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DESTEFANO v. MILLER

September 10, 1999

JOSEPH M. DESTEFANO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JEAN SOMERS MILLER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McMAHON, District Judge.

 
DECISION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
  JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANTS' CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY
  JUDGMENT

Plaintiff Joseph M. DeStefano ("Plaintiff" or "DeStefano"), the Mayor of Middletown, New York, asserting standing as a taxpayer, challenges the expenditure of funds by the State of New York (the "State") to support the operations of the Middletown Alcohol Crisis Center (the "MACC") by the Emergency Housing Group ("EHG") on State-owned property in Middletown, New York. DeStefano alleges that the expenditure of State funds violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution because MACC staff members encourage clients to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous ("AA") held at the facility and because MACC provides AA-related materials to its clients. Defendants contend both that Plaintiff lacks standing to bring this suit and that State support for the MACC does not violate the Establishment Clause. The case is before this Court on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and the State's and individual defendants' cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, I find that Plaintiff has standing to bring this Establishment Clause challenge, but that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the merits of the claim.

I. The Factual Allegations*fn1

The MACC is a non-medical, short-term, detoxification center. See Stipulated Facts, at 3. The MACC can be analogized to an emergency room at a conventional hospital. It serves persons "in crisis" as opposed to those seeking outpatient treatment. See id. Generally, persons are admitted into the MACC because they are intoxicated at the time of admission. However, if a person is not intoxicated, he can be admitted if he is voluntarily seeking a safe, sober environment and feels that his sobriety is threatened. See id. All MACC clients are there of their own volition and sign an acknowledgment that they can leave at any time. No one is compelled to stay at the MACC against his wishes. See Defs.' Rule 56.1 Stmt., ¶ 6. No state employees or agencies play any role in placing individuals at the MACC. In fact, there is no state action whatsoever in the placement process.

Approximately 700 persons received treatment at the MACC in 1996, each for at least one night. The average stay lasts three to five days. See Plaintiff's Proposed Findings of Fact, at 6.

The MACC receives approximately $500,000 in State funds from OASAS, through the Orange County Department of Mental Health to EHG.*fn2 See Stipulated Facts, at 2. OASAS is a state agency created pursuant to the New York State Mental Hygiene Law and is responsible for, among other things, funding programs, monitoring programs, and providing technical systems for programs that treat alcohol and substance abuse. See id., at 4; see also N Y Mental Hyg. Law §§ 19.07, 19.15, 21.09 (McKinney's 1996). OASAS provides about $25 million on a yearly basis to alcohol and substance abuse programs in the Mid-Hudson region alone. See Stipulated Facts, at 4.

OASAS grants make up 95% of MACC's funding. State taxpayer funds are used to pay the rent and utilities for the building (Wallach Hall) in which the MACC is located. See id., at 2-3. The rent and utilities for MACC's portion of Wallach Hall is approximately $39,000 per year. See id., at 3. As the bulk of MACC's money comes from OASAS, State funds are necessarily expended for staff salaries as well.

The MACC program provides its clients with extensive one-on-one counseling sessions with credentialed alcoholism counselors on its staff. In addition, the MACC also offers clients rap discussion sessions, shows educational videos, and encourages clients to attend regularly-scheduled AA meetings and familiarize themselves with its religiously-imbued "Twelve Steps."*fn3 See Defs.' Proposed Facts, at 23; see also Transcript of Trial, dated 8/2/99 ("Trial Tr."), at 19.

AA meetings are conducted by a volunteer AA fellowship three days a week in the day room at Wallach Hall. See Pl.'s Proposed Facts, at 6-7. The AA meetings at Wallach Hall are open to the general public, as well as to MACC clientele. The AA meetings are posted as part of the MACC's daily schedule. MACC clients are encouraged by MACC staff members to attend the sessions as a proven and valuable resource in the long-term treatment of alcoholism. See Defs.' Proposed Facts, at 23-24. However, attendance at the AA meetings is not mandatory, and the meetings are not supervised, conducted or paid for by the MACC,*fn4 EHG, OASAS, or the State of New York. See id.

