United States District Court, N.D. New York
October 25, 2004.
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, Plaintiffs,
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 SCULLIN, Chief Judge, District
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
Plaintiffs commenced this action against Defendants, pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants had violated their constitutional rights
to due process and equal protection 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
The 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 a Board of Registration, which
was charged with creating and maintaining the District's voter
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 a starting point for
the District's voter registration books. However, in reviewing
the 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 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 each listed a home outside of the school district as
his or her "primary residence," which, combined with other facts
such as the amount of time spent at the residence outside of the
District, the residence listed on tax returns, the address listed
on drivers' licenses, and other indicia of the intent to make a
home outside of the District a permanent residence, led
Defendants to remove Plaintiffs from the District's voter
Between August 29, 2002, and September 20, 2002, the Court
conducted a six-day bench trial in this action. Based upon the
evidence adduced at trial, the following constitutes the Court's
findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Rule
52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
A. Findings of fact
Plaintiff John Mullins indicated on his May 1999 absentee
ballot application that he resided in Clifton Park, which is
outside the District. In addition, he applied for and received a
STAR exemption on his Clifton Park property each and every year
since 1999. See Trial Transcript ("Tr.") at 303-04. Moreover,
each and every one of the New York State tax returns he filed
since 1996 indicates that Clifton Park is his permanent home
address. See id. at 301-02. Plaintiff Mullins testified that on
the two or three occasions when he voted at the Schenendehowa
School District, while being a registered voter in Hamilton
County, he showed his driver's license as proof that he resided
in Clifton Park. See id. at 309. He also enrolled his children
tuition free in the Shenendehowa School District. See id. at
307. However, Plaintiff Mullins also testified that he has been
registered to vote in Hamilton County since 1979, see id. at
264-65, 306; that he spent all non-working time within the
District, see id. at 273; and that his son is buried in the
District, see id. at 298.
Plaintiffs Robert, Susan and Lauren Dill (the "Dills") owned
and occupied a condominium in Mount Kisco, which is outside the
District, from April 1988 through March 2000, at which Mr. Dill
maintained a home office. See id. at 61. Plaintiffs Robert and
Susan Dill's joint state income tax returns for 1995-1998
indicated that Mount Kisco was their permanent home address. See
id. at 100. Until late May 1999, Susan Dill's driver's license
listed her Mount Kisco address at which time she changed it in
response to the challenge to her May 18, 1999 vote. Both of the Dill children attended public school,
tuition free, in the Chappaqua Central School District until 1997
and 1999 respectively. See id. at 61-62, 89-90. Finally,
Plaintiffs Robert and Susan Dill applied for and received a STAR
exemption on their Mount Kisco property in both 1998 and 1999.
See id. at 95.
On the other hand, the Dills built their Lake Pleasant home in
1976, see id. at 20-21; registered to vote there since 1975,
see id. at 21, 89; celebrated every Christmas there, see id.
at 62-63; and maintained their condominium in Mount Kisco first
for Mr. Dill's employment at the New York Stock Exchange and then
for completion of their daughters' high school education, see
id. at 61-63. In addition, the Dills' tax returns since 1999
have listed their Lake Pleasant home as their residence, and they
applied for a STAR exemption on their home in Lake Pleasant in
2001. See id. at 94, 100.
Plaintiff Judith Borland completed a STAR application for her
marital home, certifying that her primary residence was in Lake
Placid, which is located outside the District. See id. at 223.
She also applied for and received an Alternative Veterans
Exemption from Real Property Taxation on her Lake Placid
property, stating that Lake Placid was the primary residence of
veteran Leslie Borland, her husband. See id. at 187-88.
Finally, Plaintiff Leslie Borland considered Lake Placid to be
his home from 1978-1999. See id. at 147.
B. Conclusions of law
"The unlawful administration by state officers of a state
statute fair on its face, resulting in its unequal application to
those who are entitled to be treated alike, is not a denial of
equal protection unless there is shown to be present in it an
element of intentional or purposeful discrimination. . . . But a discriminatory purpose is not
presumed, . . . there must be a showing of `clear and intentional
discrimination. . . .'" Snowden v. Hughes, 321 U.S. 1, 8 (1944)
(internal quotation and citations omitted). "Mere violation of a
state statute does not infringe the federal Constitution . . .
