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DILL v. LAKE PLEASANT CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT

June 5, 2002

ROBERT DILL, JR., SUSAN DILL, LAUREN DILL, LESLIE BORLAND, JR., JUDITH BORLAND, AND JOHN MULLINS, AS INDIVIDUALS, AND ON BEHALF OF A CLASS OF INDIVIDUALS, SIMILARLY SITUATED,[FN1] PLAINTIFFS,
V.
LAKE PLEASANT CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE LAKE PLEASANT CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND BOARD OF REGISTRATION OF THE LAKE PLEASANT SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frederick J. Scullin, Jr., Chief United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

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 District.

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.

II. BACKGROUND

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.

In doing so, the Board of Registration decided to look at whether a potential voter had designated a home within the District as his "primary residence" on his New York School Tax Relief ("STAR") exemption application. If such a designation was made, this designation was considered as a significant factor in determining that the individual was a resident of the District and, thereby, eligible to vote in District elections. On the other hand, if the potential voter designated a home outside the District as his primary residence for STAR purposes, the Board of Registration considered this strong evidence that the individual was not a resident of the District.

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.

III. DISCUSSION

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

In the present case, Plaintiffs do not challenge the validity of the elections in which they were denied the right to vote. Nor do they seek to have the Court declare those elections invalid and require new elections. They do not even claim that had they been permitted to vote, the elections would have turned out differently. Had they requested those types of relief, there would be little doubt that under § 2037, the Commissioner of Education would have had exclusive jurisdiction over their claims. Instead, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants' actions in singling Plaintiffs out for investigation of their status as residents and Defendants' reliance upon Plaintiffs' STAR exemptions on property they owned outside the District to determine that Plaintiffs were not residents violated their rights to due process and equal protection.

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."

Id. (quotation omitted).

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' claims.

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).

C. Plaintiffs' residency

1. In May and June 1999 and in ...


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