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McCulley v. N.Y.S. Dep't of Environmental Conservation

May 17, 2006



This case was originally before the Court on Plaintiff James W. McCulley's ("Plaintiff") Complaint, accompanied by an Order to Show Cause for an emergency motion for an ex parte temporary restraining order, against Defendants New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ("NYS DEC"), Acting Commissioner of the NYS DEC Denise M. Sheehan, Commissioner of NYS DEC Erin Crotty, NYS DEC Region 5 Regional Director Stuart Buchanan, NYS DEC Regional Forrester Thomas D. Martin, Region 5 of the NYS DEC, NYS DEC Conservation Regional Attorney Christopher Lacombe, NYS DEC Forest Ranger Joseph Lapierre, and NYS DEC Officers and Employees "John Does '1' through '10'" ("Defendants"). See Dkt. Nos. 1 & 2. Defendants subsequently moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), requesting that this Court abstain from exercising jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims and arguing that state administrative proceedings and state court review are the proper avenues for relief in the first instance. Defts' Mem. (Dkt. No. 11).

Oral argument was held on Defendants' motion on Friday, October 7, 2005. Following that, this Court referred the matter to the Honorable David R. Homer, United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), for an evidentiary hearing and the issuance of a Report-Recommendation concerning bad faith and other exceptions to abstention under the Younger and Pullman abstention doctrines.*fn2 November 10, 2005 Order (Dkt. No. 21). Judge Homer held said evidentiary hearing on February 2 and 3, 2006 (see Dkt. Nos. 30, 32-36), and issued a Report-Recommendation and Order filed on April 25, 2006 (Dkt. No. 36). Objections to Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation were filed by Plaintiff on May 5, 2006. Plntf's Obj. (Dkt. No. 38). Defendants filed a Response, within ten days of the date of filing of Plaintiff's Objections (see FED. R. CIV. P. 72(b); Defts' Letter Br. (Dkt. No. 37)), on May 15, 2006. Defts' Resp. (Dkt. No. 39).

It is the duty of this Court to "make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). "A [district] judge... may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." Id. This Court has considered Plaintiff's Objections and Defendants' Response, has undertaken a de novo review of the record, and has determined that Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation should be approved for the reasons stated therein.*fn3*fn4 However, the Court will only adopt the Report-Recommendation in part, in that the Court will not dismiss this action upon abstaining, but will, instead, as addressed below, stay the action pending the outcome of the State proceedings. See, generally, Berman Enter., Inc. v. Jorling, 3 F.3d 602, 608 (2d Cir. 1993). Accordingly, this Court adopts the learned Magistrate Judge's Report-Recommendation in part, only as to Judge Homer's findings concerning the inapplicability of any exceptions to the Younger and Pullman abstention doctrines.

Therefore, after consideration of the submissions from the parties, the oral arguments, the Report-Recommendation of Judge Homer, and the relevant law, it is the judgment of this Court that, although Defendants' motion to dismiss is denied, this Court will abstain from exercising jurisdiction over the claims raised in this matter. The federal claims Plaintiff has raised are intricately related to issues of state law interpretation and determination. Therefore, the State courts and State administrative hearings being the more appropriate fora for this matter, this Federal Court will abstain, and stay the federal claims, until such time as the State proceedings have concluded.

The Court also denies Plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order and order to show cause as moot, given the decision of the Court herein.

As the Court will abstain under the Younger and Pullman doctrines, this Memorandum-Decision and Order will not address any of the other contentions by the parties.

I. Background

The Court must accept Plaintiff's allegations as true for the purposes of deciding Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See Discussion, infra. Therefore, the following are the facts in this matter, as contained in Plaintiff's Verified Complaint.*fn5

Plaintiff is the President of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club. Verified Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at ¶ 5. Plaintiff's lawsuit arises out of the contested use of a road in a Forest Preserve area in the Towns of Keene and North Elba, Essex County, New York. Id. The road is known by various names, including "Old Mountain Road", "Old Military Road", and "Jackrabbit Trail" (hereinafter "Old Mountain Road" or "Road"), and was established under New York State law in the 1800's. Id. at ¶ 18.