[because] [a] construction of the equal protection clause which
would find a violation of federal right in every departure by
state officers from state law is not to be favored." Id. at
11-12 (internal citation omitted). Furthermore, in light of the
history of the due process clause and its policy of protecting
citizens from the arbitrary exercise of government power and of
preventing governmental oppression, "the Due Process Clause is
similarly not implicated by a negligent act of an official
causing unintended loss of or injury to life, liberty or
property." Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 328 (1986); see
also Lunde v. Oldi, 808 F.2d 219, 220-21 (2d Cir. 1986)
(citation and footnote omitted) (negligent actions of election
officials which deprived plaintiff of his right to vote did not
violate plaintiff's rights to due process or equal protection and
his complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was properly
dismissed). "The guarantee of due process has never been
understood to mean that the State must guarantee due care on the
part of its officials." Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 348
Moreover, "[u]neven or erroneous application of an otherwise
valid statute constitutes a denial of equal protection only if it
represents `intentional or purposeful discrimination'. . . .
Similarly, the due process clause and article I, section 2 [of
the United States Constitution] offer no guarantee against errors
in the administration of an election. . . . [W]e cannot believe
that the framers of our Constitution were so hypersensitive to
ordinary human frailties as to lay down an unrealistic
requirement that elections be free of any error." Powell v.
Power, 436 F.2d 84, 88 (2d Cir. 1970) (internal quotation,
citations and footnote omitted). Since the plaintiff in Powell could not prove that intentional or purposeful discrimination
caused the errors in the election process and because there
existed a method for correcting election errors under New York
Election Law even though the plaintiff could not take advantage
of the Election Law remedy his claim under § 1983 failed. See
The Second Circuit subsequently reaffirmed its decision in
Powell in Gold v. Feinberg, 101 F.3d 796 (2d Cir. 1996),
which held that "where . . . there exists a state law remedy to
the election irregularities that is fair and adequate, human
error in the conduct of elections does not rise to the level of a
Fourteenth Amendment constitutional violation actionable under §
1983 in the absence of willful action by state officials intended
to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote."
Id. at 802.
In the present case, Plaintiffs do not allege that any New York
State Education or Election statute is unconstitutional or
discriminatory. Therefore, they have the substantial burden of
establishing intentional or purposeful discrimination not
merely negligence on the part of Defendants. Moreover, because
the showing of discrimination must be "clear and intentional,"
Plaintiffs must demonstrate more than a misunderstanding or
misapplication of the law on the part of Defendants, and mere
speculation regarding Defendants' alleged discriminatory intent
will not suffice.
As Defendants correctly point out, many of Plaintiffs'
arguments are based upon allegations of Defendants'
misapplication or misunderstanding of the law or on speculation
as to why Defendants misapplied or misunderstood the law,
including several "pretext" allegations. Such misapplications of
the law, however, do not amount to a constitutional violation,
and Plaintiffs' speculations are in large part unsubstantiated.
For example, although Plaintiffs assert that Defendants knew how certain members of the community would
vote based upon the closeness of the board of education election,
certain "letters to the editor" that were published in the
Hamilton County News, and the alleged disfavor in which the
Lake Pleasant Sacandaga Association ("LPSA") held the new school
referendum, no evidence was adduced at trial establishing that
Defendants actually had this knowledge.
Moreover, Defendants presented evidence repudiating the alleged
"group think mentality" of the LPSA by demonstrating that one
member of the LPSA actually challenged a fellow member and that
the majority of members were allowed to vote with no challenge
whatsoever. In addition, the Court finds no basis for concluding,
as Plaintiffs urge it to do, that, because a few LPSA
publications were found among hundreds of school district
documents, this amounted to some sort of research or conspiracy
on the part of Defendants.
