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Dahlberg v. Becker

November 9, 1984

ERIC DAHLBERG, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CARL F. BECKER, GOVERN, MCDOWELL & BECKER, ELLEN M. DAHLBERG, AND HARVEY E. STODDARD, JR., DEFENDANTS, CARL F. BECKER, GOVERN, MCDOWELL & BECKER, AND ELLEN M. DAHLBERG, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from an order of dismissal granted by the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Miner, J.) pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) on the grounds that plaintiff's complaint, asserting his over-night imprisonment for failure to pay maintenance arrearages to his former wife violated his civil rights, failed to state a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Affirmed.

Author: Cardamone

Before: MESKILL, CARDAMONE and ROSENN,*fn* Circuit Judges

CARDAMONE, Circuit Judge:

This appeal from an order, dismissing plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim, made by the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Miner, J.), presents a question of first impression that involves the well-known litany of Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which states:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

Despite our familiarity with the refrain, the scope and meaning of the words have not proved easy to define. This case provides yet another opportunity to explore the contours of § 1983. In venturing into the unplumbed depths of "state action," a sense of the strong yet uncertain cross-currents in this area of the law leads us to hug the known legal shore as closely as possible.

I

The facts in this case stem from a dispute between plaintiff, Eric Dahlberg, and defendant, Ellen Dahlberg, his former wife. A matrimonial proceeding between them ended in a default divorce and a stipulation of settlement which was executed by the parties and later incorporated in a June 1982 decree. When the plaintiff failed to make the payments required by the stipulation, his wife's attorneys -- co-defendants in the present litigation -- prepared an order to show cause why he should not be held in contempt. The order stated that plaintiff owed defendant $1,785 for maintenance and $800 in costs and fees to her attorneys and that he had neglected to execute certain documents, including a promissory note for $8,000 and security instruments covering certain machinery.

The show cause order, presented ex parte on November 23, 1982 to an Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice for Delaware County, was made returnable in December at Special Term. When neither plaintiff nor his attorney appeared on the return date, the Special Term Justice found Dahlberg guilty of contempt and signed an order which provided that he could purge himself of contempt by paying the maintenance arrearage and signing the requisite promissory notes and financing statements. The order also stated that further noncompliance on Dahlberg's part would cause an order of commitment to issue. When Dahlberg again failed to respond, Special Term signed a commitment order that resulted in Dahlberg's arrest on June 7, 1982 by the Sheriff of Schoharie County. After plaintiff was transported to the county jail, he was advised that to obtain his release he would have to pay $300 in maintenance, $2500 in attorneys' fees, plus the sheriff's fees. Upon reading the order of commitment, the Schoharie County Court Judge who conducted the arraignment told Dahlberg that he had no alternative but to hold him without bail. Later that same afternoon Dahlberg's friends provided him with the necessary funds, promissory notes and financing statements. Despite plaintiff's willingness to meet these obligations, the County Court Judge refused to order plaintiff's release absent authorization from either a State Supreme Court Justice or Ellen Dahlberg's attorneys. Plaintiff was therefore confined overnight in the Schoharie County jail. The next morning, June 8, defendant's attorneys telephoned the County Court Judge and authorized plaintiff's release, contingent on his signing the requisite documents and paying the maintenance and attorneys' fees. Shortly before noon Dahlberg was again before the county court where he signed the documents, paid the fees and obtained an order releasing him from jail.

Based on these events, plaintiff commenced the present action in district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In his complaint he alleges that Ellen Dahlberg and her attorneys acted under color of state law to cause his unlawful arrest and imprisonment violating his Fourteenth Amendment rights. Specifically, Dahlberg asserts that defendants intentionally and/or negligently: (a) prepared a false affidavit and submitted it to the New York State Supreme Court in support of the show cause order as a basis for obtaining a promissory note and financing statements to which, he alleges, defendants were not entitled; (b) omitted from the order to show cause the notice and warning required by section 756 of the New York Judiciary Law;*fn1 (c) violated section 761 of the New York Judiciary Law*fn2 by serving an order to show cause for contempt upon an attorney whose authority had expired; and (d) failed to include with the commitment order either the actual promissory note and financing statements or a satisfactory description of those documents to that the County Court Judge could assess plaintiff's compliance and thereby avoid his needless incarceration. As a result, Dahlberg claims to have suffered damages from lost work, work improperly performed by unsupervised employees, injury to business reputation, as well as extreme shock, outrage, degradation and humiliation.

Ruling on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ.P. 12(b)(6), Judge Miner concluded that Dahlberg's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. He found it clear that neither Ellen Dahlberg nor her attorneys acted under color of state law. Plaintiff has not appealed the dismissal of his suit against Ellen Dahlberg. In his appeal of the dismissal of his suit against defendant attorneys, plaintiff renews his contention that through their joint participation with a state official as well as their independent exercise of power allegedly ceded to them by a state official they acted under color of state law. Although we affirm the result reached by the district court judge, we do so for somewhat different reasons.

II

Since the judgment below was premised on Fed. R. Civ.P. 12(b)(6), we note at the outset that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957). Moreover, in passing on a motion to dismiss, the allegations of the complaint must be construed in favor of the plaintiff. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 40 L. Ed. 2d 90, 94 S. Ct. 1683 (1974); Fine v. City of New York, 529 F.2d 70, 75 (2d Cir. 1975). Even accepting Dhalberg's allegations as true, his complaint does not state a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

We start with the words of the Fourteenth Amendment that no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. By enacting 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Congress provided a remedy for a claimed violation of this constitutional guarantee. The statute permits suit upon deprivation under color of any state statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage of one's life, liberty or property without due process of law. Section 1983 protects an individual's rights against governmental action, as distinct from private action, whether the government is ...


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