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Garten v. Hochman

January 28, 2009

JAMES GARTEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JERE HOCHMAN, INDIVIDUALLY, AND THE BEDFORD CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conner, Senior D.J.

OPINION AND ORDER

ECF CASE

This § 1983 action was brought by James Garten ("plaintiff") against defendants the Bedford Central School District (the "District") and Jere Hochman, Superintendant of Schools for the District ("Hochman" and together with the District, "defendants"). Plaintiff claims that defendants, by reassigning his children from the West Patent Elementary School to the Pound Ridge Elementary School, violated his "right of intimate association, right to free speech, and right to petition government for the redress of grievances as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution." (Complt. ¶¶ 1, 11.) On December 24, 2008, plaintiff filed a motion for a preliminary injunction and/or a permanent injunction that would require defendants to re-enroll his children in the West Patent Elementary School. For the reasons stated herein, plaintiff's motion is denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is the biological father of two infant children, Braden, born in 2000, and Sophia, born in 2002 (the "children"). (Garten Decl. ¶ 1; Complt.¶ 3.) In 2003, plaintiff commenced a divorce action against his then wife, Kari Puckhaber ("Puckhaber"), the biological mother of Braden and Sophia. (Garten Decl. ¶ 2.) At the time of their divorce, both plaintiff and Ms. Puckhaber were residents of Bedford, New York. (Silverman Suppl. Decl., Ex. F ¶ 2.) In 2005, in connection with their divorce proceeding, plaintiff and Puckhaber entered into a parenting agreement with respect to the children in which they agreed that the children would attend the West Patent Elementary School. (Garten Decl. ¶ 3.) This agreement was endorsed and entered as a court order by the Westchester County Supreme Court. (Id. ¶ 4.) According to Hochman, plaintiff and Puckhaber "share custody of [their] children on a generally equal basis, thereby entitling them to determine whether the children would attend the school associated with [plaintiff's] residence or the school associated with Puckhaber's residence." (Silverman Suppl. Decl., Ex. F ¶ 4.) Hochman further states that, when he became involved in this matter in September 2008, "[plaintiff] had lived in a residence, [in an] attendance zone [which] permitted the children to attend the West Patent Elementary School, the school which [the] children had attended the previous school year," while "Puckhaber lives in a residence associated with the attendance zone for the Pound Ridge Elementary School." (Id.)

Plaintiff contends that, in September 2008, Puckhaber, "[d]eliberately intending to breach the [parenting] agreement for her personal convenience (given the location of her residence within the attendance zone for the Pound Ridge Elementary School . . .), and intending to induce the District to tortiously interfere with the 2005 agreement . . . solicited Defendant . . . Hochman to remove Braden and Sophia from the West Patent Elementary School and enroll them in the Pound Ridge Elementary School." (Garten Decl. ¶ 5.) According to defendants' account of the incident, "Puckhaber contacted the District and advised that the plaintiff had moved out of the District and further inquired when the children would be transferred to [the] Pound Ridge Elementary School." (Defs. Mem. Opp. Mot. Prelim. Inj. at 2.) Upon receiving this notice from Puckhaber, the District commenced an investigation and Hochman arranged for a hearing on the matter to be held by an impartial hearing officer on October 29, 2008. (Id.)

Following the hearing, which included testimony from plaintiff and Puckhaber and the submission of documentary evidence, the hearing officer issued a written report, dated October 31, 2008. (Id. at 2-3.) As related in this report, the hearing officer found that "[plaintiff] has not established by any standard of proof that he is a resident of the Bedford Central School District, as that is defined in Education Law Section 3200" and that "[s]ince the only connection to the Bedford Central School district the children . . . have is the mother's home in Pound Ridge, the appropriate school for them to be enrolled in is the Pound Ridge Elementary School." (Id. at 3.) The hearing officer, therefore, recommended to Hochman that the children "'cease to be enrolled in the West Patent Elementary School and that they be enrolled in the Pound Ridge Elementary School.'" (Id.) By letter addressed to plaintiff and Puckhaber, dated October 31, 2008, Hochman upheld the hearing officer's recommendations and pronounced that, "effective immediately, Sophia and Braden are reassigned to [the] Pound Ridge Elementary School." (Id.; Silverman Decl., Ex. B.)

