Honey makers drop lawsuit to rejoin West Tisbury Farmers Market

The West Tisbury Farmers Market is popular with seasonal visitors and Island residents. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A pair of unhappy honey vendors, expelled from the West Tisbury Farmers Market, gained reinstatement to Martha’s Vineyard’s popular summer agricultural shopping bazaar, held twice a week on the grounds of the Grange Hall in the heart of West Tisbury, when they agreed to withdraw a lawsuit filed Monday in Dukes County Superior Court against the market managers.

Several days of legal skirmishes, but not the bitterness, ended Tuesday with an agreement hammered out by lawyers representing James Kozak and his wife Monica Miller, partners in the Martha’s Vineyard Honey Company, and the managers of the Farmers Market. The couple was expected to return to the market on Wednesday, July 3, to sell honey.

Sean Murphy of Edgartown, a lawyer representing Rusty Gordon and Linda Alley, co-managers of the Farmers Market, said the market members agreed to reinstate the honey vendors to their Wednesday slot, if the couple agreed to drop their lawsuit and abide by the market rules.

The agreement requires that the vendors will abide by all regulations, “written or otherwise,” behave professionally, sell only approved products, be on time and “not argue with the market managers.” Any violation will result in immediate and permanent expulsion from the market.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Murphy said that all along he hoped that both sides could reach an amicable solution that would avoid a costly legal battle.

Lawyer Arthur Hardy-Doubleday of Boston and Oak Bluffs represented the honey makers.

“I am happy this issue has been resolved,” Mr. Hardy-Doubleday said in an email to The Times on Tuesday. “It’s unfortunate that my clients had to file and ask a judge for injunctive relief. That said, the other side came to their senses and settled by letting the Martha’s Vineyard Honey Company back in to the market.”

Asked to comment on the agreement, in an email to The Times Tuesday, Mr. Kozak said, “Monica and I are glad this sad story has come to a happy ending. This is what we have asked for all along, to be able to bring our wildflower honey to the patrons of the WTFM.

“In its mission statement, the WTFM is an effort to promote Martha’s Vineyard agriculture. Our inclusion is consistent with that so I once again say how happy we are.”

Late Tuesday, Mr. Gordon said it was “a shame” that the market was forced into an agreement by means of a lawsuit, but it was best to move forward.

“Everybody has to be treated the same, so I think you are going to find a lot of people upset,” he said. “Other than that, it seems to be the way of least resistance now to avoid dragging this out and costing money.”

Court press

The catalyst for the agreement was a complaint Mr. Hardy-Doubleday filed on behalf of the honey vendors in Dukes County Superior Court against Mr. Gordon and Ms. Alley (doing business as the West Tisbury Farmers Market).

A hearing was also scheduled Friday on a request for a preliminary injunction against the Farmers Market intended to gain the couple immediate reinstatement.

The couple’s complaint accused the Farmers Market organizers of “breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, unfair and deceptive business practice, and tortious interference with business relations.”

The last complaint stemmed from an allegation that the market managers influenced a property owner to evict the honey company’s bee hive from her land. The complaint sought damages, attorney’s fees, costs, and interest.

The bitter dispute has settled like a blight over the tightly knit Island community of growers and vendors, who often work side by side at the Island’s various outdoor market venues.

Mr. Kozak and Ms. Miller claimed they were unfairly treated and arbitrarily kicked out of the market after they were led to understand that they would be allowed to return this season. As evidence, they point to a vendor booth deposit check the market cashed and their inclusion in spring organizational meetings. Their transgression, they said, was to ask the market managers for a written copy of the rules in anticipation of the new season.

Stung by rejection

In 2012, the Farmers Market voted to accept the Martha’s Vineyard Honey Company as a Wednesday vendor. Mr. Kozak said he and Ms. Miller had operated throughout spring 2013 on the assumption that they would be returning to the market.

Mr. Kozak said he first learned of the expulsion in a certified letter dated June 13 with the names but not the signatures of the five market committee members: Rusty Gordon, Linda Alley, Alan Healy, Jefferson Munroe, and Deb Farber. A check for the amount of his deposit was enclosed.

“This letter is to inform you that your application for there 2013 farmers market has not been accepted,” the letter said. “The reasons that your application has been denied is as follows. Unprofessional behavior during market hours. Bringing and selling goods not approved by the market managers and committee members on more than one occasion. Constantly arriving late for the market. Arguing with market managers during market hours on more than one occasion.”

Mr. Kozak said his wife’s request for a copy of “all these unwritten, unpublished, unknown rules, which are enforced with tyrannical terror — we will kick you out,” prompted their expulsion.

In a letter dated June 14, through their lawyer Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, Mr. Kozak and Ms. Miller threatened legal action under the consumer protection law, unless the Farmers Market granted the couple immediate reinstatement.

New ground

Last Friday, the Farmers Market as an organization hired Mr. Murphy to defend against the couple’s demand for reinstatement.

In comments Monday prior to reaching agreement, Mr. Gordon, an Island farmer, told The Times the dispute was all new, unfamiliar territory. “The market’s 39 years old, and nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said.

Mr. Gordon, co-manager with Linda Alley of West Tisbury, said the market is not a formal organization or incorporated—just a “loose co-operative of friends.” An elected committee allocates the 40 booth spaces based on set criteria, and there are rules that everyone is asked to follow.

He said there is nothing deceptive about why Mr. Kozak and Ms. Miller were expelled. “Basically, they were not accepted back because of all the rules they broke,” Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Gordon said the committee is made up of five members elected by all 40 vendors. He said the decision not to invite the honey company back was unanimous. He cited numerous reasons for the decision.

“They were late setting up, in the way of everybody,” he said. “And they were always bringing stuff that was not allowed to be sold at the market.”

When asked to remove outside products, which included clothing, he said the couple would argue with the market managers.

“Everybody follows the rules, that’s why we’re so successful,” Mr. Gordon said.

“There are 40 of us in the market,” Mr. Gordon said. “We’ve all been in the market a long time and we are a tight community of friends. We get along great, we’re almost like family.”

In addition to the co-managers, the committee includes Deb Farber of Blackwater Farms, Jefferson Munroe of The Good Farm, and Allen Healy of Mermaid Farms.

Mr. Gordon said all of the vendors work very hard to become part of the market and sustain it. He said the entire situation is very unfortunate.

“It’s a totally new thing for us,” Mr. Gordon said of the legal challenge. “We need to really look at things after this and make sure this doesn’t happen again to us.”