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BENJAMIN v. MALCOLM

January 30, 1986

JAMES BENJAMIN, et al., Plaintiffs, v BENJAMIN J. MALCOLM, Commissioner of Correction of the City of New York; et al., Defendants, v MARIO CUOMO, et al., Third-Party Defendants


The opinion of the court was delivered by: LASKER

Lasker D.J.

This class action concerns overcrowding in the House of Detention for Men on Rikers Island ("HDM"). Three years after relief was granted against the state defendants in this case, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 104 S. Ct. 900, 79 L. Ed. 2d 67 (1984) ("Pennhurst II"), holding that federal courts have no jurisdiction to enjoin state officials on the basis of a state law violation. *fn1" Relying on that authority, Governor Mario Cuomo and Thomas A. Coughlin III, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("the State defendants") move to vacate the order of August 20, 1981 requiring the State to accept "state ready" inmates within forty-eight hours after processing and to dismiss the State defendants on the ground that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

 On September 28, 1979 Benjamin J. Malcolm, Commissioner of Correction of the City of New York, and other City officials (collectively "the City defendants" or "the City") entered into a "Stipulation for Entry of an Order" with the inmates "to secure plaintiffs' rights to be housed under constitutional conditions." By opinion dated August 27, 1980 *fn2" it was held on the basis of the parties' stipulation that HDM was unconstitutionally overcrowded and, on the basis of additional evidence presented, the City was ordered not to house more than 1,200 inmates at HDM. Benjamin v. Malcolm, 495 F. Supp. 1357 (S.D.N.Y. 1980).

 Although the City defendants conceded that HDM was overcrowded, they took the position early in the litigation that the overcrowding was partially attributable to the presence of inmates who properly should have been in the State's custody and that the State's failure to assume responsibility for the confinement of the inmates was restricting the City's ability to comply with court orders. By order to show cause on June 4, 1981 the City moved to join the State defendants as indispensable parties pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 19 and 20.

 After evaluating what we determined were the controlling factual considerations the City's motion was granted. *fn3" Moreover, relying upon the prudent jurisprudenial approach of not deciding constitutional questions when an adequate state law basis for relief exists, we concluded that New York law clearly obligated the State to do what the City was requesting:

 There is no doubt that the situation in the state system is a grave situation, as it also is in the city system. However, with regard to the question of legal obligation of the parties it is the legal obligation of the state to remove state readies forthwith, as the statute says [referring to N.Y. Crim. P. Law ┬ž 430.20 (McKinney 1983)].

 Transcript at 129 (July 29, 1981).

 The State defendants were instructed to accept inmates from HDM within forty-eight hours of their becoming state readies, and on August 20, 1981 an order was issued to that effect. *fn4" It is this order which the State defendants seek to vacate through the instant motion.

 The State defendants argue that the 1981 order must be vacated because Pennhurst II prohibits a federal court from ordering state officials to comply with state law and that the Eleventh Amendment permits a federal court to enjoin the actions of state officials only when the officials are acting unconstitutionally. In this case, they maintain, the only assertion that the United States Constitution has been violated is plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claim against the City, and there is no cause of action by either plaintiffs or the City against the state for depriving the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights. Moreover, citing such classic decisions as Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 70 L. Ed. 2d 700, 102 S. Ct. 752 (1982), and Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 45 L. Ed. 2d 343, 95 S. Ct. 2197 (1975), the State defendants argue that the City is precluded from raising such a claim because it lacks the requisite standing to do so.

 The City defendants vigorously contest the State's construction of Pennhurst II. Relying primarily on our suggestion in a previous decision that the State's behavior may be of constitutional significance, *fn5" the City answers that "this Court's determination to join the State defendants and to impose a remedy against them was designed to effectuate the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and secondarily involved a discussion of state law." Defendants' Memorandum of Law at 7 (Feb. 27, 1985). Pennhurst II, as the City interprets it, is not controlling where, as here, the State defendants' presence in the litigation is needed to promote the vindication of federal rights.

 Plaintiffs, on the other hand, view the dispute as one between the City and the State and have not formally responded to the motion except to submit a letter-brief in which they substantially agree with the City's analysis of the law and the background facts. The heart of plaintiffs' position was expressed as follows:

 Our consistent concern in this litigation has been compliance with this Court's Orders that require constitutionally acceptable population levels in the City jails, regardless of the outcome of disputes between the City and State regarding their respective responsibilities for various categories of inmates. The outcome of the pending motion should not, we believe, have any bearing on the City's liability under those Orders.

 Letter of Theodore H. Katz, et al. (Feb. 28, 1985). Plaintiffs have never asserted any claims against the State defendants and have indicated that they have no present intention of doing so.

 Resolution of the issue at hand requires a determination as to the reach of Pennhurst II. Any such analysis would be incomplete without ...


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