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United States District Court, Southern District of New York

August 19, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael Mukasey, Chief Judge, District [ Page 1]


Plaintiff Chapel Farm Estates, Inc. sues Charles G. Moerdler, Community Board 8, the City of New York ("the City"), The Fieldston Property Owners Association ("FPOA"), and FPOA members Michael Goodwin, Marc Moller, and Travis Epps,*fn1 under 18 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging multiple deprivations of constitutional rights. Plaintiff also alleges injurious falsehood and seeks two declaratory judgments. Defendants move to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motions are granted, and the complaint is dismissed.


The relevant facts alleged in the Amended Verified Complaint, which are accepted as true for purposes of this motion, are as follows:

Plaintiff, a New York corporation, is the owner of 15.75 acres of undeveloped land ("the property") in the Riverdale area of the Bronx. The property lies within Community Board 8 of the City of New York and is contiguous to the Fieldston section of Riverdale. (Am. Verified Compl. ¶ 10). Plaintiff also owns the streets abutting the property, "to the center line of those streets, including West 250th Street and Iselin Avenue where [ Page 2]

those streets abut" the property. (Id. ¶ 12) Portions of the property were acquired from Fieldston, Inc., the predecessor to FPOA, and plaintiff has paid dues to FPOA since acquiring those portions of the property. (Id. ¶ 13) Plaintiff also owns several easements which benefit the property. (Id. ¶¶ 14-16).

Since 1990, plaintiff has been in the process of applying to subdivide the property, and has spent considerably toward that end. (Id. ¶ 17) Plaintiff wishes to create 14 tax lots for the construction of 13 new homes, and for a home already built on one of the proposed lots. (Id. ¶ 19) Plaintiff's proposal falls under the City's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure ("ULURP"). Pursuant to ULURP, plaintiff has filed a two-part subdivision application: application C 000444 ZSX for a special permit, authorizations, and a certification under four sections of the Zoning Resolution; and application C 851115 MMX for the demapping of certain unbuilt streets within the property. (Id. ¶ 24) On February 12, 2001, the City Planning Commission ("CPC") issued a "Negative Declaration" stating that plaintiff's proposal would have no significant effect on the environment. (Id. ¶ 27) That same day, CPC certified plaintiff's application as complete, triggering ULURP. (Id. ¶ 28)

Defendant FPOA consists of the owners of approximately 250 homes and owns the title to the beds of certain streets in Fieldston. (Id. ¶ 29) FPOA acquired its title to the beds of [ Page 3]

certain of those streets subject to plaintiff's easements. (Id. ¶ 30). FPOA does not have title to West 250th Street or Iselin Avenue where those streets abut plaintiff's property. (Id. ¶ 31) FPOA has carried out a "campaign" against plaintiff's application, arguing falsely that plaintiff has no right to access its property via West 250th Street or Iselin Avenue because FPOA owns those streets and can restrict access to them. (Id. ¶ 36) As one part of this campaign, defendant Goodwin, a former president of FPOA (id. ¶ 8), sent letters making this claim to defendant Moerdler, who is the Chair of the Land Use Committee of Community Board 8 (id. ¶ 3), Councilwoman June M. Eisland, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, State Senator Guy Velella, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, and the CPC. (Id. ¶ 36)

At a meeting of the Land Use Committee of Community Board 8 on March 15, 2001, defendant Moller, a spokesman for FPOA (id. ¶ 9), repeated FPOA's false claim regarding access to the property. (Id. ¶ 39) At that meeting, Moerdler, who was chairing the meeting, argued with John E. Fitzgerald, plaintiff's principal, over access to the property and stated that he would volunteer his own law firm to litigate the matter. (Id. ¶¶ 48-50, 54) At the end of the meeting, the Committee voted to reject plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 55) No findings of fact were made at the meeting. (Id. ¶ 56) [ Page 4]

