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Horton v. Williams

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


August 24, 2010

CHRISTOPHER HORTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DONALD WILLIAMS, D.A.; AND BERNARD KELLER, INVESTIGATOR, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court in this civil rights action filed by Christopher Horton ("Plaintiff") is a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and/or lack of subject-matter jurisdiction filed by Donald Williams ("Defendant Williams") and a motion for summary judgment filed by Bernard Keller ("Defendant Keller"). (Dkt. Nos. 64, 68.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendant Williams's motion is granted, and Defendant Keller's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiff's Claims

Generally, liberally construed, Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that, between approximately September 5, 2006, and October 31, 2006, in Ulster County, New York, Defendants violated Plaintiff's rights under the United States Constitution by falsely imprisoning him, defaming him, and depriving him of due process. (See generally Dkt. No. 2 [Plf.'s Compl.].) Familiarity with the factual allegations supporting these claims in Plaintiff's Complaint is assumed in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for the review of the parties. (Id.)

B. Undisputed Material Facts

The following is a general summary of material facts that are undisputed by the parties.(Compare Dkt. No. 64, Attach. 4 [Def. Williams's Memo. of Law] with Dkt. No. 68 [Plf.'s Response Memo. of Law], and Dkt No. 70 [Def. Keller's Rule 7.1 Statement] with Dkt. No. 71 [Plf.'s Rule 7.1 Response].)*fn1

On September 5, 2006, Plaintiff was arrested and charged with two counts of rape in the third degree, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and two counts of unlawfully dealing with a child. Plaintiff was remanded without bail by the Honorable Terry B. Elia. On September 7, 2006, a preliminary hearing was held, but was adjourned until September 13, 2006. Plaintiff's criminal rape charges were subsequently dismissed. On October 24, 2006, Plaintiff was indicted by a grand jury on charges of criminal sale of marijuana and unlawfully dealing with a child, for which Plaintiff was arraigned on October 31, 2006. Plaintiff remained in jail until January 31, 2007, at which time he pleaded guilty to the charges of unlawfully dealing with a child. He was sentenced to time served. Upon his release, Plaintiff lost his job, which he had held for seven years, and was asked to leave nursing school.

Familiarity with the remaining undisputed material facts of this action, as well as the disputed material facts, as set forth in the parties' Rule 7.1 Statements and Rule 7.1 Responses, is assumed in this Decision and Order, which (again) is intended primarily for review by the parties.

C. Defendants' Motions

1. Defendant Williams's Motion to Dismiss

Generally, in support of his motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and/or for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed. R. Civ P. 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1), Defendant Williams argues as follows: (1) Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams are barred by doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity, because each of those claims relate to Defendant Williams' actions as District Attorney; (2) in the alternative, to the extent that Plaintiff's claims are asserted against Defendant Williams in his official capacity, those claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment doctrine of sovereign immunity; (3) in the alternative, each of Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams should be dismissed because the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which, inter alia, effectively precludes federal district courts from entertaining collateral attacks on the validity underlying state court criminal proceedings; and (4) in the alternative, Plaintiff's claims for defamation and false imprisonment are barred by the applicable statute of limitations. (See generally Dkt. No. 64, Attach. 4 [Def. Williams's Memo. of Law].)

In response to Defendant's motion to dismiss, Plaintiff argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not deprive the Court of subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims. (See generally Dkt. No. 68, Attach. 1 [Plf.'s Response Memo. of Law].)

2. Defendant Keller's Motion for Summary Judgment

As an initial matter, the Court notes that Defendant Keller's "cross-motion" for summary judgment, which in no way opposes Defendant Williams's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and requests dismissal of Plaintiff's Complaint on a different basis than does Defendant Williams's motion, is not a cross-motion for summary judgment but is instead a motion for summary judgment.*fn2 As a result, Defendant Keller was required to file this dispositive motion by February 26, 2010. (Dkt. No. 61.) However, Defendant Keller filed his motion April 19, 2010, fifty-two (52) days after the expiration of the disposition-motion filing deadline. (Dkt. No. 69.) The Court notes that, when Defendant Keller requested an extension of the deadline by which he had to file a response to Defendant Williams's motion, Defendant Keller did not request--and was not subsequently granted--an extension of the dispositive-motion filing deadline. (Dkt. No. 67; Text Order filed 4/9/10.)