According to plaintiff, he "vigorously opposed Hochman's intended course of action," contending that the children did not want to be enrolled in the Pound Ridge Elementary School and were doing well academically at the West Patent Elementary School; that "from an educational/pedagogical perspective it was in the best interests of Braden and Sophia to remain in the West Patent Elementary School"; and that the District should not interfere with the "post-divorce matrimonial dispute" and court-ordered parenting agreement between himself and Puckhaber. (Garten Decl. ¶ 7.) Defendants were given a copy of the parenting agreement. (Id.) According to plaintiff, when his children were informed that they were being reassigned to the Pound Ridge Elementary School, "they were emotionally distraught, uncomprehending, bewildered, frightened, tearful about having to leave both [the] West Patent Elementary School and their friends and teachers there, and understood that their forced reassignment was [plaintiff's] 'fault.'" (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff contends that, as a result, "[his] relationship with [the children] has been severely strained, a circumstance both reasonably foreseeable, expected, and intended by Hochman." (Id.)

On November 3, 2008, plaintiff filed an Article 78 petition challenging the administrative decision, simultaneously filing an Order to Show Cause against the District and Puckhaber in Westchester County Supreme Court, which was executed by that court and made returnable on December 2, 2008. (Defs. Mem. Opp. Mot. Prelim. Inj. at 3.) The Order to Show Cause provided that, pending a hearing and determination of the validity of the administrative decision, the decision's effect would be stayed and the children would be assigned to the West Patent Elementary School. (Silverman Decl., Ex. C.) On November 3, 2008, plaintiff filed the instant action. On November 10, 2008, plaintiff filed an Amended Order to Show Cause in the Article 78 proceeding, seeking the same relief as the initial Order to Show Cause, but omitting the stay that assigned the children to the West Patent Elementary School. (Id., Ex. E.) The Amended Order to Show Cause was executed by the Westchester County Supreme Court and made returnable on December 2, 2008. (Id.) According to defendants, the Amended Order to Show Cause has been fully submitted and currently remains pending. (Defs. Mem. Opp. Mot. Prelim. Inj. at 4.) Defendants state that the children attended the West Patent Elementary School until November 11, 2008, when the Amended Order to Show Cause was executed, and that they now attend the Pound Ridge Elementary School. (Id.)

Plaintiff seeks, through this motion, a preliminary injunction and/or permanent injunction mandating that defendants re-enroll the children in the West Patent Elementary School. (Pl. Mem. Supp. Mot. Prelim. Inj. at 1.) Defendants oppose the motion on the merits and also request that this matter be stayed pending resolution of the Article 78 petition. (Defs. Mem. Opp. Mot. Prelim. Inj. at 9.)

DISCUSSION

I. Younger Abstention

After extensively discussing why we should deny plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, defendants briefly argue that we should stay the instant action pending resolution of plaintiff's Article 78 petition. (Defs. Mem. Opp. Mot. Prelim. Inj. at 9.) Defendants contend that "[t]he relief . . . plaintiff seeks . . . can be awarded by a finding in his favor in the state court proceeding," which is a more appropriate venue for plaintiff's claims because there the entire record will be reviewed; that "plaintiff's factual claims here rise and fall on whether the District acted appropriately, which will also be determined by the state court"; and that "because substantially the same issue is being considered by both courts, considerations of judicial economy, comity and deference to state court proceedings weigh in favor of granting a stay here." (Id.) Plaintiff did not respond to their argument.*fn1

We agree with defendants that the instant case, where the underlying claim that defendants inappropriately transferred the children from one school to another is currently under review by a New York state court, implicates concerns for judicial economy, comity and deference to state courts, and we therefore invoke the Younger abstention doctrine here. "The Younger doctrine requires a federal court to abstain from enjoining a pending state proceeding, absent extraordinary circumstances, where an important state interest is involved, and the movant will have an adequate opportunity to raise his constitutional claims in the state proceedings." Selkin v. State Bd. for Prof'l Med. Conduct, 63 F. Supp. 2d 397, 401 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (Conner, J.) (citing Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 43-56 (1971)). The doctrine is derived from the prudential consideration that interference with a state proceeding by a federal court "would entail an unseemly failure to give effect to the principle that state courts have the solemn responsibility, equally with the federal courts to guard, enforce, and protect every right granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States." Temple of Lost Sheep Inc. v. Abrams, 930 F.2d 178, 183 (2d Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The doctrine is applicable to suits for injunctive relief, although the Second Circuit has held that ...


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