The MACC day room, located in Wallach Hall, is accessible 24 hours a day. AA literature, including the Big Book, Daily Reflections, and pamphlets containing the Twelve Steps, is available there. See Stipulated Facts, at 4; see also Pl.'s Rule 56.1 Stmt., ¶ 15.

II. Procedural Background

Plaintiff originally pleaded state and federal claims, sounding in the First Amendment and public nuisance law, against a number of state, municipal, corporate and individual defendants. In a series of Orders, The Hon. Barbara S. Jones declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims and dismissed DeStefano's suit as against several of the original defendants, leaving only the State and the three individual state employees (collectively, the "Defendants") before this Court. In March 1998, Plaintiff moved, and the Defendants cross-moved, for summary judgment on Plaintiff's sole remaining claim: that the State's financial support of the MACC violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because MACC staff members encourage or coerce clients to involve themselves in AA and Twelve Step-related activities — AA being a program which the Second Circuit and the New York State Court of Appeals have held constitutes religious exercise for Establishment Clause purposes. See Warner v. Orange County Dep't of Probation, 115 F.3d 1068, 1075 (2d Cir. 1996); Griffin v. Coughlin, 88 N.Y.2d 674, 683, 649 N.Y.S.2d 903, 908, 673 N.E.2d 98 (1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1054, 117 S.Ct. 681, 136 L.Ed.2d 607 (1997). The case was later transferred to me with these motions still pending.

In his motion papers, Plaintiff originally pressed two alternative, but overlapping, theories of liability. First, he asserted that State funding of a program that offers its participants access to AA — even on a voluntary basis — is per se unconstitutional, government-supported, religious indoctrination. In the alternative, he argued that State-funded MACC counselors directly compel the unusually susceptible MACC clients ("substance abuser[s] in crisis")*fn5 to accept theistic Twelve Step doctrine and to participate in AA counseling, thus violating the Establishment Clause.*fn6 Defendants denied using coercion, but did not dispute that employees at MACC encourage the patients there to participate in the Twelve Step methodology of AA. Indeed, Defendants concede that "[MACC] clients are `strongly' urged to attend AA programs as a very effective means of treatment." Defs.' Motion Br., at 14.

After reviewing the motion papers, I concluded that the only disputed issue of fact that needed to be resolved was whether the State, through MACC, coerces its clients to participate in AA, or whether clients have a reasonable, voluntary alternative to religious activity. See 6/21/99 Order. I instructed the parties, in accordance with this determination, to prepare for a trial on August 2, 1999 to resolve the limited question of coercion. See id. That trial proved unnecessary because Plaintiff arrived on August 2, 1999 and offered — notwithstanding his previous contrary submissions — to stipulate that the MACC has not, and does not, compel its clients, psychologically or otherwise, to participate in AA programs, Twelve Step counseling, or any other religious activity of any kind. See Trial Tr., at 18-20. Rather, Plaintiff disavowed all allegations of coercion, including those submitted in sworn statements to the Court, labeling them elements of a "separate backup argument" he now wishes to abandon. See Trial Tr., at 22. In so doing, Plaintiff explicitly limited himself to asserting that State funding of a facility like MACC (where Defendants concede that the clients — all of whom are voluntarily present, none of whom is there at the State's behest — are encouraged to participate in AA) is per se unconstitutional. See Trial Tr., at 17.

III. Legal Discussion

There are two issues for the Court to resolve here: (1) whether DeStefano has standing, as a State taxpayer, to challenge MACC's involvement with AA-related activities as a violation of the Establishment Clause; and (2) if DeStefano has standing, whether either side is entitled to summary judgment on the merits of this dispute.

A. Taxpayer Standing

  1. Law of the Case Does Not Wholly Bar an Inquiry Into
    ...

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