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Spearman v. Dutchess County

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


July 25, 2008

ROBERT SPEARMAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DUTCHESS COUNTY AND DAWN JOHNSON, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

In Plaintiff's February 3, 2005 complaint, he asserts four claims against Defendant Dawn Johnson, a social welfare worker employed by the Dutchess County Department of Social Services ("DSS"), in her individual capacity: (1) false arrest pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (2) malicious prosecution pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (3) false arrest pursuant to New York State law, and (4) malicious prosecution pursuant to New York State law.*fn1 See Complaint at ¶¶ 29-48. Against Defendant Dutchess County ("County"), Plaintiff asserts two claims under the doctrine of respondeat superior: (1) false arrest pursuant to New York State law, and (2) malicious prosecution pursuant to New York State law. See id. at ¶¶ 49-53.

Defendants move for summary judgment with respect to all of Plaintiff's claims on the grounds that Defendant Johnson is entitled to qualified immunity; the Court should decline jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state-law claims once it dismisses Plaintiff's federal-law claims; and, even if the Court does not decline jurisdiction over the state-law claims, it should dismiss them as a matter of law.

II. BACKGROUND

DSS filed a petition in the Dutchess County Family Court on or about October 4, 1993, seeking child support from Plaintiff on behalf of Alicia Baggett, who alleged that Plaintiff was the father of her son, L.B. See Affidavit of Robert B. Allers ("Allers Aff."), sworn to February 16, 2006, at Exhibit "B." After the family court dismissed that petition without prejudice because Ms. Baggett failed to appear at a hearing, DSS filed a second petition for support on or about March 18, 1994. See id. at Exhibits "C" & "D." At a hearing on September 7, 1994, the hearing examiner ordered the parties to take a genetic marker test to determine paternity. See id. at Exhibit "E." The laboratory that conducted the tests*fn2 issued a report, concluding that, "[t]he alleged father, ROBERT SPEARMAN, lacks the following genetic marker(s) which are present in the child, LB, and absent in the mother: HLA A1. Therefore, the alleged father cannot be the biological father of the child. The alleged father is also excluded by the MNSs and Kidd systems." See id. at Exhibit "F."

The parties appeared before a hearing examiner on January 18, 1995, who then referred the case to a family-court judge for further proceedings on the issue of paternity. See id. at Exhibit "A." It is unclear exactly why the hearing examiner referred the case; however, Defendants submit DSS notes suggesting that the reason was that Ms. Baggett continued to assert that she had not had sexual relations with anyone but Plaintiff during the period in which the child was conceived. See id. Pursuant to DSS' motion, the family court ordered a second round of blood tests on March 13, 1995. See id. at Exhibit "G." The family court's order did not discuss or refer to the first round of blood tests.*fn3 See id.

Plaintiff failed to appear for at least four scheduled blood tests on March 13, 1995, March 27, 1995, April 24, 1995, and May 8, 1995. See id. at Exhibits "H," "I," "J"; Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 6. On May 24, 1995, the family court entered an order of filiation by default, declaring Plaintiff to be L.B.'s father. See Allers Aff. at Exhibit "K." After Plaintiff failed to appear for a subsequent family-court proceeding on June 29, 1995, the hearing examiner entered an order of support by default pursuant to which Plaintiff was ordered to pay $108.21 each week. See id. at Exhibit "L."

On or about September 19, 1997, DSS filed a petition in the family court, alleging that Plaintiff failed to pay support in violation of the court's order. See id. at Exhibit "M." Plaintiff did not appear at the subsequent hearing. The parties disagree about whether the hearing examiner issued a warrant for Plaintiff's arrest, see Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 10; however, they agree that Plaintiff was later arrested on July 13, 1998, see id. at ¶ 11. Plaintiff claims he was detained for a period of thirty days.*fn4 See id.

The facts are unclear regarding what happened next. The parties agree that, on October 6, 1998, DSS withdrew its violation petition based on the first round of blood tests excluding Plaintiff as the father. See id. at ¶ 12. Defendants assert that DSS withdrew its petition with the understanding that Plaintiff's court-appointed counsel would move to vacate the order of filiation.*fn5 See Defendants' Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 12. On March 24, 2000, DSS re-filed its violation petition. See Allers Aff. at Exhibit "O." According to Defendants, DSS re-filed the petition because Plaintiff failed to move for vacatur.*fn6 See Defendants' Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 13. On September 21, 2000, a family-court hearing examiner conducted an inquest and found that Plaintiff violated the family court's support order and ordered him to pay $36,001.07, the amount of outstanding support payments that he owed. See Allers Aff. at Exhibit "P." DSS filed at least two more violation petitions on February 9, 2001, and August 10, 2001, alleging that Plaintiff continued to default on his support payments. See id. at Exhibits "Q" & "R." The family-court hearing examiner conducted an inquest in connection with both petitions and found that Plaintiff again violated the family court's support order. See id. at Exhibits "Q" & "U." In addition, the hearing examiner recommended that Plaintiff be committed to the county jail for a period of three months. See id. at Exhibit "U." On August 2, 2002, the family-court judge confirmed the hearing examiner's recommendation for Plaintiff's commitment; however, the judge stayed Plaintiff's commitment as long as he paid the sum of $25 each month. See id. at Exhibit "V."

