The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mcmahon, District Judge.
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING STATE DEFENDANTS'
MOTION TO DISMISS THE COMPLAINT
Plaintiff, Eugene Cappello ("Cappello"), is a party to an ongoing
matrimonial action that is pending in the Supreme Court, Westchester
County, New York. (Compl. ¶ 19; see also, letter from A.A.G. Carolyn
Cairns Olsen to Hon. Denny Chin of July 25, 2000.) Defendant, Hon. Joan
B. Lefkowitz, has from time to time presided over the divorce
On January 26, 1999, Plaintiff entered into a stipulation obligating
him to make two payments of $37,500 each to his wife: the first on
February 22, 1999, and the second on March 22, 1999. (Transcript of Mar.
1, 1999 Sentencing Appearance before Hon. Joan B. Lefkowitz at 4,
Cappello v. Cappello, index no. 16699/97 ("Mar.Transcript").) When
Plaintiff appeared in court on February 22, 1999 without the first
payment, Justice Lefkowitz ordered Plaintiff to make that payment in court
on March 1, 1999. (Mar. Transcript at 7.) During the week between
February 22 and March 1, 1999, Plaintiff's attorney moved for a stay of
enforcement, based upon an inability to pay, which was denied by Justice
Lefkowitz from the bench on March 1, 1999. (Mar. Transcript at 4.)
Plaintiff appeared in court before Justice Lefkowitz on March 1, 1999 and
failed to make the ordered payment. (Mar. Transcript at 3.) Before
incarcerating Plaintiff, Justice Lefkowitz stated "there ha[d] been no
change of circumstance since he agreed to . . . pay, and nothing has been
paid. There is nothing here that I can even forgive him on." (Mar.
Transcript at 6-7.) The Judge then found Plaintiff in contempt of her
order to pay and sentenced him to 90 days in the Westchester County
Jail. (Mar. Transcript at 7.)
Although Plaintiff does not express a clear understanding of his
obligations, it appears from the record that the stipulation was never
withdrawn or amended, nor was any order arising from it ever vacated.
(Mar. Transcript at 7; see also Transcript of Sept. 22, 2000 Appearance
before Hon. Colleen McMahon at 8, Cappello v. The State of New York, et
al., index no. 00CV4072 ("Sept.Transcript").) Moreover, Plaintiff's
attorney stated at the very beginning of the proceedings on March 1 that
Plaintiff's son had accompanied him to court to drive Plaintiff's car
home "[i]f Mr. Cappello is incarcerated today," (Mar. Transcript at 3),
which strongly suggests that incarceration came as no surprise to
Plaintiff served 15 days of his 90 day sentence. (Compl. ¶ 24.) He
was released on March 15, 1999. (See id.)
Plaintiff appealed the order holding him in contempt. On July 31,
2000, the Appellate Division reversed Justice Lefkowitz' contempt order,
holding that she was "without jurisdiction to punish the defendant for
contempt." Cappelto v. Cappello, 274 A.D.2d 539, 712 N.Y.S.2d 42, 2000 N
YSlip Op. 07195 (2000), (emphasis added).
Plaintiff then filed a complaint against his wife's attorneys with
defendant Grievance Committee for making an oral, rather than a written,
application for contempt to Justice Lefkowitz, and alleging a conspiracy
between them to cause Plaintiff harm. (Compl. ¶ 26.) According to the
complaint, defendant Fuchs, an attorney with the Grievance Committee,
informed Plaintiff that his complaint would not be pursued. (Compl.
Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on May 31, 2000, naming the State
of New York, the Grievance Committee and its attorney, Freda Fixler
Fuchs, the County of Westchester, the Norwood Jackson Correctional
Facility, and Hon. Joan B. Lefkowitz as defendants. Insofar as the
complaint seeks to hold Justice Lefkowitz personally liable for her
erroneous contempt ruling, Plaintiff's claims arise under
42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Compl. ¶¶ 1, 2.) Cappello alleges that Justice
Lefkowitz, acting under color of law as a New York State Supreme Court
Justice, deprived him of the "rights, privileges, and immunities secured
by the Constitution of the United States" when she summarily ordered him
to be incarcerated for contempt on March 1, 1999. (Compl. ¶ 31.)
Plaintiff bases his § 1983 claim on the statements made by the
Appellate Division in overturning the contempt, specifically, that Justice
Lefkowitz was without jurisdiction to hold Plaintiff in contempt on the
oral application of his wife's counsel, and
that she failed to comply with procedural rules that such an application
be made in writing. (Id.)*fn1 Plaintiff contests his obligation to pay
under the stipulation agreement, but his protestations are not supported
by the record. Rather, the record indicates that Plaintiff was clearly in
violation of a court order to pay when he was found in contempt, and that
the only issue before this Court is whether Justice Lefkowitz' failure to
afford him proper written notice before holding him in contempt
incarcerating him renders her personally liable in damages. This Court
finds that it does not.
It is well-settled that judges are immune from suits for damages
arising out judicial acts. See Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 13 Wall.
335, 20 L.Ed. 646 (1871); Pierson v. Bay, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18
L.Ed.2d 288 (1967); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 359, 98 S.Ct. 1099,
55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978); Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 225, 108 S.Ct.
538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988); Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 112 S.Ct. 286,
116 L.Ed.2d 9 (1991); Tucker v. Outwater, 118 F.3d 930, 935 (2nd Cir.
1997). This immunity dates to medieval times. See Forrester, 484 U.S. at
225, 108 S.Ct. 538. Judges are frequently called upon to make decisions
which disappoint "some of the most intense and ungovernable desires that
people can have." Id. at 226, 108 S.Ct. 538. Personal liability for each
decision would result in an "avalanche of suits" that would necessarily
diminish the judge's authority to settle disputes. Bradley, 80 U.S. at
347, 13 Wall. 335. Indeed, society's increased reliance on the litigation
process could not have arisen without some protection for judges for
determinations made in their judicial capacity.
In addition, the availability of appellate review now ensures that
"[m]ost judicial mistakes or wrongs are open to correction through
ordinary mechanisms of review, which are largely free of the harmful
siderules effects inevitably associated with exposing judges to personal
liability." Forrester, 484 U.S. at 227, 108 S.Ct. 538. Finally, a judge
can be removed from office by imported peachment for egregious behavior.
See Bradley, 80 U.S. at 350, 13 Wall. 335 (judge who acts "with
partiality, or maliciously, or corruptly, or arbitrarily, or oppressively
. . . may be called to an account by impeachment . . ."). Appellate
review and and impeachment are the appropriate avenues for ...