On Thursday, March 20, 2003, Plaintiff operated his motor vehicle (a pick-up truck) on Old Mountain Road, driving it to a parking lot on said Road, and thereafter unloaded and operated his snowmobile on the Road, driving from the Town of North Elba to the Town of Keene. Id. at ¶¶ 33-34. The next day, March 21, 2003, Plaintiff was charged with violation of 6 N.Y.C.R.R. § 196.2 in a simplified Information issued by Defendant Forest Ranger Joseph Lapierre; and the Information was followed by a long-form Information issued by Defendant DEC Regional Attorney Christopher Lacombe. Id. at ¶ 36. The current dispute stems from these initial events.

Defendants contend that Old Mountain Road is abandoned and, as such, motor vehicle use, including use of snowmobiles, is prohibited. Dkt. No. 1, at ¶¶ 16-17. But, according to Plaintiff, Old Mountain Road is still used by a number of individuals from the general public during the summer and winter months, with approximately 300 people using the Road during the summer and approximately 150 during the winter, for, inter alia, driving of all terrain vehicles and other vehicles, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, hiking and skiing. Id. at ¶¶ 21-22. Plaintiff has stated that Defendants have knowledge of the specific use of the road for operation of motor vehicles and snowmobiles by individuals other than Plaintiff (Dkt. No. 1), which knowledge Defendants denied at oral argument.

Furthermore, a November 1996 letter from former DEC Regional Forester Tom Wahl to the Adirondack Council (an environmental organization) "acknowledged that the Old Mountain Road is or may be a town road as defined by N.Y.S. Highway Law"; and Defendants have "advised several members of public and private organizations" that the Road is a town road, maintained by either or both of the Towns of North Elba and Keene. Id. at ¶¶ 19-20.

Defendants also knew that Adirondack Ski Touring Council ("ATSC" - Plaintiff's acronym) members maintained a portion of the Road from Rockin' River in the Town of Keene to the Village of Saranac Lake (in Franklin County), and passing through the Village of Lake Placid in North Elba, County of Essex. The ATSC and other individuals maintained the Road, with assistance from the Town of Keene, since the 1980's. Id. at ¶¶ 23-24.

Plaintiff further refutes Defendants' position that the Road is abandoned, and motor vehicle use is not permitted. Among other things, when ATSC performed work on the Road earth-moving equipment and other vehicles were employed; inmates from a prison work program were employed to assist with the rebuilding of a bridge on the Road; and volunteers, work crews, and a DEC forest ranger have variously worked to remove fallen trees and a boulder, and otherwise perform improvements to the Road, to aid in travel. Id. at ¶¶ 25-29.

Plaintiff wished to operate snowmobiles on the Road, but Defendants informed him that he could not because the Road was abandoned and not public, and was also in a State Forest Preserve designated as a Wilderness area. Id. at ¶¶ 30-31. But, Defendants never required permits, or issued permits, for the use of vehicles on the Road by others, such as the ATSC. Id. at ¶ 32.

Plaintiff proceeded to operate a snowmobile on the Road, leading to the incidents of March 20 and 21, 2003. Plaintiff was charged in the Town Court of the Town of Keene, and he argued that the Road was a public road and that he therefore had the right to use the Road for snowmobiling. Defendants countered by arguing that the Road was in Forest Preserve land - under New York Environmental Law § 9-0101(6) - classified as Wilderness, and was abandoned, all meaning that use of motor vehicles (including snowmobiles) is prohibited. Id. at ¶¶ 36-38. On August 25, 2003, the Town Justice found Plaintiff guilty of violating 6 N.Y.C.R.R. § 196.2. Plaintiff thereafter appealed to the County Court, Essex County, which, in a decision by the Honorable Andrew Halloran, Essex County Court Judge, dated March 23, 2005, reversed the conviction "on the law, on the facts, and in the interest of justice." Id. at ¶¶ 39-40.

Judge Halloran found that the Road is not abandoned, is a public highway, and use of snowmobiles and other vehicles is permitted because § 196 of Title 6 of the N.Y.C.R.R. permits such use on public highways within Forest Preserves. Id. at ¶ 41 & Ex. B (People v. McCulley, No. 4528, 2005 WL 756582 (801 N.Y.S.2d 240 (Table)) (N.Y. County Ct. Essex County Mar. 23, 2005) (Halloran, J.) (unpublished)).

Following the issuance of the County Court decision, several media outlets (newspaper and radio) covered the story, and Plaintiff granted them interviews. During said interviews, Plaintiff expressed opinions about the case, and his disagreement with the views of the Defendants in this matter (including Plaintiff's view that Defendants are arrogant and abuse their power by insisting on prohibiting Plaintiff's use of the Road). ...

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