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HOBLOCK v. ALBANY COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS

October 25, 2004.

WILLIAM M. HOBLOCK, candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 26th District, LEE R. CARMAN, candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 29th District, PHILIP and PATRICIA SGARLATA, JOHN and CAROL STEWART, JOHN and MARY MAYBEE, ELLEN GRAZIANO, and other voters similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE ALBANY COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, RICHARD A. GROSS, candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 26th District, and GENE MESSERCOLA, candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 29th District, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LAWRENCE KAHN, District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER*fn1

I. Background

Plaintiffs William M. Hoblock, candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 26th District, and Lee R. Carman, candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 29th District, and seven named voters representing other voters similarly situated, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights by Defendant Albany County Board of Elections' ("Board") refusal to tally their absentee ballots. Plaintiffs are moving for a preliminary injunction to prevent the Board from tallying the ballots and certifying the winners of the elections without including the contested absentee ballots. The November 4, 2003 elections for members of the Albany County Legislature were enjoined by the District Court because the legislative districts violated the voting rights of the minority population. Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, 281 F. Supp. 2d 436 (N.D.N.Y. 2003) (Mordue, J.). Pursuant to the Second Circuit's decision in Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens v. County of Albany, 357 F.3d 260 (2d Cir. 2004), which ordered a special primary and general election, on remand the District Court outlined the procedures to be used in those elections. The District Court's order required the Board, inter alia, to send absentee ballots for the special primary election to any voter who had filed an application for an absentee ballot for either the 2003 primary or general election. The order also stated that the process for obtaining and counting absentee ballots for the special general election would be in accordance with Article 8 of the New York Election Law. However, Article 8 requires a voter to file an application requesting an absentee ballot to qualify to cast an absentee vote. In a bipartisan decision, the Board interpreted the District Court's order to allow it to issue absentee ballots for the special general election to all voters who had filed an application for an absentee ballot for the cancelled November 4, 2003 election. There was no objection to this decision until after the special general election on April 27, 2004.

  Twenty-seven voters, including the seven named Plaintiff voters in this case, were issued absentee ballots by the Board, which they used to vote in the April 2004 election and which were subsequently invalidated.*fn2 Each absentee ballot requires that the voter reaffirm that he or she continues to be qualified to vote in the district by absentee ballot. The elections in the 26th and 29th County Legislative Districts were very close; without tallying the disputed ballots, fewer than 5 votes separated the candidates in each contest. On May 5, 2004, the Board convened to count the absentee and paper ballots, in the presence of counsel for the four candidates. Counsel for the candidates objected to various absentee ballots (including the 27 at issue in this action), and the Board agreed not to open the absentee ballots until the state court could rule on them. The candidates then filed cross-motions in the New York State Supreme Court. The Plaintiff voters were not a party to that action. The Supreme Court, while noting that there was no allegation of fraud or intentional misconduct, ruled that the Board's actions resulted from a misinterpretation of the District Court's order, and therefore the absentee ballots at issue were not in compliance and should not be tallied. The Appellate Division and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. The Court of Appeals (also noting the lack of fraud or intentional misconduct) determined that the District Court order required compliance with Article 8 of New York State election law, and that automatically sending absentee ballots to those who had not filed a separate application for the April 27, 2004 special general election was in violation of Article 8. The Court of Appeals did not address any federal constitutional issues in its opinion.

  The Plaintiffs filed this action on October 19, 2004, alleging that by not tallying the absentee ballots, the Board has violated the Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment rights of Due Process and Equal Protection. Because the Board was prepared to certify a winner and destroy the absentee ballots without tallying them at 10:00 AM on Wednesday, October 20, 2004, Plaintiffs simultaneously filed a motion for a temporary restraining order ("T.R.O.") and preliminary injunction. The Court granted the request for a T.R.O., prohibiting destruction of the ballots and certification of the winners, until the time when a hearing could be held on the request for a preliminary injunction. In their motion for a preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs seek to enjoin the Board from tallying any ballots or certifying any winner in the elections for Albany County Legislator for the 26th and 29th Districts, pending a judgment by this Court.

