Aguirre v. State, 2021-51276

CourtNew York Court of Claims
Writing for the CourtMaureen T. Liccione, J.
Decision Date08 December 2021
PartiesAdan Aguirre, Movant, v. The State of New York, [1] Defendant.
Docket NumberMotion M-96877,2021-51276

Adan Aguirre, Movant,
v.

The State of New York, [1] Defendant.

No. 2021-51276

Motion No. M-96877

Court of Claims

December 8, 2021


Unpublished Opinion

For Movant:

Lewis & Lin, LLC

By: David D. Lin, Esq.

For Defendant:

HON. LETITIA JAMES, ATTORNEY GENERAL

By: Robert E. Morelli, Assistant Attorney General

Maureen T. Liccione, J.

Movant moves for permission to file and serve a late claim alleging a cause of action for defamation.

Movant is a professor and researcher in Stony Brook University's (SBU) Department of Pharmacology since 2009. He was granted tenure on June 29, 2017. Throughout his tenure at SBU, movant has conducted research or contributed to research in the field of neuroscience. He has produced scholarship and published articles in leading scientific journals.

In 2017, SBU initiated an investigation into movant's laboratory research. The investigation began when an anonymous complaint was made by a graduate student who worked in movant's laboratory, who is referred to in the various submissions by the initials MK. MK's complaint leveled allegations of research misconduct against movant. Movant alleges that MK made these allegations in an attempt to have movant removed as the Chair of the Thesis Committee to prevent movant from discovering that MK had fabricated his thesis work. Movant further alleges that MK lied about movant committing research misconduct and destroyed evidence that would have vindicated movant.

By letter dated June 14, 2019, Dr. Stanley, SBU President, informed movant of the results of the investigation into movant's laboratory research. The investigation determined that portions of movant's scholarship and publications were fabricated or falsified. The letter also informed movant that his grant of tenure was void and that his term in the Department of Pharmacology would expire on June 30, 2020 and would not be renewed. Movant filed a formal grievance regarding the rescission of his grant of tenure and the non-renewal of his term contract. The grievance is still pending.

In December 2019, movant filed a formal complaint concerning instances of research misconduct against MK. In October 2020, SBU informed movant that it decided not to investigate movant's complaint because it had already investigated the allegations contained therein during its 2017 investigation.

By letter dated June 29, 2020, SBU's Investigation Committee informed various journals that had previously published movant's research that SBU conducted an internal investigation that determined that the published articles were compromised and that a preponderance of the evidence supported retraction of the publications. Specifically, the letter stated: "Stony Brook University conducted an internal investigation which found that these articles [authored by or principally investigated by claimant, ADAN AGUIRRE, ] were compromised and a preponderance of evidence supports retraction of the publications in order to correct the scientific record and ensure its integrity" (Affidavit of Adan Aguirre, Exhibit C). Movant alleges a cause of action for defamation based on the statement contained in the June 29, 2020 letter.

The Court of Claims is vested with broad discretion to grant or deny an application for permission to file a late claim (Matter of Gonzalez v State of New York, 299 A.D.2d 675 [3d Dept 2002]). In making a determination to grant or deny such an application, the Court must determine whether the claim would be timely under Article 2 of the CPLR and then consider certain statutory factors (Court of Claims Act § 10 [6]). These factors are: (1) whether the delay in filing the claim was excusable; (2) whether the state had notice of the essential facts constituting the claim; (3) whether the state had an opportunity to investigate the circumstances underlying the claim; (4) whether the state was substantially prejudiced; (5) whether the movant has any other available remedy; and (6) whether the claim appears to be meritorious (Court of Claims Act § 10 [6]). The presence or absence of any one of said factors is not dispositive (Bay Terrace Coop. Section IV v New York State Employees' Retirement Sys. Policemen's and Firemen's Retirement Sys., 55 N.Y.2d 979 [1982]). However, the last factor is the most decisive inasmuch as it is futile to proceed with a meritless claim even if the other factors support the granting of the movant's application (Savino v State of New York, 199 A.D.2d 254 [2d Dept 1993]; Prusack v State of New York, 117 A.D.2d 729 [2d Dept 1986]).

Before addressing the six statutory factors, the Court must determine whether movant's alleged causes of action are timely under CPLR Article 2 (Court of Claims Act § 10 [6]). The proposed cause of action for defamation is an intentional tort governed by the one year statute of limitations set forth in CPLR 215. [2] Assuming the movant stated a claim for defamation, the accrual would be June 29, 2020 - the date of the letter sent by SBU to various journals. The instant motion was filed on June 11, 2021 and therefore would be timely. [3]

Turning then to the first factor in the Court's late claim analysis, movant sets forth several reasons for the delay in filing a claim. First, movant states that he delayed filing a claim for several months after the June 2020 letters were mailed because his formal complaint against MK was still pending, leaving open the possibility that the letters would be retracted. Movant also argues that he genuinely feared retribution by SBU if he filed a claim because his tenure grievance was and is still pending. In Walach v State of New York, 91 Misc.2d 167 [Ct Cl 1977], the Court recognized that where a movant has "some anxiety... to get along favorably" with defendant, the movant's attempt to resolve a dispute without resorting to litigation is reasonable (id. at 176). However, in Walach, the Court noted that the movant was also actively engaged in settlement discussions with defendant regarding monetary compensation for the movant's loss. The movant herein makes no similar claim of active settlement negotiations. Moreover, movant was aware in October 2020 that SBU declined to conduct an investigation into allegations of misconduct by MK, effectively foreclosing the possibility that SBU would change its position in regard to the conclusions of the 2017 investigation that resulted in the conclusion stated in the allegedly defamatory letters. Yet, movant did not file the instant motion until June 2021. Although movant also cites difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, he does not specifically explain how those difficulties prevented him from timely filing a claim. Therefore, the Court finds that this factor does not weigh in movant's favor.

The next three factors-defendant's notice of the issues, opportunity to investigate, and prejudice-are interrelated and therefore frequently considered together. Movant argues that these three factors weigh in movant's favor because SBU investigated the circumstances underlying the claim and compiled data and other information during its 2017 investigation into the allegations made by MK. Moreover, an SBU...

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