned the building was formed during the 1940s by three Riverhead lawyers, Reginald C. Smith, Saxstein and William B. Platt Jr., Jonathan's father. Smith and Saxstein have died. The sources said the sale of the building from the trust to the real estate firm had been tied up because of the center's insistence it not only had a right to stay in the building but also to buy the structure.

The sale went through on Dec. 31, 1985, after the original ruling on the lease and the order that the center be evicted. The eviction proceeding, appealed separately, is still pending and is scheduled for a hearing today.

The center, according to Keegan, is headquarters for a group of volunteers, many of whom are members of the Eastern Farm Workers Association, who perform a wide range of services for seasonal farm workers and other low-income persons. "It's the kind of group that gets a receipt on a piece of paper for building materials, then someone calls in with a story about a family in need of food or fuel, and the name is written on that receipt and passed on to other volunteers who go there an take care of the family's need and the receipt is lost in the process. That's what makes this case so difficult. This is a group of people helping other people. and the lawyers are out asking for damages against us."