On April 4, 2001, Community Board 8 held a hearing on plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 57) At that meeting, Fitzgerald was not permitted to speak despite his efforts to do so, but two opponents of the application were. (Id. ¶ 62) This prohibition was contrary to multiple rules governing the community board meetings. (Id. ¶¶ 59-60) Moerdler, a member of Community Board 8, spoke against the application again at the Community Board meeting. (Id. ¶¶ 67-68) Moerdler also introduced a resolution to disapprove plaintiff's application and included "findings of fact," which he implied had been passed at the Land Use Committee meeting, but which had not been discussed at that meeting. (Id. ¶¶ 72-84) Community Board 8 adopted the resolution, and the resolution, with the findings of fact, was used to oppose plaintiff's application throughout ULURP. (Id. ¶¶ 85, 87)

On April 19, 2001, the Bronx Borough President's office held a hearing on plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 88) At the meeting, defendant Epes, then president of FPOA, presented the findings of fact from the Community Board meeting. (Id. ¶¶ 89-90) A statement from Councilwoman Eisland opposing plaintiff's application was also read into the record. (Id. ¶ 91) In letters dated April 20, 2001 and April 27, 2001, plaintiff informed FPOA, Goodwin, Moller, and Epes that these statements were false and defamed plaintiff and Fitzgerald. (Id. ¶ 42) On April 26, 2001, Fitzgerald attended a conference at the Bronx [ Page 5]

Borough President's office. At that meeting, Fitzgerald was asked if he would donate some of the property to FPOA, and he said he was not prepared to do so. (Id. ¶ 92) On May 4, 2001, the Bronx Borough President issued a written disapproval of plaintiff's application, relying on the findings of fact in his decision. (Id. ¶ 93)

On May 9, 2001, CPC held a hearing on plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 94) At that meeting, Community Board 8's District Manager put a copy of the findings of fact into the record. (Id.) On June 27, 2001, CPC issued decisions approving both parts of plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 95) The findings of fact were attached to these decisions as well. (Id.) CPC's approval of plaintiff's application was subject to the requirement that plaintiff not apply for or receive any permit from the Department of Buildings until a drainage plan for the property was approved by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP").

On July 6, 2001, CPC filed its decisions with the New York City Council. (Id. ¶ 99) On July 26, 2001, the City Council voted to review CPC's approval of plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 104) On August 21, 2001, the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee ("the Subcommittee") of the City Council's Land Use Committee held a hearing on plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 110). Community Board 8's resolution and [ Page 6]

the findings of fact were used to oppose the application. (Id. ¶ 106) Councilwoman Eisland spoke against plaintiff's application at the meeting. (Id. ¶ 161) The Subcommittee voted to disapprove the CPC's decisions on plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 110) The next day, the Land Use Committee of the City Council voted to disapprove the application. (Id. ¶ 111) Councilwoman Eisland chairs that committee. (Id. ¶ 106) Later that same day, the full City Council voted to disapprove plaintiff's application. (Id. ¶ 111)

Earlier, on August 14, 2001, FPOA had issued a memorandum to its members announcing an "annual" street closing to take place on August 26, 2001. Entry onto Fieldston's streets was to be limited to two intersections policed by FPOA's private security personnel. (Id. ¶ 112) The street closing was not, in fact, an annual event and had actually never occurred before. (Id. ¶ 113) On August 21, 2001, representatives from the 50th Precinct of the New York Police Department ("NYPD") met with representatives of FPOA to discuss the street closing. (Id. ¶ 116) FPOA was not required to apply for or obtain any permit for its activities. (Id. ¶ 117) On August 22, 2001, counsel for plaintiff write to the 50th Precinct advising that the Fieldston streets are public, explaining plaintiff's deed and easements, stating that representatives of plaintiff planned to enter and exit the property on August 26, 2001, and requesting reassurances [ Page 7]

that this would be possible. (Id. ¶ 118) On August 24, 2001, Detective Rodriguez of the 50th Precinct explained over the telephone to Fitzgerald that any dispute over the street closing was a civil matter and that the NYPD would not, by policy, intervene. (Id. ¶ 121)