Defendant Johnson, who first became involved with Plaintiff's support action in August 2003, see Defendants' Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 24, filed a petition on behalf of DSS on or about September 22, 2003, requesting that the family court lift the stay on its order of commitment because Plaintiff had not made the required payments. See Allers Aff. at Exhibit "W." Consequently, on September 25, 2003, the family court ordered Plaintiff to be committed for a period of three months. See id. at Exhibit "X." Plaintiff was arrested on October 28, 2003, and confined until February 3, 2004. See Defendants' Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 30.

While in detention, Plaintiff filed a motion in the family court to vacate the order of filiation. See Affidavit of Kenneth G. Varley, sworn to April 25, 2006, at Exhibit "A" at 25-27. In connection with this motion, the family-court judge ordered Plaintiff to undergo another round of blood tests. See id. at Exhibit "A" at 28. Plaintiff submitted to these tests; and, after the laboratory reported that Plaintiff was excluded as L.B.'s father, see Allers Aff. at Exhibit "Z," the court vacated its prior orders of filiation and support on February 3, 2004. See id. at Exhibit "AA."

III. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiff's false-arrest claims against Defendant Johnson

When analyzing a claim for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the court looks to "the law of the state in which the arrest occurred." Davis v. Rodriguez, 364 F.3d 424, 433 (2d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted); see also Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). To prevail on such a claim under New York law, a plaintiff must demonstrate that "(1) the defendant intended to confine the plaintiff, (2) the plaintiff was conscious of the confinement, (3) the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement, and (4) the confinement is not otherwise privileged." Bernard v. United States, 25 F.3d 98, 102 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation omitted).

Although they often accompany one another, false arrest and malicious prosecution are distinct causes of action. In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the Supreme Court stated that, unlike the related cause of action for false arrest or imprisonment, [malicious prosecution] permits damages for confinement imposed pursuant to legal process. "If there is a false arrest claim, damages for that claim cover the time of detention up until issuance of process or arraignment, but no more."

Id. at 484 (quoting W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, & D. Owen, Prosser and Keeton on Law of Torts 888 (5th ed. 1984)).

Thus, once legal process is initiated, any subsequent Fourth Amendment deprivation falls under the malicious prosecution cause of action. See id.; Singer v. Fulton County Sheriff, 63 F.3d 110, 117 (2d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted); Broughton v. New York, 37 N.Y.2d 451, 457 (1975). In the criminal context, legal process is ordinarily initiated by an arrest warrant application, an arraignment, or an indictment. See Singer, 63 F.3d at 117 (citations omitted). However, where a plaintiff claims malicious prosecution in a civil proceeding, legal process is initiated when a party "sets the machinery of the law in motion . . . ." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 674 (1977).

DSS filed a child support petition against Plaintiff in the family court on October 4, 1993, and again on March 18, 1994. Defendant Johnson filed a petition to remove the stay on the family court's commitment order on or about September 22, 2003. Plaintiff claims that the illegal seizure occurred from October 28, 2003, to February 3, 2004, when he was arrested and committed by order of the family court. See Complaint at ¶¶ 30 & 40. Whether the relevant commencement of legal process in this action occurred on October 4, 1993, March 18, 1994, or September 22, 2003, the seizure occurred pursuant to legal process. Plaintiff may, therefore, state a claim for malicious prosecution, but he does not state a claim for false arrest. Accordingly, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's federal and state false-arrest claims against Defendant Johnson.

B. Plaintiff's malicious-prosecution claims against Defendant Johnson

Plaintiff's malicious-prosecution claims against Defendant Johnson are based on the theory that she did not have probable cause to pursue a child-support action against Plaintiff because DSS and its employees had known since December 1994 that a blood test excluded him as L.B.'s father. Defendant Johnson, however, contends that she is entitled to qualified immunity because she did not violate Plaintiff's right to be free from malicious prosecution.*fn7

Specifically, she argues that she had probable cause to petition the family court to lift its stay on the commitment order because she learned that Plaintiff failed to make the required support payments and she knew that the family court had issued an order of filiation by default.

