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Ramratan v. New York City Board of Elections

September 7, 2006

KHUBLAL RAMRATAN, RAJKUMAR SINGH, SURUJAUL SINGH, ANITA SUKHOO, CHANDRAINE BOODHAN, AND VANCE CAINES, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
NEW YORK CITY BOARD OF ELECTIONS AND TERRENCE C. O'CONNOR, ANTHONY COMO, JEANETTE GADSON, NERO GRAHAM, JR., JAMES J. SAMPEL, NANCY MOTTOLA-SCHACHER, GREGORY C. SOUMAS, FREDERIC M. UMANE, AND MARYANN YENNELLA, COMMISSIONERS OF NEW YORK CITY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garaufis, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Before the court is Plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction against the New York City Board of Elections (the "Board of Elections") and its commissioners. Plaintiffs are voters seeking to place Michael Duvalle ("Duvalle") and Vienna Totaram ("Totaram") on the ballot for the Democratic primary election to be held September 12, 2006, as candidates for the offices of Member of Assembly and Female Assembly District Leader, respectively, in the 31st Assembly District of Queens County, New York State. Duvalle and Totarum were placed on the ballot by the Board of Elections following their submission of designating petitions on July 11, 2006. (Complaint ¶ 14.) They were later removed from the ballot pursuant to an order of the New York State Supreme Court, Queens County (the "State Supreme Court"), which found that the designating petitions were products of "permeating fraudulent misrepresentation." Butler v. Duvalle, No. 15994/06, slip op. at 7-8 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Aug. 10, 2006); see also Duvalle v. Butler, No. 16301/06, slip op.(N.Y. Sup. Ct. Aug. 10, 2006). The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court (the "Appellate Division") affirmed this decision unanimously shortly thereafter. Butler v. Duvalle, 819 N.Y.S.2d 670 (N.Y. App. Div. 2d Dept. 2006).

Plaintiffs purport to be, and I assume for the purpose of deciding this motion that they are, "duly qualified Queens County Democratic voters."*fn1 (Complaint ¶ 3.) They bring suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing that "the process that took place in Queens County Supreme Court," i.e., that court's decision to remove Duvalle and Totaram from the ballot, violated Plaintiffs' federal constitutional rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Complaint ¶ 15.)

Because Plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, their motion for a preliminary injunction is denied.

II. Legal Analysis

This Court owes great deference to state court decisions interpreting state election law. As the Second Circuit has explained:

Were we to embrace plaintiffs' theory, this court would henceforth be thrust into the details of virtually every election, tinkering with the state's election machinery, reviewing petitions, registration cards, vote tallies, and certificates of election for all manner of error and insufficiency under state and federal law. Absent a clear and unambiguous mandate from Congress, we are not inclined to undertake such a wholesale expansion of our jurisdiction into an area which, with certain narrow and well defined exceptions, has been in the exclusive cognizance of the state courts.

Powell v. Power, 436 F.2d 84, 86 (2d Cir. 1970) (footnote omitted); see also Shannon v. Jacobowitz, 394 F.3d 90, 94-95 (2d Cir. 2005) (observing that Powell is still the law in this Circuit); Friedman v. Abrams, 600 F.Supp. 596, 598 (S.D.N.Y. 1985) ("In view of the great deference given state courts in administering election laws, this Court will not quarrel with the Appellate Division's view of the proper construction of the statute.").

Plaintiffs are duly qualified voters, and therefore have standing to allege that they have been deprived of their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See, e.g., Gold v. Feinberg, 101 F.3d 796 (2d Cir. 1996); Powell, 436 F.2d 84 (2d Cir. 1970). Because they were not parties to the earlier state court proceedings, their action is not barred by res judicata. Monahan v. New York City Dep't of Corrections, 214 F.3d 275, 284 (2d. Cir. 2000).

A. Preliminary Injunctions

"[T]he party seeking a preliminary injunction must establish that (1) absent injunctive relief, it will suffer an irreparable injury and (2) either (a) a likelihood of success on the merits or (b) sufficiently serious questions going to the merits to make them a fair ground for litigation and the balance of hardships tips in favor of the movant." Hickerson v. City of New York, 146 F.3d 99, 103 (2d Cir. 1998). The likelihood-of-success standard applies whenever, as here, the moving party seeks to stay governmental action taken in the public interest pursuant to a statutory or regulatory scheme. Bery v. City of New York, 97 F.3d 689, 694 (2d Cir. 1996). For the purpose of deciding this motion, I assume that Plaintiffs will suffer an irreparable injury if they are denied injunctive relief. The election at issue will take place soon, on September 12, 2006. Absent injunctive relief, voters who wish to vote for Duvalle or Totaram on that date will not find their names on the ballot. However, because I find that Plaintiffs have not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims, there is no need for the court to engage in a detailed analysis of this alleged injury.

B. Constitutional Claims Under § 1983

"To state a claim for relief in an action brought under § 1983, [Plaintiffs] must establish that they were deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and that the alleged deprivation was committed under color of state law." Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 49-50 (1999). The Supreme Court has construed the word "person" in § 1983 to include municipal corporations and similar governmental entities such as the Board of Elections. See Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 376 (1990); Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 663 (1978). As the individual defendants are "officials . . . who speak with final policymaking authority for" the Board of Elections, McMillian v. Monroe County, 520 U.S. 781, 784-85 (1997) (quoting Jett v. Dallas Independent School Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737 (1989)), I find that Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged state action.

Plaintiffs allege that they were deprived of their rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth ...


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