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VAIL v. QUINLAN

January 7, 1976

Harry VAIL, Jr., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Lawrence M. QUINLAN, Individually and in his capacity as Sheriff of Dutchess County, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MACMAHON

MacMAHON, District Judge.

This three-judge court has been convened, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281, to hear and determine this action, brought under the Civil Rights Act and its jurisdictional counterpart, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3), by individual judgment debtors and all others similarly situated. Challenging the constitutionality of certain statutes of the State of New York, plaintiffs seek class action determination *fn1" and money damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

 The challenged statutes, Sections 756, 757, 765, 767, 769-775 *fn2" of Article 19 of the New York Judiciary Law (McKinney 1968), implement supplementary or postjudgment proceedings for collection of money judgments. They permit a judgment debtor, who has failed to comply with a disclosure subpoena concerning his ability to satisfy a judgment debt, to be held in contempt, fined and imprisoned without a hearing.

 We hold that certain of the statutes in question, specifically, Sections 756, 757, 770, 772, 773, 774 and 775, violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and accordingly that they are void and may no longer be enforced. *fn3"

 STATUTORY SCHEME

 A creditor, unable to satisfy a money judgment, may compel a judgment debtor to disclose all matter relevant to satisfaction of the judgment. *fn4" Disclosure is generally effected by requiring the debtor, in response to a subpoena issued by the creditor, to attend a deposition or to supply information by answers to written questions submitted by the creditor. *fn5" False swearing or failure to comply with the subpoena is punishable as a contempt of court. *fn6"

 Procedures by which a debtor is held in contempt are set out in the Judiciary Law and constitute the statutory scheme challenged here. If the debtor does not comply with the disclosure subpoena, an order requiring him to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt will issue solely upon the basis of an affidavit by the creditor's attorney showing that the debtor failed to respond to the subpoena (§ 757(1)). If the debtor does not appear for a hearing upon the return date of the order to show cause, the court will make a final order directing that he be punished by fine or imprisonment (§§ 772, 770). The fine is in an amount sufficient to indemnify the creditor for any loss or injury caused as a result of the debtor's contempt, or, if no loss or injury is shown, in an amount not exceeding costs plus $250 (§ 773).

 On the basis of an affidavit of the creditor's attorney showing that a demand for payment of the fine has been made and refused, an ex parte warrant be issued committing the debtor to prison until the fine is paid (§ 756). The debtor may remain incarcerated for up to 90 days before he is brought before the court for a review of the proceedings and a determination as to whether he should be discharged from imprisonment (§ 774). If the debtor is unable to endure the incarceration or to pay the sum of money, he may petition the court for release (§ 775), but the burden of proof is on the debtor to show why he should no longer be held. *fn7"

 The case of the plaintiff Vail is typical of the plight of the judgment debtor under the challenged statutory scheme. Vail and his wife were the subject of a default judgment for $534.63 entered in favor of Public Loan Company in January 1974. At that time, Vail and his family were on public assistance. On April 22, 1974, Charles Morrow, attorney for Public Loan, caused a subpoena to be served on Vail, requiring him to appear on May 28 before Charles Morrow for the taking of a deposition regarding all matters relevant to the satisfaction of the judgment. Vail did not appear for the deposition.

 On the basis of the subpoena, an affidavit of due service, and an affidavit by Charles Morrow that Vail did not appear and that his conduct was calculated to and did actually defeat, impair and prejudice the rights and remedies of the judgment creditor, Judge Joseph Juidice of the Dutchess County Court issued an order on July 22 directing Vail to appear at the Dutchess County Court on August 13, to "show cause why he should not be punished as for contempt for violation of and noncompliance with the said subpoena in that he failed to appear or respond thereto." When Vail did not appear in County Court, Judge Juidice issued an "Order Imposing Fine," which held Vail in contempt and required him to pay $270 to the judgment creditor.

 When Vail failed to comply *fn8" with the Order Imposing Fine, Charles Morrow, on the basis of the papers previously submitted on the application for the order to show cause, an affidavit of due service of the Order Imposing Fine, and an affidavit of Morrow that Vail had not complied, applied for and obtained an ex parte commitment order on September 23. The commitment order directed that, without further notice, the sheriff of any county arrest Vail and commit him to the county jail, that he be held in custody until the fine of $270 was paid, together with the sheriff's fees and the disbursements on the execution of the order.

 Vail was arrested in his home on October 1 and committed to the Dutchess County Jail. At the time, he had only one dollar to last him until he received his next public assistance check. He and his family owned no property except household furniture and clothing. Vail was released the next day when a relative loaned him $294.25 to pay the fine plus additional costs.

 ABSTENTION

 A preliminary question for determination is whether we should abstain from deciding the issues raised in this action. Plaintiffs never raised their constitutional claims in state court, although the challenged statutory scheme does provide an opportunity for a hearing. Defendants contend that federal intervention before the state has an opportunity to construe its own laws is an untenable interference with the duty and authority of the state courts to enforce their judgments. Further, defendants cryptically assert that, even if no appeal is available from any or some of the orders of the defendant ...


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