On August 26, 2001, the street closing took place, primarily through the use of blue police barricades with tape concealing the words "Police Line Do Not Cross." (Id. ¶ 125) Detective Rodriguez later confirmed that FPOA borrowed the barricades from the NYPD. (Id. ¶ 126) During the street closing, Fitzgerald attempted to access the property from 13 separate entrances into Fieldston. (Id. ¶ 124) When he encountered a barricade at the intersection of West 250th Street and Iselin Avenue, Fitzgerald asked the attending security guard to remove it. (Id. ¶ 130) After an argument with a member of FPOA (id. ¶¶ 131-132), Fitzgerald was finally permitted to pass, but only after he was "stopped, detained, questioned and identified." (Id. ¶ 133) Fitzgerald then requested the assistance of the 50th Precinct in allowing him free access, but the NYPD refused, citing its policy of refusing to become involved in civil disputes. (Id. ¶¶ 134-135)

The dispute between Chapel Farm and FPOA extends beyond the stages of ULURP and beneath the surface of Fieldston's streets. FPOA officials have told Fitzgerald that FPOA built and [ Page 8]

owns the sewers beneath the streets. (Id. ¶ 162) DEP officials have told Fitzgerald that there are no permits, plans, or maps on file with the Department of Sewers regarding these sewers. (Id. ¶ 164) FPOA claims it does not have the information necessary to allow plaintiff to make calculations concerning the capacity of the sewers. (Id. ¶ 165) FPOA has not allowed plaintiff to conduct its own survey of the sewers. (Id. ¶ 167) As a result, plaintiff has been unable to perform calculations regarding the ability of the sewers to accommodate storm water runoff from the property. (Id. ¶ 169) In October 1998, DEP informed plaintiff that it would not be permitted to tie into the Fieldston sewers without those calculations. (Id. ¶ 170) As a result, plaintiff created a drainage plan that include pumping detained storm water runoff from the southern portion of the property to the northern portion, before draining it into the New York City sewer system at West 243rd Street. (Id. ¶¶ 171-172) In or about November 1998, at an informal meeting, DEP personnel told plaintiff's representatives that DEP would not object to the drainage plan. (Id. ¶ 174) This drainage plan was part of the application that CPC certified as complete on February 12, 2001. (Id. ¶ 171) Later, FPOA representatives may have lobbied DEP to disapprove of the drainage plan. (Id. ¶ 175) CPC eventually sought DEP's comments on the drainage plan. (Id. ¶ 176) As a result, on June 8, 2001, plaintiff's representatives again met with DEP [ Page 9]

personnel. At that meeting, DEP refused to review plaintiff's drainage plan involving the use of pumps until there was proof that drainage could not be accomplished by gravity. (Id. ¶¶ 177-178) Chapel Farm explained that water from the southeastern portion of the property could flow by gravity only into Fieldston sewers and that FPOA would not allow a survey. (Id. ¶ 179) Plaintiff requested DEP's assistance, but DEP declined to exercise jurisdiction over the sewers, perform its own survey, or assist plaintiff in performing a survey. (Id. ¶¶ 180-182) On August 8, 2001, plaintiff wrote to DEP to ask for help again, but DEP did not respond. (Id. ¶ 183)


Chapel Farm asserts causes of action (i) against defendants Moerdler, Community Board 8, the City and FPOA under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of property without substantive due process of law for the City Council's disapproval of the application; (ii) against the same defendants under § 1983 for deprivation of property without procedural due process of law for the same City Council action; (iii) against Moerdler, Community Board 8, and the City ("the municipal defendants") under § 1983 for deprivation of property without procedural due process for Community Board 8's actions, (iv) against the municipal defendants under § 1983 for deprivation of liberty without [ Page 10]

