The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frederick J. Scullin, Jr., Chief United States District Judge
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
Plaintiffs commenced this action on October 5, 1999, pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants had violated their
constitutional rights to equal protection and due process of law by
denying them the right to vote at the budget vote and school board
election on May 18, 1999, and in a special referendum regarding the
construction of a new school on June 2, 1999, on the ground that they
were not residents of the Lake Pleasant Central School District (the
"District") because they maintained another residence outside the
Plaintiff's complaint contains three causes of action. The first seeks
damages of $100 per Plaintiff as a result of Defendants' violation of
their rights to equal protection and due process of law. The second cause
of action seeks a declaration "of their rights and the Defendants'
duties, and such a judicial declaration is necessary as to Plaintiffs'
rights and Defendants' duties and obligations regarding Plaintiffs'
eligibility and right to vote in any and all elections held in the Lake
Pleasant Central School District." See Complaint at ¶ 86. Finally,
Plaintiffs' third cause of action seeks judgment permanently enjoining
and restraining Defendants from prohibiting them from exercising their
right to vote in all District elections.
Presently before the Court are Defendants' motion for summary judgment
and Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment.*fn2 The Court heard
oral argument in support of, and in opposition to, these motions on
August 7, 2001. At that time, the Court ruled from the bench, dismissing
as moot the second and third causes of action of all Plaintiffs except
for John Mullens. The Court reserved decision on Plaintiffs' first cause
of action. The following constitutes the Court's written decision with
respect to that cause of action.
Lake Pleasant Central School District is located in a small community
in the Adirondacks. District elections are usually held in May. Prior to
May 1998, few, if any, of the "summer landowners" ever attempted to vote
in District elections. Pre-1999 District elections used the "poll
registration" system whereby voters were not required to preregister
before the vote and no voting machines were used. Before May 1998,
approximately twenty to forty people usually voted in District elections.
In May 1998, hundreds of people showed up to vote. This situation, in
addition to the requests for absentee ballots and other factors, led the
Board of Education to adopt a system of personal registration in July
1998. Under that system, the District was required to create the Board of
Registration, which was charged with creating and maintaining the
District's voter registration books.
Following the adoption of personal registration, the Board of
Registration obtained from the Hamilton County Board of Elections a list
of voters the County Board believed to be qualified to vote in the
District. The Board of Registration used this list as the starting point
for the District's voter registration books. However, in reviewing that
list, the Board of Registration discovered numerous inaccuracies,
including the names of deceased individuals and people who had moved out
of the District several years ago. Since it began to doubt the
reliability of the County Board of Elections' list, the Board of
Registration began to look for another way to determine residency for
purposes of defining eligibility to vote in District elections.
Plaintiffs challenge the Board of Registration's reliance upon the STAR
exemption as evidence of residency for voting purposes. In addition, they
challenge the manner in which the Board of Registration applied the
criteria upon which it relied to determine residency to Plaintiffs as
opposed to other individuals who sought to vote in District elections.
A. Subject matter jurisdiction
As a preliminary matter, Defendants have raised the issue of whether
this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims.
According to Defendants, to the extent that Plaintiffs are challenging
the Board of Registration's actions of investigating residency, removing
non-residents' names from the District's voter registration books, or are
otherwise claiming that Defendants did not act in compliance with the
Education Law, Plaintiffs should have brought these claims before the
Commissioner of Education. See Defendants' Memorandum of Law at 23
(citing N.Y. Educ. L. § 2037; Schulz v. State, 86 N.Y.2d 225, 231
(1995)). Moreover, Defendants contend that merely phrasing the alleged
wrongdoing in terms of a constitutional violation does not obviate the
need for first raising the claims with the Commissioner of Education. See
id. at 24 (citing Schulz, 86 N.Y.2d at 232; Finch, Pruyn & Co. v.
Kearns, 722 N.Y.S.2d 838 (3d Dep't 2001)). Nor, according to Defendants,
does a claim fall outside the Commissioner's jurisdiction simply because
it involves the construction or application of a statute. See id. (citing
Schulz v. Galgano, 637 N.Y.S.2d 797, 798 (2d Dep't 1996)). Based upon
these principles, Defendants argue that the Court should decline to
exercise its subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims to the
extent those claims raise issues of election irregularities and Education
Law violations. See id.
Section 2037 of New York Education Law provides, in pertinent part, that
[a]ll disputes concerning the validity of any district
. . . election or of any of the acts of the officers
of such . . . election shall be referred to the
commissioner of education for determination and his
decisions in the matter shall be final and not subject
to review. The commissioner may in his discretion
order a new . . . election.
N.Y. Educ. Law § 2037 (McKinney 2000).*fn3
Although such claims arguably question the validity of the acts of the
officers conducting the elections, which is within the purview of §
2037, and, thus, subject to the Commissioner's jurisdiction, the Court
finds that the relief that Plaintiffs seek — particularly the
monetary damages for their first cause of action — is not within
the Commissioner's power to grant. In Primps v. Bd. of Educ., Union Free
Sch. Dist. #1 of Town of Ossining, 63 Misc.2d 931 (Sup.Ct. Westchester
County 1970), an Article 78 proceeding, the petitioner sought an order in
the form of mandamus to compel the board of education to allow him and
others similarly situated to exercise their lawful right to vote on a
school budget. The court found that it had jurisdiction over this claim
despite the administrative remedy provided in § 2037, noting that "a
body of deciaional [sic] law has grown up through the years which
preserves to the Courts their proper power to adjudicate issues which are
entirely legal." Id. at 933. The court explained that
"where the right of a party depends upon the
interpretation of a statute and it is claimed that a
school board or official has proceeded to act in
violation of an express statute, and thereby the party
complaining is being deprived of valuable rights, the
courts will not be ousted of jurisdiction to determine
the matter, notwithstanding another method of settling
the controversy has been provided."
In the present case, although Plaintiffs' claim is not specifically a
statutory claim, part of the claim does depend upon the interpretation of
the meaning of the term "primary residence" for purposes of a STAR
exemption, as well as the meaning of "resident" for purposes of the
Education Law, in determining whether an individual is eligible to vote
in District elections. Moreover, the remedy they seek, at least in their
first cause of action, is legal, not equitable. Accordingly, the Court
concludes that it has subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs'
B. Summary judgment standard
Summary judgment is appropriate only in circumstances where "the
evidence is such that a reasonable jury could [not] return a verdict for
the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248
(1986). The moving party has the initial burden of "informing the
district court of the basis for its motion" and identifying the matter
"it believes demonstrate[s] the absence of a genuine issue of material
fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving
party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the non-movant to "set forth
specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial."
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (quotation and footnote omitted); see
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) ("an adverse party may not rest upon the mere
allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, . . ."). To meet
this burden, the non-movant "must do more than simply show that there is
some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec.
Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574,
586 (1986) (citations omitted). "Bald assertions or conjecture unsupported
by evidence are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment."
Fincher v. County of Westchester, 979 F. Supp. 989, 995 (S.D.N.Y. 1997)
(citing Carey v. Crescenzi, 923 F.2d 18, 21 (2d Cir. 1991); Western World
Ins. Co. v. Stack Oil, Inc., 922 F.2d 118, 121 (2d Cir. 1990)). The
Court, however, must not weigh the evidence but instead is "required to
view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing
summary judgment, to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that
party, and to eschew credibility assessments[.]" Weyant v. Okst,
101 F.3d 845, 854 (2d Cir. 1996) (citations omitted).
1. In May and June 1999 and in ...