A Texas lawyer who sued three Vashon women, saying he was defamed by their high-profile efforts to dislodge him from the board that owns the historic Mukai Farmhouse, has asked a judge to dismiss his lawsuit.
J. Nelson Happy, a board member on Island Landmarks and the husband of the nonprofit’s founder, Mary Matthews, filed a motion to dismiss his lawsuit last Monday. Nelson had sued Glenda Pearson, Ellen Kritzman and Lynn Greiner on Jan. 17, alleging in his 11-page complaint that they had engaged in a “civil conspiracy” to take over the nonprofit, defaming him in the process.
Happy, reached by phone last week, declined to comment on his effort to dismiss the suit, referring all questions to his lawyer, islander Bob Krinsky. Krinsky is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Greiner, however, said she believes it’s clear why Happy made the surprise move early Monday morning. The Friday before, she said, a lawyer representing the three women called Krinsky to tell him they planned to file a motion Monday morning, seeking to quash the suit based on a new state law that prohibits legal action meant to intimidate people engaged in a public process. Their lawyer planned to seek legal fees as well as penalties against both Happy and Krinsky for filing what the women contend was a suit meant to suppress their activity.
“It’s definitely not a coincidence,” Greiner, also a lawyer, said Friday. “After our lawyer called Bob Krinsky on Friday to find a time to have our motion heard, they probably thought better (of their lawsuit) over the weekend.”
Happy’s motion was filed “first thing Monday morning,” Greiner said, “before we had time to file our motion.”
The legal wrangling is not over, however. Happy is seeking a dismissal to his suit “without prejudice,” which gives him the right to refile it, Greiner said. As a result, Sarah Duran, the women’s Seattle lawyer, has filed a counter-motion, seeking legal fees for the work done so far and sanctions against Krinsky.
“We’re reluctant to walk away as though nothing happened because of the legal expenses that his original suit required,” Pearson, a University of Washington librarian, said.
“It’s not fair to put people through this and then say, ‘Oh, never mind,’” she added.
The legal action is the latest chapter in the saga over the fate of the historic farmhouse, a modest home on a dead-end road adorned by an artful Japanese garden and surrounded by land that once boasted acres of strawberry fields. The house was built by B.D. Mukai in 1928; the garden was designed by his wife Kuni. Next door is the false-fronted barreling plant, purchased in 2006 by Matthews and Happy, where Mukai processed strawberries to be sold across the country.
The house, garden and barreling plant, part of the Mukai complex listed as historic by the King County Landmarks Commission, are considered one of the nation’s most significant sites in telling the story of the Japanese-American agricultural experience on the West Coast.
Matthews, then an islander but now a Texas resident, founded Island Landmarks and purchased the farmhouse for $300,000 in county, state and federal grants in 2000, promising at the time to make it into a cultural and educational resource center. By most accounts, that hasn’t happened; these days, the house is rarely open to the public, and until recently, it appeared to be receiving little attention from Island Landmarks, an organization with an out-of-state board.
A state agency, the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, recently stepped in, saying Island Landmarks has not made the house available to the public and is thus failing to live up to its obligations under the public grants it received. In late January, shortly before KOMO News ran a hard-hitting piece about Island Landmarks’ failure to open the farmhouse to the public, a new sign went up in front of the fenced site, saying it would open in May and October.
A group of islanders who attempted to take over the Island Landmarks board, meanwhile, continues to press its case. The group, which now calls itself Friends of Mukai and has more than 150 members, tried to oust the out-of-state board last year when it held a membership meeting and voted in a new slate of board members — including Pearson, Greiner and Kritzman. Happy and Matthews challenged the effort and won in King County Superior Court.
But Greiner says she believes the trial judge erred in her ruling, and the Friends of Mukai just filed its motion in its appeal of the decision. The group is also continuing to work with several state and regional organizations concerned about the status of the historic site, including the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, the King County Office of Historic Preservation and the state historic preservation office, Pearson said.
“We’d like to resolve this, once and for all,” she said.