In a § 1983 malicious-prosecution claim, as in a false-arrest claim, the court applies the substantive law of the state in which the prosecution occurred. See Raysor v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 768 F.2d 34, 39 (2d Cir. 1985). Under New York law, to prove a malicious civil prosecution claim, a plaintiff must establish "(1) the commencement and prosecution of a judicial proceeding against the plaintiff; (2) by or at the insistence of the defendant, (3) without probable cause, (4) with malice, (5) which has terminated in favor of the plaintiff in the malicious prosecution action, (6) to her injury, and (7) that the plaintiff suffered interference with her person or property." Sundbye v. Ogunleye, 3 F. Supp. 2d 254, 260 n.11 (E.D.N.Y. 1998) (citing Realty By Frank Kay, Inc. [v. Majestic Farms Supply, Ltd.], 553 N.Y.S.2d [858,] 859 [(2d Dep't 1990)]).

Plaintiff attempts to recover for malicious prosecution, not in connection with a criminal proceeding, but in connection with a civil family-court proceeding. See Cashman v. Rosenberger, No. 105 CV 0640, 2005 WL 1331127, *1 (N.D.N.Y. June 1, 2005) (stating that a proceeding for child support in New York State family court is a civil proceeding); cf. People v. Smith, 62 N.Y.2d 306, 309 (1984) ("A child abuse or neglect proceeding under Article 10 of the Family Court Act is a civil proceeding."). However, as stated, the plaintiff in a civil malicious-prosecution suit must still demonstrate the absence of probable cause. Plaintiff has not done so in this case. The party initiating a civil action has probable cause if she "reasonably believes in the existence of the facts upon which the claim is based, and . . . correctly or reasonably believes that under those facts the claim may be valid under the applicable law . . . ." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 675 (1977); see also Pangburn v. Bull, 1 Wend. 345 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1828) (holding that, unless the facts are "absolutely conclusive, so as to preclude [any further inquiry] . . . ," a party has probable cause to initiate a civil action to develop her case before the trier of fact).

Plaintiff does not contest that Defendant Johnson had probable cause to believe that he willfully disobeyed the family court's order of support.*fn8 This is all that Defendant Johnson needed in order to petition the family court to remove the stay on its commitment order. Defendant Johnson's petition initiated a legal proceeding wholly independent of the underlying support proceeding. See Smith v. Mathis-Smith, 17 A.D.3d 1157, 1158 (4th Dep't 2005) (holding that, under Article 4 of the Family Court Act, the filing of a petition initiates a new legal proceeding); see generally N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act §§ 423 & 453.

Plaintiff's paternity was not at issue in the contempt proceeding.*fn9 At issue was whether Plaintiff willfully failed to obey a lawful order*fn10 of support. See N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act § 454. Since Defendant Johnson - who only became involved in Plaintiff's case in August 2003, more than eight years after the family court issued its order of support - had probable cause to believe that Plaintiff violated that order, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's federal and state malicious-prosecution claims against Defendant Johnson

C. Plaintiff's respondeat superior claims against Defendant County

The Court retains jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state-law claims against Defendant County in the interests of judicial economy and fairness to the parties. See Purgess v. Sharrock, 33 F.3d 134, 138 (2d Cir. 1994) (quotation omitted).

Although respondeat superior liability does not exist under § 1983, it does exist under New York State tort law. See Raysor, 768 F.2d at 38; Davis v. City of N.Y., 373 F. Supp. 2d 322, 339 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (quotation and other citations omitted). Pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior, a municipal employer is liable for the torts committed by its employees if the "'plaintiff can show that the officer was acting in furtherance of the duties he owes to his employer and that the employer is, or could be, exercising some control, directly or indirectly, over the employees' activities.'" Davis, 373 F. Supp. 2d at 339 (quotation omitted). Thus, an employer's liability is dependent on the nature and extent of its employee's actions.

As stated, Defendant Johnson did not commit common-law false arrest or malicious prosecution. Therefore, Plaintiff cannot hold Defendant County liable for her actions. Moreover, since Plaintiff's contempt was the sole proximate cause of his commitment, the unnamed DSS employees who initiated and continued the underlying child-support proceeding did not commit false arrest or malicious prosecution.*fn11 Accordingly, Plaintiff cannot hold Defendant County liable for their actions.*fn12 The Court, therefore, grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's respondeat superior claims against Defendant County.

IV. CONCLUSION

After carefully considering the file in this matter, the parties' submissions and the applicable law, and for the reasons stated herein, the Court hereby

ORDERS that Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED; and the Court further

ORDERS that the Clerk of Court shall enter judgment in favor of Defendants and close this case.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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