Furthermore, Plaintiffs' argument that Defendants' violation of
New York State Election Law evidenced discriminatory intent
because Defendants knew that any person registered to vote with
the County Board of Elections was entitled to vote in the
District elections is similarly misplaced. If this were true, one
could vote in every school district in the county, which, of
course, is not the case.*fn2 To substantiate this claim,
Plaintiffs quote Election Law § 5-612(2), which provides, in
pertinent part, that "with respect to registration of voters, any
person, otherwise qualified to vote who is registered under the
provisions of this article shall be entitled to vote at all
school district meetings or elections without further
registration." N.Y. Elec. Law § 5-612(2) (McKinney 1998)
(emphasis added). However, in citing this provision, Plaintiffs
overlook the "otherwise qualified to vote" language when arguing
that this provision entitles them to vote in all District
elections. If Plaintiffs are not "otherwise qualified," i.e., if
they are not residents of the school district in which they wish
to vote, this provision of the Election Law is
Moreover, several sections of the Election Law provide that,
where another statute exists which is inconsistent with the
Election Law, the other statute "shall apply" unless there is
specific language in the Election Law to indicate otherwise.
See, e.g., N.Y. Elec. Law § 1-102 (McKinney 1998) ("Where a
specific provision of law exists in any other law which is
inconsistent with the provisions of this chapter, such provision
shall apply unless a provision of this chapter specifies that
such provision of this chapter shall apply notwithstanding any
other provision of law."); N.Y. Elec. Law § 5-100 (McKinney 1998)
("Where a specific provision of law relating to the registration
of voters exists in any other statute, which is inconsistent with
the provisions of this article, such provision shall apply and
the provisions of this article not inconsistent therewith shall
Here, the quoted language from § 5-612(2) is inconsistent with
several sections of the Education Law, which, by their own terms,
specifically apply to the qualifications of voters to be registered for school district elections. See N.Y. Educ. Law §
2014(2) (McKinney 2000) ("[T]he board of registration shall
remove from the register all persons who are known to be
deceased, who have moved out of the school district or who are
otherwise not qualified as school district electors." (emphasis
added)); N.Y. Educ. Law § 2015(2) (McKinney 2000) ("[I]f a
qualified voter is a resident of a school district and his name
appears on a register as a resident of another district, a
written sworn statement may be filed by such voter with the clerk
of the district showing his correct residence and the name of
such voter shall thereupon be stricken from such register and
placed upon the proper register."). Thus, under the Education
Law, which governs the school district elections at issue in this
case, it is clear that one must be a resident of the particular
school district in which he wishes to vote and that an individual
can only be a resident of one school district, rather than, as
Defendants' argument implies, every school district in the county
where he resides.
In addition, Plaintiffs complain about Defendants' reliance
upon Plaintiffs' STAR exemption, the addresses they used in
filing their income taxes, and the location of certain
Plaintiffs' children's schools as evidence of residency. They
also complain about an alleged list of potentially unqualified
voters and about the use of "poll watchers" to challenge
potentially unqualified voters all of which are permitted by
New York law. Although, as stated above, misapplication of the
law does not amount to a constitutional violation, Plaintiffs
nonetheless argue that such alleged misapplication evidences
To the contrary, it seems clear that Defendants consulted the
Election Law for guidance in deciding upon the proper standard to
use in determining residency. According to New York Election Law
§ 5-104(2), [i]n determining a voter's qualification to register
and vote, the board to which such application is
made shall consider, in addition to the applicant's
expressed intent, his conduct and all attendant
surrounding circumstances relating thereto. The
board taking such registration may consider the
applicant's . . . residence for income tax purposes
. . . residence of parents, spouse and children, if
any, . . . sites of personal and real property owned
by the applicant, motor vehicle and other personal
property registration, and other such factors that
it may reasonably deem necessary to determine the
qualification of an applicant to vote in an election
district within its jurisdiction.
N.Y. Elec. Law § 5-104(2) (McKinney 1998) (emphasis added).
Thus, not only does the Election Law explicitly mandate that
the board "shall consider" such factors as "residence for income
tax purposes" and residence of children, it grants very broad
discretion to "the board to which such application is made" to
use any other factors the board deems necessary and reasonable.