Based on Defendant Keller's failure to comply with the dispositive-motion filing deadline, the Court may, in its discretion, decline to consider Defendant Keller's motion. However, of course, the Court may alternatively, in its discretion, agree to consider the motion. Indeed, "district courts possess the power to enter summary judgment sua sponte, as long as the losing party was on notice that such party was required to come forward with all necessary evidence." Hastie v. J.C. Penney Co., Inc., 886 F. Supp. 1017, 1030-31 (W.D.N.Y. 1994) (citation omitted).

Here, Plaintiff was on notice that the Court might decide on the merits of Defendant Keller's untimely motion "[b]y virtue of the fact that [Defendant Keller] did file a summary judgment motion on this issue,... [and] no ruling had been made as to the untimeliness of the motion." Hastie, 886 F. Supp. at 1031. Indeed, Plaintiff filed a response to Defendant Keller's untimely motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 71.) Moreover, in that response, Plaintiff responded to Defendant Keller's Statement of Material Facts, set forth additional material facts that Plaintiff contends are in dispute, and supported his denials and factual assertions with record evidence. (Id.; Dkt. No. 71, Part 2.) Finally, also in that response, Plaintiff (in addition to challenging the timeliness of Defendant Keller's motion for summary judgment) addressed the merits of Defendant Keller's motion that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. (Dkt. No. 71, Part 1, at 3-4.) As a result, under the circumstances, the Court finds good cause to consider Defendant Keller's untimely motion for summary judgment.*fn3

Generally, in support of his motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, Defendant Keller argues as follows: (1) based on the record evidence, a rational fact finder could only conclude that there was probable cause for Plaintiff's arrest; (2) Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Keller in his official capacity are barred by the Eleventh Amendment; (3) the Court is without subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; and (4) Plaintiff's claims for defamation and false imprisonment should be dismissed with prejudice as barred by the applicable statute of limitations. (See generally Dkt. No. 69, Attach. 5 [Def. Keller's Memo. of Law].)

In response to Defendant Keller's motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff argues as follows: (1) Defendant Keller's cross-motion for summary judgment was not proper under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), Local Rule 7.1, or the Court's Amended Scheduling Order of January 16, 2010, and should therefore not be considered by the Court; and (2) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not deprive the Court of subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims. (See generally Dkt. No. 71, Attach. 1 [Plf.'s Response Memo. of Law].)

II. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Legal Standard Governing Motions for Summary Judgment

Because the parties to this action have demonstrated, in their memoranda of law, an accurate understanding of the legal standard governing motions for summary judgment, the Court will not recite that well-known legal standard in this Decision and Order, but will direct the reader to the Court's recent decision in Pitts v. Onondaga County Sheriff's Dep't, 04-CV-0828, 2009 WL 3165551, at *2-3 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2009) (Suddaby, J.), which accurately recites that legal standard.

B. Legal Standard Governing Motions to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

Similarly, because the parties to this action have demonstrated, in their memoranda of law, an accurate understanding of the legal standard governing motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the Court will not recite that well-known legal standard in this Decision and Order, but will direct the reader to the Court's recent decision in Wade v. Tiffin Motorhomes, Inc., 05-CV-1458, 2009 WL 3629674, at *3 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 27, 2009) (Suddaby, J.), which accurately recites that legal standard.

C. Legal Standard Governing Motions to Dismiss for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

"A case is properly dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it." Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir.2000) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 12[b][1]). "In resolving a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), a district court... may refer to evidence outside the pleadings." Makarova, 210 F.3d at 113 (citation omitted). "A plaintiff asserting subject-matter jurisdiction has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it exists." Id. (citation omitted).

