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DILL v. LAKE PLEASANT CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT

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,
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 SCULLIN, Chief Judge, District

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

  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 District.*fn1

  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 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 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 registration books.

  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.

  II. DISCUSSION

  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 (1986).

  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 id.

  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 inapplicable.*fn3

  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 apply.").

  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 discriminatory intent.

  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 District elections.

  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.

  III. CONCLUSION

  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.


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