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BURROUGHS v. HOLIDAY INN

October 29, 1985

BRIAN J. BURROUGHS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE HOLIDAY INN, Rochester, New York; THE CITY OF ROCHESTER, New York; STRONG MEMORIAL HOSPITAL; and THE ROCHESTER PSYCHIATRIC CENTER, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: TELESCA

TELESCA, J.

"In 42 U.S.C. § 1988, Congress quite clearly instructs federal courts to refer to state statutes when federal law provides no rule of decision for actions brought under Section 1983." Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 484, 64 L. Ed. 2d 440, 100 S. Ct. 1790 (1980) (internal quotations and brackets omitted). The question presented in this case is whether a federal action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is subject to the provisions of New York State law which require the service of "Notice of Claim" within ninety (90) days after the claim arises as a condition precedent to any tort action against a municipality. New York General Municipal Law §§ 50-e and 50-i. In my previous decision and order dated April 17, 1985, I held that those provisions are not applicable to federal civil rights actions, and accordingly denied a motion by the City of Rochester to dismiss this § 1983 complaint for plaintiff's failure to file a timely notice of claim. Burroughs v. Holiday Inn, 606 F. Supp. 629 (W.D.N.Y. 1985). *fn1" The City of Rochester ("The City") now argues vigorously for reconsideration of that holding, chiefly on the authority of a decision reached by the United States Supreme Court on the same day, Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254 (1985), which also concerned the role of § 1988 in federal civil rights actions.

 DISCUSSION

 I.

 In Wilson v. Garcia, the Supreme Court never directly addressed the applicability of state notice of claim requirements to federal civil rights actions. The only legal issue actually decided by the Court in that case was the challenge of determining the most appropriate State statute of limitations to apply to claims brought under § 1983. Nevertheless, the City of Rochester now argues that the Wilson decision implicitly requires compliance with General Municipal Law § 50-i in § 1983 actions, and the reversal of this Court's previous decision and order. The City's argument in this respect is unpersuasive, and is ruled out by the Wilson decision itself.

 In Wilson v. Garcia, the United States Supreme Court held that all § 1983 claims should be characterized for statute of limitations purposes as actions to recover damages for injuries to the person. *fn2" In light of that holding, the City of Rochester submits that plaintiff's § 1983 claims are governed by the limitations period set forth in New York General Municipal Law § 50-i for personal injury actions against a city or its employees, including the notice of claim requirement in § 50-e. That argument is untenable, and was rejected by the Supreme Court itself in Wilson, 105 S. Ct. at 1949:

 
Finally, we are satisfied that Congress would not have characterized § 1983 as providing a cause of action analogous to state remedies for wrongs committed by public officials. It was the very ineffectiveness of state remedies that led Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act in the first place. [Footnote omitted.]

 Accordingly, the Court chose to analogize § 1983 to what it described as "general personal injury actions". Id. That factor alone compels the rejection of the City's proposed application of the limitations period for actions against municipal defendants in § 50-i. *fn3"

 II.

 For the foregoing reasons, it is clear that Wilson v. Garcia does not require any amendment to my previous decision and order in this case. In the alternative, however, the City of Rochester also argues that this Court erred in both its interpretation and its adoption of the holding in Brandon v. Board of Education of Guilderland Central School District, 635 F.2d 971, 973-74, n. 2 (2d Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1123, 71 L. Ed. 2d 109, 102 S. Ct. 970 (1981), which I described as "the unambiguous and controlling decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on this question". 606 F. Supp. at 630. On its motion for reconsideration of that decision, the City of Rochester now argues -- for the first time -- that Brandon was neither unambiguous nor controlling. After careful reconsideration of my decision, I must disagree.

 In Brandon, 635 F.2d at 973 n. 2, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the holding of the District Court that compliance with New York notice of claim requirements is ot mandatory in civil rights actions brought pursuant ot 42 U.S.C. § 1983. *fn4" The City of Rochester now submits that the notice of claim discussion in Brandon is "dictum", since it is confined to a brief footnote at the outset of a lengthy opinion on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That argument is without merit. "Dictum" generally refers to an observation which appears in the opinion of a court which was "unnecessary to the disposition of the case before it". 1B Moore's Federal Practice, P0.402 [2] at 40 (2d Edition, 1984). As the district judge observed in Brandon, 487 F. Supp. 1219, 1223 (N.D.N.Y. 1980) discussion of the notice of claim question was warranted before consideration of the merits, since a contrary ruling would have required dismissal of the action and rendered determination of the constitutional issues raised in the lawsuit unnecessary. In light of the "settled federal practice" of reaching constitutional questions only when a case cannot be decided on statutory grounds, New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer, 440 U.S. 568, 582, 59 L. Ed. 2d 587, 99 S. Ct. 1355 (1979), there is no merit to defendant's suggestion that the notice of claim discussion in Brandon, however brief, was "dictum" unnecessary to the disposition of the case.

 The City next argues that the position taken by the Second Circuit in Brandon is "non-binding", and not a controlling precedent, particulary since the decision was considered and rejected by the more recent and more thorough decision of the New York State Court of Appeals in Mills v. County of Monroe, 59 N.Y.2d 307, 464 N.Y.S.2d 709, 451 N.E.2d 456, cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1018, 104 S. Ct. 551, 78 L. Ed. 2d 725 (1983). *fn5" That position is incorrect. "The doctrine of stare decisis compels district courts to adhere to a decision of the Court of Appeals of their Circuit until such time as the Cour of Appeals or the Supreme Court of the United States sees fit to overrule the decision." Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Aetna Casualty and Surety Company, 597 F. Supp. 1515, 1520 (D.C. D.C. 1984). Accord, 1B Moore's Federal Practice, P0.402[1] at 12-14. As the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has recently stated, "a decision by this court, not overruled by the United States Supreme Court, is a decision of the court of last resort in this federal judicial district[,]" and is therefore binding on all inferior courts in the Circuit. Ithaca College v. N.R.L.B., 623 F.2d 224, 228 (2d Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 975, 66 L. Ed. 2d 237, 101 S. Ct. 386 (1980), quoting Allegheny General Hospital v. N.L.R.B., 608 F.2d 965, 970 (3rd Cir. 1979). This conclusion is unaffected by the subsequent contrary decision by the State Cour of Appeals in Mills. The decision to borrow state procedural rules for the enforcement of § 1983 is a matter of federal rather than state law, and the opinion of the highest court of the state on such questions is therefore not controlling. Wilson v. Garcia, supra, 105 S. Ct. at 1944.

 III.

 The final argument offered by the City of Rochester in support of its motion for reconsideration is, in effect, that the Brandon case was incorrectly decided by the Court of Appeals. In taking that position, the City has forcefully renewed its original argument that the notice of claim requirements of the General Municipal Law are not "inconsistent" with federal law or policy. The City notes that its position on this ...


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