D. Legal Standards Governing Plaintiff's Claims

Because the parties to this action have demonstrated, in their memoranda of law, an accurate understanding of the relevant points of law contained in the legal standards governing Plaintiff's claims in this action, the Court will not recite, in their entirety, those legal standards in this Decision and Order, which (again) is intended primarily for the review of the parties. (See Dkt. No. 64, Attach. 4 [Def. Williams's Memo. of Law]; Dkt. No. 68, Attach. 1 [Plf.'s Response Memo. of Law]; Dkt. No. 69, Attach. 5 [Def. Keller's Memo. of Law]; Dkt. No. 71, Attach. 1 [Plf.'s Response Memo. of Law].)

III. ANALYSIS

A. Plaintiff's Claims Against Defendant Williams

As stated above in Part I.C.1. of this Decision and Order, Defendant Williams advances four arguments in support of his request for the dismissal of Plaintiff's claims against him: (1) Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams are barred by doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity, because each of those claims relate to Defendant Williams' actions as District Attorney; (2) in the alternative, to the extent that Plaintiff's claims are asserted against Defendant Williams in his official capacity, those claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment doctrine of sovereign immunity; (3) in the alternative, each of Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams should be dismissed because the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which, inter alia, effectively precludes federal district courts from entertaining collateral attacks on the validity underlying state court criminal proceedings; and (4) in the alternative, Plaintiff's claims for defamation and false imprisonment against Defendant Williams are barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

Based on the current record, the Court accepts Defendant Williams's first argument that the Eleventh Amendment bars any claim asserted against Defendant Williams in his official capacity. This is because Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams arise out of actions taken by Defendant Williams in his capacity as district attorney for Ulster County (specifically, his criminal prosecution of Plaintiff). See Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 529 536 (2d Cir. 1993) (noting that "[w]hen prosecuting a criminal matter, a district attorney in New York State, acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, represents the State not the county," and concluding that when "a state official is sued for damages in his official capacity, such a suit is deemed to be a suit against the state, and the official is [therefore] entitled to invoke the Eleventh Amendment immunity belonging to the state") (quoting Baez v. Hennessy, 853 F.2d 73, 77 [2d Cir. 1988], cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1014 [1989]).

Furthermore, based on the current record, the Court accepts Defendant Williams's second argument that absolute prosecutorial immunity bars any claim asserted against him in his individual capacity. See Shmueli v. City of New York, 424 F.3d 231, 236 (2d Cir. 2005) ("[A] state prosecuting attorney who acted within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution is immune from a civil suit for damages under § 1983.") (quoting Imber v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 410, 431 [1976]).*fn4

For these reasons, Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams cannot survive Defendant Williams's motion to dismiss. Because the Court has found adequate grounds on which to dismiss Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Williams, the Court need not, and does not, address Defendant Williams's alternative arguments for the dismissal of those claims-- specifically, his arguments regarding a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims and/or the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations governing those claims.

B. Plaintiff's Claims Against Defendant Keller

As stated above in Part I.C.2. of this Decision and Order, advances four arguments in support of his request for the dismissal of Plaintiff's claims against him: (1) based on the record evidence, a rational fact finder could only conclude that there was probable cause for Plaintiff's arrest; (2) in the alternative, to the extent that Plaintiff's claims are asserted against Defendant Keller in his official capacity, those claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment doctrine of sovereign immunity; (3) in the alternative, each of Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Keller should be dismissed because the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which, inter alia, effectively precludes federal district courts from entertaining collateral attacks on the validity underlying state court criminal proceedings; and (4) in the alternative, Plaintiff's claims for defamation and false imprisonment against Defendant Keller should be dismissed with prejudice as barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