procedural process under the "stigma plus" doctrine for the adoption of the findings of fact, (v) against FPOA and the City under § 1983 for denial of equal protection of the laws for their activities regarding the sewers; (vi) against FPOA and the City under § 1983 for denial of right of access to property for the street closing; (vii) against FPOA and the City under § 1983 for denial of right to travel for the street closing; (viii) against FPOA, Epes, Goodwin, and Moller ("the Fieldston defendants") for injurious falsehood for their several statements against plaintiff; (ix) against FPOA and the City under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 for a judgment declaring plaintiff's right to access the property; and (x) against FPOA and the City under § 2201 for a judgment declaring that the City owns the Fieldston sewers, that the City has a duty to exercise jurisdiction over them, and that plaintiff has the right to connect to them. Defendants move, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12 (b)(6), to dismiss all claims.

This court has jurisdiction over the case under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, 1343(a)(3), 1367, and 2201(a). In their briefs, all parties assume that New York State law applies to the state law claims, and so it does. See Tehran-Berkeley Civil & Envtl. Eng'rs. v. Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton, 888 F.2d 239, 242 (2d Cir. 1989).

A complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff [ Page 11]

can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957); Goldman v. Belden, 754 F.2d 1059, 1065 (2d Cir. 1985). "On a motion to dismiss, a court must read the complaint generously, and draw all inferences in favor of the pleader." Cosmas v. Hassett, 886 F.2d 8, 11 (2d Cir. 1989); see also California Motor Transport Co. v. Trucking Unlimited, 404 U.S. 508, 515 (1972). The court restricts its inquiry to "facts stated on the face of the complaint, in documents appended to the complaint or incorporated in the complaint by reference, and to matters of which judicial notice may be taken." Allen v. WestPoint-Pepperell, Inc., 945 F.2d 40, 44 (2d Cir. 1991); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c).*fn2


Plaintiff asserts its first and second causes of action against FPOA and the municipal defendants under § 1983 for deprivation of property without substantive and procedural due process of law for the City Council's disapproval of the Chapel Farm application. The right to sue for denial of due process is more circumscribed than plaintiff appears to believe. In Yale [ Page 12]

Auto Parts, Inc. v. Johnson, 759 F.2d 54 (2d Cir. 1985), the Second Circuit stated:

Section 1983 . . . does not guarantee a person the right to bring a federal suit for denial of due process in every proceeding in which he is denied a license or a permit. If that were the case, every allegedly arbitrary denial by a town or city of a local license or permit would become a federal case, swelling our already overburdened federal court system beyond capacity.
Id. at 58. In order for a plaintiff to establish a deprivation of property without due process, the plaintiff must "first identify a property right, second show that the state has deprived him of that right, and third show that the deprivation was effected without due process." Mehta v. Surles, 905 F.2d 595, 598 (2d Cir. 1990).

Plaintiff argues that it came into possession of a property right once CPC approved its application. However, the Second Circuit has held that a "constitutionally protected property interest in land use regulation arises only if there is an entitlement to the relief sought by the property owner." Gagrliardi v. Vill. of Pawling, 18 F.3d 188, 192 (2d Cir. 1994). In Yale Auto Parts, the Second Circuit explained that the somewhat abstract question whether an applicant has an entitlement in a governmental license "should depend on whether, absent the alleged denial of due process, there is either a certainty or a very strong likelihood that the application would [ Page 13]

have been granted." Yale Auto Parts, 759 F.2d at 59. And in RRI Realty Corp. v. Incorporated Village of Southampton, 870 F.2d 911 (2d Cir. 1989), the Circuit affirmed that:

If federal courts are not to become zoning boards of appeals (and not to substitute for state courts in their state law review of local land-use regulatory decisions), the entitlement test of Yale Auto Parts — certainty or a very strong likelihood' of issuance — must be applied with considerable rigor. Application of the test must focus primarily on the degree of discretion enjoyed by the issuing authority, not the estimated probability that the authority will act favorably in a particular case.
Id. at 918 (quoting Yale Auto Parts, 759 F.2d at 59). In Gagliardi, the Circuit made clear that: "Where a local regulator has discretion with regard to the benefit at issue, there normally is no entitlement to that benefit. An entitlement to a benefit arises `only when the discretion of the issuing agency is so narrowly circumscribed' as to virtually assure conferral of the benefit." Gagliardi, 18 F.3d at 192 (quoting RRI Realty Corp., 870 F.2d at 918).