  II. Discussion

  A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

  Although Defendants do not raise this issue, the Court must first determine whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over the claims in this action. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine holds that lower federal courts "lack subject matter jurisdiction `over cases that effectively seek review of judgments of state courts and that federal review, if any, can occur only by way of certiori petition to the Supreme Court.'" Phifer v. City of New York, 289 F.3d 49, 55 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Moccio v. New York State Office of Court Admin., 95 F.3d 195, 198 (2d Cir. 1996)). In Rooker, the Supreme Court held that "no federal court, other than the Supreme Court, can consider a claim to reverse or modify a state court judgment." Phifer, 289 F.3d at 55 (citing Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416 (1923)). Further, if a plaintiff's claims are "`inextricably intertwined' with the state court's determination, the district court [does] not have jurisdiction to entertain those claims." Phifer, 289 F.3d at 55 (citing District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983)).

  The Second Circuit has instructed that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar claims that "were never presented in the state court proceedings" and in which "the plaintiff did not have an opportunity to present the claims in those proceedings." Phifer, 289 F.3d at 55-56 (citing Moccio, 95 F.3d at 198-99). The Second Circuit explained in Moccio that "inextricably intertwined" means that "where a federal plaintiff had an opportunity to litigate a claim in a state proceeding, . . . subsequent litigation will be barred under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine if it would be barred under the principles of preclusion." Phifer, 289 F.3d at 56 (citing Moccio, 95 F.3d at 199-200). Therefore, two categories of preclusion, collateral estoppel and res judicata, must be considered. Phifer, 289 F.3d at 56.

  Collateral estoppel only applies if "`(1) the issue in question was actually and necessarily decided in a prior proceeding, and (2) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the first proceeding.'" Phifer, 289 F.3d at 56 (citing Moccio, 95 F.3d at 200). The first requirement for the application of collateral estoppel is not satisfied. The issue of whether the invalidation of the absentee ballots would violate the Fourteenth Amendment was not addressed by the Court of Appeals. Further, the Plaintiff voters clearly did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate any issue in the state court proceeding as they were not parties to that action. Therefore, collateral estoppel would not act as a bar to Plaintiffs in this case.

  Res judicata bars "parties and their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action." Storey v. Cello Holdings, LLC, 347 F.3d 370, 380 (2d Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). Defendants assert that the rights of the voters were fully addressed in the action before the Court of Appeals. However, the Plaintiff voters were not parties to the action, nor were they privies. Though the candidates, who were parties in the state action, have an interest in having the absentee ballots counted, that interest is insufficient to create privity. "Candidates' rights, though related to voters' rights, are said to be distinct from them." Griffin v. Burns, 570 F.2d 1065, 1072 (1st Cir. 1978) (citing Bullock v. Carter, 405 U.S. 134, 142-43 (1972)). Because they were not parties nor in privity to any party in the state court action, res judicata cannot apply to bar the Plaintiff voters' § 1983 action. Therefore, this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the cause of action by the Plaintiff voters.

  The Plaintiff candidates, however, were parties to the state court action, and they are asserting claims here that they could have asserted in state court. Further, the Plaintiff candidates' federal cause of action arises from the Board's refusal to count the absentee ballots, which is the same factual basis underlying the state court proceedings. Therefore, the federal cause of action arises from the same transaction or series of transactions at issue in the state court proceedings, which causes it to be barred by res judicata. See, e.g., Cieszkowska v. Gray Line New York, 295 F.3d 204, 205 (2d Cir. 2002) ("[e]ven claims based upon different legal theories are barred provided they arise from the same transaction or occurrence").

  Finally, the Plaintiff candidates contend that because they reserved their federal rights in the state court proceeding, that Rooker-Feldman should not apply, citing England v. L.A. State Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, 375 U.S. 411 (1964). In England, the Supreme Court allowed plaintiffs to reserve their federal claims in a state court action and avoid preclusion when the federal court abstained pursuant to R.R. Comm'n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). However, the Second Circuit has limited the holding of England to Pullman abstention cases. See, e.g., Temple of Lost Sheep, Inc. v. Abrams, 930 F.2d 178, 182 (2d Cir. 1991). In Temple of Lost Sheep, the Second Circuit reasoned that the decision in England "is a direct result of the purposes behind Pullman abstention" which is merely to postpone jurisdiction when the federal claim is brought to federal court in the first instance. Id. (citing Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 101-02 (1980)). The purposes behind Pullman abstention are not present in this case, and therefore England is inapposite.

  Therefore, the action against Defendants by Plaintiff candidates Hoblock and Carman is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.*fn3 Any claims they may have must be addressed directly to the United States Supreme Court, pursuant to 28 ...


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