Based on the current record, the Court accepts Defendant's first argument. "A claim for false arrest is a type of claim for false imprisonment." Coyle v. Coyle, 354 F. Supp.2d 207, 211 (E.D.N.Y. 2005). "To establish a claim for false arrest or false imprisonment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must show that 'the defendant intentionally confined him without his consent and without justification.'" McMillan v. City of New York, 03-CV-0626, 2009 WL 261478, at *7 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 4, 2009) (quoting, inter alia, Escalera v. Lunn, 361 F.3d 737, 743 [2d Cir. 2004]). "The existence of probable cause to arrest constitutes justification and 'is a complete defense to an action for false arrest,' whether that action is brought under state law or under § 1983." Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir. 1996)(internal citations omitted); see also Broughton v. New York State, 37 N.Y.2d 451, 456-57 (N.Y. 1975) (noting that a plaintiff will prevail on a claim of false arrest under New York law if he can show that the arrest was not privileged, i.e., not based on probable cause). "[P]robable cause to arrest exists when the officers have knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information of facts and circumstances that are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a crime." Weyant, 101 F.3d at 852. In addition, "a claim for false arrest turns only on whether probable cause existed to arrest a defendant[;]... it is not relevant whether probable cause existed with respect to each individual charge, or, indeed, any charge actually invoked by the arresting officer at the time of arrest." Jaegly v. Couch, 439 F.3d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 2006). "Stated differently, when faced with a claim for false arrest," this Court must "focus on the validity of the arrest and not on the validity of each charge." Jaegly, 439 F.3d at 154.

In this case, the record evidence establishes that, before Plaintiff's arrest, two female children (ages fifteen and sixteen) provided officers of the New York State Police Department with sworn statements that, in sub and substance, Plaintiff provided them with alcohol and had sexual intercourse with them in September of 2005. (Dkt. No. 64, Attach. 1, 57-63.) In addition, the record evidence establishes that these same two females picked Plaintiff out of a photo lineup, which was presented to them by State Police officers prior to Plaintiff's arrest. (Dkt. No. 69, Attach. 4.) This information provided Defendant Keller with reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to believe that Plaintiff had committed a crime. The Court notes that, whether Plaintiff was led to believe he was going to the police barracks to discuss a stolen safe is immaterial to Defendant Keller's motion, because the police had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff at the time he was taken into custody based on the two supporting depositions and the photo identification. See Jaegly,439 F.3d at 154.

Based on the current record, the Court also accepts Defendant Keller's second argument. It is an undisputed fact that, during the relevant time period, Defendant Keller was an investigator for the New York State Police, an agency of New York State. As a result, Defendant Keller was a state official, absolutely immune from any action seeking damages that is brought against him in his official capacity. See Ying Jing Gan, 996 F.2d at 529 (noting that, "[t]o the extent that [a damages] claim is asserted against [a] state official in his official capacity, he may assert the state's Eleventh Amendment immunity against suit").

For all these reasons, Plaintiff's claim of false imprisonment against Defendant Keller is dismissed. Moreover, because a rational fact finder could only conclude that Defendant Keller had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff, Plaintiff's claim of deprivation of due process against Defendant Keller is similarly dismissed.*fn5 Because the Court has found adequate grounds on which to dismiss Plaintiff's false imprisonment and due process claims against Defendant Keller, the Court need not, and does not, address Defendant Keller's alternative arguments for dismissal of those claims--specifically, his arguments regarding a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims and/or the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations governing those claims.

Finally, to the extent that Plaintiff's Complaint may be liberally construed to assert a state law claim of defamation against Defendant Keller, the Court declines to extend pendent jurisdiction over that claim. Instead, while recognizing that any such state law defamation claim against Defendant Keller would not likely survive an appropriate motion to dismiss in state court,*fn6 the Court dismisses that claim without prejudice to refiling in New York State Court within thirty (30) days of this Decision and Order, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(d).*fn7 To this limited extent, Defendant Keller's motion for summary judgment--which requests the dismissal of Plaintiff's defamation claim against him with prejudice--is partially denied.

ACCORDINGLY, it is

ORDERED that Defendant Williams's motion to dismiss all claims against him for failure to state a claim (Dkt. No. 64) is GRANTED; and it is further

ORDERED that Defendant Keller's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 69) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part in that Plaintiff's claims for false imprisonment and due process are DISMISSED with prejudice; and Plaintiff's claim for defamation is DISMISSED without prejudice, as described above in Part III.B. of this Decision and Order; and it is further

ORDERED thatPlaintiff's claim of defamation against Defendant Keller, asserted in Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. No. 2), is DISMISSED without prejudice to refiling in New York State Court within THIRTY (30) DAYS of this Decision and Order, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(d); and it is further

ORDERED that Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. No. 2) is DISMISSED with prejudice. The clerk is directed to enter judgment dismissing all claims in this case.


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