So, the question becomes: did the City Council have discretion to overrule CPC's approval of plaintiff's application? The answer is plainly yes. Section 197-d(a) of the New York City Charter states that CPC must file its decisions with the City Council, and section 197-d(b)(3) states that the Council may choose to review CPC's decisions by a majority vote. Thus, the [ Page 14]

City Council had discretion to review CPC's approval of the application. Putting aside the alleged due process violations, as Yale Auto Parts instructs, there was neither a certainty nor a very strong likelihood that the application would survive review by the City Council. Therefore, plaintiff had no entitlement to the approval and thus had no property of which to be deprived by the City Council. Plaintiff's first two claims against the municipal defendants must be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

That reasoning would suffice for defendant FPOA as well, but there are additional, important reasons why the claims must be dismissed as against that defendant. In order for a plaintiff to recover under § 1983 for deprivation of property without due process, the defendant must have acted under color of state law. Graseck v. Mauceri, 582 F.2d 203, 207 (2d Cir. 1978). FPOA lobbied the City Council as a private organization, and "`merely private conduct, no matter how discriminatory or wrongful'" is not action under color of state law. Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U.S. 991, 1002 (1982) (quoting Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 13 (1948)). Plaintiff is alleging that FPOA violated its constitutional rights by lobbying government officials in writing and at public hearings. Far from being a violation of plaintiff's rights, such activity is the constitutional right of FPOA. As Judge Weinfeld wrote, "the First Amendment protects [ Page 15]

`attempts to influence the passage or enforcement of laws,' no matter how harmful their incidental impact on third parties may be." Weiss v. Willow Tree Civic Ass'n, 467 F. Supp. 803, 818 (S.D.N.Y. 1979) (Weinfeld, J.) (quoting Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc., 365 U.S. 127, 137 (1961)). Section 1983 does "not afford a remedy for injuries that may be sustained as an incident to private individuals' exercise of their fundamental rights to assemble, petition and associate for the purpose of influencing openly and without force officials of state and local governments." Id. at 819. Plaintiff's first two claims against FPOA must be dismissed as well.


Plaintiff asserts its third claim under § 1983 against the municipal defendants alone for deprivation of property without procedural due process for the actions of Community Board 8 in adopting a resolution disapproving plaintiff's application. As above, plaintiff must first identify a property right of which he has been deprived. Section 197-c(e)(2) of the New York City Charter states that the community board shall "prepare and submit a recommendation directly to the city planning commission and to the affected borough president." See Cmty. Bd. 7 v. Schaffer, 84 N.Y.2d 148, 159, 615 N.Y.S.2d 644, 649 (1994) (describing a [ Page 16]

community board's rule in ULURP as "purely advisory in nature"); see also Haakmat v. Pierce, No. CV-82-1614, 1982 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17810, at *29 (E.D.N.Y. July 12, 1982) ("The Community Board's role is advisory."). As a purely advisory body, Community Board 8 could neither grant nor deprive plaintiff of any property right. Therefore, plaintiff's third claim must be dismissed.