Given Defendants' investigation into the efficacy of using the
STAR exemption, the Court finds that it was not unreasonable for
Defendants to consider this factor as evidence of Plaintiffs'
residency. Moreover, the Court concludes that the use of such
factors as those Defendants considered, rather than suggesting a
discriminatory motive, demonstrates their attempt to comply with
New York law.
In addition, New York Election Law § 5-218(1) explicitly states
that "[a]ny person who applies for registration may be challenged
by any qualified voter, watcher, or inspector of election if
such person has reason to suspect that the applicant is not
qualified to be registered to vote." N.Y. Elec. Law § 5-218(1)
(McKinney 1998) (emphasis added). Therefore, it was not improper
for any person to challenge the qualification of any other person
to vote, including "poll watchers" according to the Election Law
upon which Plaintiffs primarily rely to support their position.
Furthermore, § 5-220(2) of the Election Law provides that "[i]f
the board of elections cannot complete its investigation, or cannot make a determination
before the next election at which the registrant could vote, it
shall place his name on a challenge list as a person to be
challenged when voting." N.Y. Elec. Law § 5-220(2) (McKinney
1998) (emphasis added). Thus, the Court concludes that,
regardless of whether Defendants correctly applied these
provisions of the Election Law or whether they were required to
apply them at all they clearly had reason to believe that they
were complying with New York law, which, in turn, evidences an
attempt on their part to comply with the law rather than an
intent to discriminate.
In addition, because the Education Law directly controls school
district elections, it is highly relevant that Defendants appear
to have fully complied with the mandates of this statute. Section
2014 of the Education Law, entitled "Registration of voters,"
specifically provides that if a board of education decides to
adopt a system of personal registration, it
1. . . . shall immediately designate four qualified
voters of such district to constitute a board of
registration for such district . . . 2. . . . [and]
[t]he board of registration . . . shall, for the
annual meeting or election of the school district,
prepare a register of the qualified voters of such
school district . . . and the board of registration
shall remove from the register all persons who are
known to be deceased, who have moved out of the
school district or who are otherwise not qualified as
school district electors. . . .
N.Y. Educ. Law § 2014 (McKinney 2000).
Based upon the clear language of § 2014, the Court concludes
that Defendants, through their Board of Registration, complied
with the specific mandates of the Education Law in compiling
their list of registered voters and attempting to remove those
individuals who they determined were not qualified to vote in the
Moreover, despite Plaintiffs' assertion to the contrary,
Defendants' warning to those who were considering changing their residency in order to vote in the
new school referendum does not clearly demonstrate discriminatory
intent. Given the criminal penalties of the Election and
Education Laws for registering to vote when not qualified,
Defendants had reason to warn those who they thought were
contemplating breaking the law. Furthermore, given these criminal
penalties, it was not unreasonable for Defendants to assume that
they had a duty to investigate and foreclose voting by those who
indeed were not qualified to vote, whether this duty actually
exists under New York law or not.*fn4 Similarly, Plaintiffs'
argument that Defendants should not have relied upon the memo
they received regarding the STAR exemption as a determinant of
residency does not demonstrate discriminatory intent. To the
contrary, the Court finds that the fact that the Board of
Registration apparently conducted a thorough investigation in its
attempt to comply with the law and to forestall others from
breaking the law before making any determination about residency
or taking any actions indicates Defendants' non-discriminatory
intent to comply with the applicable statutes.
In sum, for all the reasons stated above, the Court concludes
that Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden to demonstrate
that Defendants' decisions regarding Plaintiffs' eligibility to
vote in District elections were intentionally discriminatory. At
most, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that Defendants'
interpretation and application of state statutes was erroneous
and that, therefore, they were negligent. However, such negligence
does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
Accordingly, the Court holds that Plaintiffs' claims that
Defendants violated their constitutional rights to due process
and equal protection fail.
After carefully considering the record in this matter,
including the evidence adduced at trial and the parties' pre- and
post-trial briefs, the Court hereby
ORDERS that Plaintiff John Mullins' second and third causes
of action are DISMISSED; and the Court further
ORDERS that Plaintiffs' first cause of action is DISMISSED;
and the Court further
ORDERS that the Clerk of the Court enter judgment in favor of
Defendants and close this case.
IT IS SO ORDERED.