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GOLDBERG v. VILLAGE OF SPRING VALLEY

April 20, 1982

IRVING M. GOLDBERG, STUART E. GOLDBERG and HYMAN COHEN, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE VILLAGE OF SPRING VALLEY, THE SPRING VALLEY URBAN RENEWAL AGENCY, and JOEL ROSENTHAL, EDWARD FRIEDMAN, JACK ROSENBERG, SHEILA REITSKY, and CLAYTON SIMMONS, individually, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: EDELSTEIN

OPINION AND ORDER

In this action for reinstatement, or in the alternative for damages, due to the allegedly unconstitutional termination of plaintiffs' employment, the individual defendants who are trustees of the Village of Spring Valley *fn1" ("Trustees" of the "Village") moved for dismissal or partial summary judgment based upon an absolute legislative immunity from suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The facts of this case are fully set forth in the accompanying opinion filed on this date, and will not be repeated here. See Goldberg v. Village of Spring Valley, 80 Civ. 3658, slip op. (S.D.N.Y. April 20, 1982). Trustees are elected pursuant to the New York State Village Law. *fn2" On December 3, 1979, at the first session of the newly elected Village government, the Trustees approved actions of the mayor of Spring Valley that resulted in the termination of plaintiffs' employment by the Village or the Spring Valley Urban Renewal Agency. Plaintiffs allege that the individual Trustees were part of a conspiracy to terminate plaintiffs' positions because of plaintiffs' support of opposition candidates in the Spring Valley primary. The Trustees in the instant motion argue that the actions taken by them were as legislators acting in their legislative capacity, and that they are thus entitled to absolute immunity from suit under 42 U.S.C.. § 1983. The court, ruling from the bench, granted partial summary judgment for the individual Trustees, and this opinion follows.

 I

 In Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367, 95 L. Ed. 1019, 71 S. Ct. 783 (1951), the Supreme Court recognized absolute immunity from suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for state legislators acting within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity. In Lake Country Estates, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 440 U.S. 391, 59 L. Ed. 2d 401, 99 S. Ct. 1171 (1979), the Court extended this immunity to regional legislators. The Court, however, expressly left unresolved whether this absolute immunity should be afforded to "individuals performing legislative functions at the purely local level." Id. at 404 n. 26.

 This issue has not been decided by the Second Circuit. The Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Circuits, however, addressed this question subsequent to Lake Country Estates, and recognized absolute legislative immunity for local legislators. Hernandez v. City of Lafayette, 643 F.2d 1188 (5th Cir. 1981); Bruce v. Riddle, 631 F.2d 272 (4th Cir. 1980); Gorman Towers, Inc. v. Bogoslavsky, 626 F.2d 607 (8th Cir. 1980). This court finds the reasoning in these opinions persuasive.

 In Gorman Towers, Inc. v. Bogoslovsky, supra, plaintiffs sued the city directors of Fort Smith, Arkansas under § 1983 for enacting an allegedly unconstitutional amendment to the city's zoning ordinance. The district court dismissed plaintiffs' claims for damages against the city directors on the basis of legislative immunity and plaintiffs appealed. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that the city directors were absolutely immune from damage liability for passing the zoning amendment, since that activity was legislative in nature. 626 F.2d at 613-14. The analysis focused on two competing interests:

 
The first... is the interest in having governmental officials exercise their judgment free of the fear of burdensome and potentially ruinous personal litigation. The second... is the interest in checking improper official conduct and in providing wronged individuals with adequate remedies for their injuries.

 Id. at 612. The court, noting that there were other effective legal remedies to address the allegedly unconstitutional rezoning, and that the electoral process provided restraint from improper conduct, held that the "public good" represented by free and unburdened legislative activity outweighed the value of a § 1983 damages action as a check on illegal conduct.

 Bruce v. Riddle, supra, also involved a § 1983 suit for damages resulting from allegedly unconstitutional rezoning. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the complaint as to the individual members of the County Council because of absolute legislative immunity. The Fourth Circuit's analysis was somewhat different from the Eighth Circuit's balancing test in Gorman Towers. In Riddle, the court employed a historical approach, focusing on the Supreme Court's statements regarding the underpinnings of legislative immunity and the analogous issue of judicial immunity. The court then compared the functions of various positions in the legislative, judicial and executive branches, and the applicable scope of immunity provided those positions. Finding the policies of legislative immunity broadly applicable, the court held legislators of any political subdivision of a state absolutely immune if they are functioning in a legislative capacity. 631 F.2d at 279.

 In Hernandez v. City of Lafayette, supra, plaintiff's § 1983 challenge was also related to zoning ordinances. The mayor of the City of Lafayette vetoed a city council vote to rezone the plaintiff's property. The district court granted the mayor's and city's motion for summary judgment. The Fifth Circuit reversed as to the city, but affirmed summary judgment as to the mayor, holding that the mayor was acting in a legislative capacity, and that local legislators are entitled to absolute immunity from suit under § 1983.

 The Hernandez court noted the decisions in Gorman Towers v. Bogoslovsky and Bruce v. Riddle. However, another panel of the Fifth Circuit, in Crowe v. Lucas, 595 F.2d 985, 989 (5th Cir. 1979), had previously held that local legislators possessed only a qualified immunity under § 1983. The Hernandez panel overruled the Crowe v. Lucas precedent on the basis of intervening contrary authority of the Supreme Court in Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 63 L. Ed. 2d 673, 100 S. Ct. 1398 (1980). 643 F.2d at 1193. In Owen, the Supreme Court rejected the contention that a municipality enjoyed an immunity from damage actions under § 1983 for its unconstitutional acts in discharging an employee. 445 U.S. at 635-57.

 II

 In addressing the issue of legislative immunity, these courts have relied upon different factors, which considered together, are as follows: first, the historical basis for the recognition of such immunity; second, the function of the position for which immunity is claimed; and third, the availability of alternative sources of relief assuming the immunity is recognized.

 Legislative immunity is deeply rooted in our society. Members of Congress are expressly afforded immunity by the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution. U.S. Const. art. I, § 6, cl. 1. Justice Frankfurter, in Tenney v. ...


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