Plaintiff asserts its fourth claim under § 1983 against the municipal defendants alone for deprivation of liberty without procedural due process under the "stigma plus" doctrine. The Supreme Court has recognized a liberty interest "where a person's good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at stake because of what the government is doing to him." Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 437 (1971). Under the stigma-plus doctrine, this "loss of reputation must be coupled with some other tangible element in order to rise to the level of a protectible liberty interest." Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d 992, 999 (2d Cir. 1994). Plaintiff alleges that the findings of fact stigmatized it to the required extent. This allegation fails under even the generous standards of a motion to dismiss. Plaintiff has attached the 14 findings of fact to the Amended Verified Complaint as Exhibit 7. The court has reviewed the exhibit and finds, beyond any doubt, that plaintiff could not [ Page 17]

prove any facts to support its claim that the findings of fact stigmatized it. The findings of fact are merely a list of the reasons why Community Board 8 rejected plaintiff's application. They do not stigmatize plaintiff as "an unfit developer and environmental despoiler, unwilling to respect private property or to deal fairly with the community and its concerns," as plaintiff breathlessly claims. (Am. Verified Compl. ¶ 213)

Furthermore, even if they did, plaintiff cannot adequately allege a violation of the "plus" prong of stigma plus. Plaintiff claims that the findings of fact contributed to the City Council's decision to reverse CPC's approval of plaintiff's application and that plaintiff was entitled to procedural due process before the Community Board adopted the findings of fact. However, as explained in sections III and IV above, plaintiff had no entitlement to either approval by the City Council or a favorable recommendation from Community Board 8. Thus, plaintiff could not have been deprived of liberty without due process of law by any stigma flowing from the findings of fact. Plaintiff's fourth claim is dismissed.


Plaintiff asserts its fifth claim under § 1983 against FPOA and the city for denial of equal protection of the laws by denying plaintiff permission to obtain information about or to [ Page 18]

connect to the Fieldston sewers. First, plaintiff has not adequately pleaded that DEP or FPOA has treated it as different from any other party seeking access to sewers that lie beneath privately owned streets, as plaintiff would have to in order to state a claim for denial of equal protection of the laws. That deficiency aside, however, the "general rule" for an equal protection claim is that governmental activity "is presumed to be valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn . . . is rationally related to a legitimate state interest." City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 440 (1985). As plaintiff does not, and cannot, claim that the DEP's actions disadvantaged a suspect class or interfered with a fundamental right, there is no reason to depart from the general rule. Even reading the complaint generously and drawing all inferences in favor of plaintiff, it appears beyond doubt that plaintiff can prove no set of facts to support its claim of denial of equal protection. A DEP preference for gravity drainage to drainage by pumping is certainly rationally related to a legitimate state interest, and DEP's decision not to attempt to gain access to the Fieldston sewers for plaintiff is also rational, given, to name just one possible reason, that there is a dispute over whether DEP controls those sewers. Likewise, assuming for the sake of argument that plaintiff has adequately alleged a conspiracy between DEP and FPOA under § 1983, it appears clear that FPOA [ Page 19]

could have reason to deny plaintiff access to the sewers at this time. Plaintiff's fifth claim is dismissed.


Plaintiff asserts in its sixth and seventh claims under § 1983 that FPOA and the City denied plaintiff its right to access its property and its right to intrastate travel by conspiring to barricade the streets of Fieldston. There is a threshold problem, in the most literal sense, with plaintiff's claims. Although FPOA's security personnel did confront plaintiff's representative Fitzgerald, he was eventually allowed to pass through the barricade and gain access to the property. Plaintiff ultimately was not denied access to its property nor deprived of its right to interstate travel. Both claims must be dismissed.


All that remain are plaintiff's eighth cause of action, for the state law tort of injurious falsehood and ninth and tenth causes of action, seeking declaratory judgments under 28 U.S.C. § 2201. The Declaratory Judgment Act does not expand the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Cable Television Ass'n of N.Y., Inc. v. Finneran, 954 F.2d 91, 94 (2d Cir. 1992). "A declaratory judgment plaintiff must have an independent basis for [ Page 20]

federal jurisdiction." Albradco, Inc. v. Bevona, 982 F.2d 82, 85 (2d Cir. 1992). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3) a district court may decline supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims if it has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction. As I have dismissed all the § 1983 claims and the declaratory judgment claims cannot provide a separate basis for federal jurisdiction, the final three claims will be dismissed as well.

For the reasons set forth above, defendants' motions to dismiss are granted, and the complaint is dismissed.


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