On a summer night in 2011, Patricia Riegle’s colleagues elected her to an eighth year as president of the Royalton-Hartland School Board.
“It’s going to be a challenging year,” Riegle said at the time.
She was referring to Roy-Hart’s finances, but she could have just as easily been referring to the lawsuit filed against her by her younger brother.
The suit, filed four months earlier, accused Riegle of using her brother’s money for her own personal benefit and denying her brother access to the boyhood home his deceased mother had promised would always be his.
Her brother, Christopher Britt, is an adult with moderate learning disabilities.
“I am very upset and feel betrayed by my sister,” Britt said in a petition to the court. “It was my understanding my entire life that this was to be my home as long as I wished it to be so.”
The suit grew into a contentious legal battle that raged for more than two years, largely behind the scenes.
“My sister was entrusted by my mother with helping me, and instead what she has done is completely help herself,” Britt said at one point.
Britt never got the house back, but he did receive two-thirds of the proceeds, about $128,000, when the house was sold under a court order.
About $30,000 of that is money his sister agreed to forfeit as part of a court-approved settlement that ended his suit earlier this year.
Thomas J. Caserta Jr., Britt’s Niagara Falls attorney, declined to comment on the case, but he told the court at one point that the $30,000 stemmed from actions Riegle took as her brother’s legal and financial adviser.
“That is based upon certain transactions that took place while Miss Riegle was power of attorney for Christopher that did not benefit Christopher,” Caserta told the court in April. “It benefited other[s] than Christopher, including herself.”
Riegle is well-known in education circles in Niagara County, as a long-time member of the Roy-Hart school board and as a supervisor with Erie 1 BOCES.
Her attorney, Scott Stopa of Lockport, said she did not wish to comment on the suit.
Riegle admitted no guilt as part of the settlement that was reached in May, but she did agree to give her brother $30,000 from her share of the money from the sale of the house.
According to court papers, the problems between Riegle and Britt began after their mother died in July 2009.
Lucille Britt was a pioneer of sorts and a prominent figure in Niagara County politics. She was the first woman to serve as Republican Elections Commissioner and was instrumental in forming the first girls softball league in Gasport.
When she died at age 71, she left her home on Hartland Road to her son and daughter.
Caserta says Britt was living in the house at the time of his mother’s death but left in September 2010 after Riegle moved in and caused him to leave for good.
“Defendant has changed the locks on both the home, as well as the barn,” he said of Riegle in his original complaint.
Caserta says his client’s departure from the house came on the heels of Riegle’s decision to execute her power of attorney on behalf of Britt to benefit herself, not her brother.
The suit says Riegle, without Britt’s knowledge or consent, used his money to pay her own bills. It suggests the exact amount is unknown but describes it as “substantial.”
It also asked the court to grant Britt a judgment of $75,000.
Riegle denied the allegations as part of her answer to the complaint and argued at the time that Britt contributed, consented and failed to prevent the very conduct he was alleging.
She also asked the court to dismiss the suit. That never happened, and a year later, Britt asked the court to intervene and order that the house in Gasport be sold.
“It was always known that this would be my home,” he said in his petition to the court. “Unfortunately, based upon the actions of my sister, I was forced to leave the residence and not return there.”
Britt acknowledged his sister’s desire to stay in the house and buy out his share but told the court he was opposed to her living there.
“As the court is aware, a part of my lawsuit is for conversion,” he said in his court papers, “as I have now come to understand that my sister has appropriated many thousands of dollars of my funds without my knowing and without my approval.”
“I would find it completely wrong," he went on, “that my sister could now also take my home from me, even though I understand that she would have to pay me for it.”
The court agreed and, in late April of this year, Britt and Riegle appeared before State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III to finalize their settlement.
“Do you feel it’s in your best interest to settle this matter at this time?” Boniello asked Britt.
“Yes,” he said.
He then asked Riegle if she found the settlement acceptable.
“Yes,” she said.
Britt is now living on his own near his boyhood home.