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Martin Tankleff v. the County of Suffolk

December 21, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Seybert, District Judge


Plaintiff, Martin Tankleff ("Plaintiff" or "Tankleff) commenced this action on March 24, 2009. Tankleff seeks to recover pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a variety of constitutional violations that he allegedly suffered at the hands of Defendants, Suffolk County ("County"), K. James McCready ("McCready"), Norman Rein ("Rein"), Charles Kosciuk ("Kosciuk"), Robert Doyle ("Doyle"), John McElhone ("McElhone"), ten County Police Officers, fictitiously named as John Doe Police Officers #1-10, and ten County employees, fictitiously named as Richard Roe #1-10 (collectively, "Defendants"). Specifically, the Complaint alleges eleven causes of action, which, for purposes of its analysis here, the Court groups as follows: (1) malicious prosecution in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law (Claims I and IX*fn1 ); (2) fabrication of evidence (Claim II); (3) failure to investigate (Claim III), (4) suppression of favorable evidence (Claim IV); (5) coercion, and violation of his right to counsel (Claim V); (6) Civil Rights conspiracy claim (Claim VI); (7) Supervisory Liability based on respondeat superior (Claim VII); (8) Monell Claim (Claim VIII); (8) false imprisonment (Claim X); and (9) intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress (Claim XI).

Pending before the Court are Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (DE 38) and Defendants' appeal of Magistrate Judge William D. Wall's July 9, 2010 Order ("July 2010 Order") denying the County's application to stay discovery. In their Rule 12(c) motion, Defendants claim that: (1) Plaintiff's claims are barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel; (2) Plaintiff's claims for malicious prosecution must be dismissed because, inter alia, Plaintiff did not obtain a favorable termination of his criminal proceedings; (3) Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; and, (4) Plaintiff's remaining claims do not survive application of the Supreme Court's holding in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, U.S. , 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, and DENIES as moot Defendants' appeal of Judge Wall's July 2010 Order. Specifically, Plaintiff's claims based on conspiracy, supervisory liability under § 1983, false imprisonment, suppression of exculpatory evidence, failure to investigate, and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress are DISMISSED. His remaining claims survive.

BACKGROUND*fn2 I. Murder of Seymour and Arlene Tankleff On September 7, 1988, shortly after 6:00 a.m., Plaintiff placed a phone call to 911 to inform authorities that he had awoke to discover his father, Seymour Tankleff, suffering from severe injuries to the neck. (Compl. ¶ 40--42.) After stabilizing his father, Plaintiff discovered the lifeless body of his mother, Arlene Tankleff, on the floor of her bedroom. (Id.) County police and medical personnel arrived on the scene at approximately 6:15 a.m. (Id. ¶ 44.) Plaintiff directed officers to his parents' bodies, and was eventually escorted to the backseat of a patrol car as the crime scene was secured. (Id. ¶ 45--46.)

Defendant Detective McCready, the first detective on the scene, took command of the investigation at approximately 7:40 a.m. (Id. ¶ 47.) After observing the crime scene and speaking with other officers, McCready interviewed Plaintiff in the patrol car. (Id. ¶ 49.) At this point, Plaintiff suggested that his father's business partner, Jerry Steuerman, had a strong motive to hurt Seymour Tankleff, and was likely responsible for the attack on his parents. (Id.) Plaintiff repeated this claim shortly thereafter when interviewed by defendants Sergeant Doyle and Detective Rein. (Id. ¶ 50.)

Subsequently, Plaintiff's godfather and the Tankleff family attorney, Myron Fox, arrived on the scene to bring Plaintiff to his father, who was clinging to life at Mather Memorial Hospital. (Id. ¶ 53.) While Fox was told Plaintiff was on his way to the hospital, Detective McCready was taking Plaintiff to Police Headquarters, where he was escorted to a small, windowless room and questioned for a period of hours. (Id. ¶ 55.) Plaintiff contends that, despite repeated requests to speak with Fox and visit his father at the hospital, he was never informed of his Miranda rights, nor was he told that he was free to leave. (Id. ¶ 55, 58.)

Plaintiff alleges that the manner of questioning by Defendants was "aggressive," and that Defendants repeatedly made falsified statements implying that evidence pointed towards his guilt. (See id. ¶ 62-66.) Most egregiously, Plaintiff contends that McCready falsely informed him that his father had temporarily regained consciousness at the hospital, and named Plaintiff as his attacker. (Id. ¶ 67.) Eventually, Plaintiff alleges, he was convinced that he may have blacked out and killed his parents without remembering the incident. (Id. ¶ 70.)

After eliciting this admission of possible guilt from Plaintiff, the Complaint alleges that Defendants McCready and Rein began "feeding" Plaintiff their version of the crime, which Plaintiff parroted back to them in a state of shock. (Id. ¶ 74--81.) Subsequently, McCready handwrote a confession in narrative form, which falsely indicated that the details had originated from the Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 81.) This statement was never signed, as Myron Fox had phoned police headquarters and ordered Plaintiff's release. (Id. ¶ 83--84.) At some point after 8:30 p.m., Plaintiff was arrested for the murder of his mother and the attempted murder of his father; when his father died on October 6, 1988, the attempted murder charge was upgraded to murder. (Id. ¶ 85--86.)

II. Trial, Appeal and New Evidence

Plaintiff's ten-week trial began on April 23, 1990. (Id. ¶ 114.) During the trial, McCready and Rein allegedly offered false testimony against Plaintiff. Ultimately, a jury found Plaintiff guilty of the first-degree murder of his father and second-degree murder of his mother, and he began serving his sentence at the age of 19.*fn3 (Id. ¶ 114--121.) Plaintiff appealed his conviction, which was denied by the New York Court of Appeals on December 22, 1994. (Id. ¶ 12.) In 1997, Plaintiff filed a habeas corpus petition in this Court. (Id.) The Petition was denied, and the decision was affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998. (Id.)

On October 3, 2003, Plaintiff filed a motion in County Court under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 440, seeking vacatur of his conviction on the grounds of newly discovered evidence and actual innocence. (Id. ¶ 124.) At that hearing, evidence was presented from a number of witnesses indicating, inter alia, the involvement of Steuerman and his associates in the murder of Arlene and Seymour Tankleff. (Id. ¶ 125--130.) However, the County Court denied Plaintiff's motion on March 17, 2006. (Id. ¶ 131.) But on December 18, 2007, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, Second Department, unanimously reversed the lower court's decision and granted Plaintiff's motion to vacate his conviction on the grounds of newly discovered evidence. (Id. ¶ 132.) Importantly, however, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court's denial of Plaintiff's motion to vacate his conviction based on his actual innocence, holding that he "did not establish entitlement to this relief." New York v. Tankleff, 49 A.D.3d 160, 182 (App. Div. 2007).

On December 27, 2007, Plaintiff was released from prison. (Id. ¶ 133.) Subsequently, County District Attorney Spota requested that the Governor's office appoint a special prosecutor from the Attorney General's Office to investigate the murders of Arlene and Seymour Tankleff. (Id. ¶ 134.) Following that investigation, the Attorney General's Office moved to dismiss the charges against plaintiff "in the interest of justice" pursuant to CPL § 210.40. (Id. ¶ 136.) On July 22, 2008, the New York Supreme Court, Suffolk County, granted that motion and dismissed all charges against Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 137.)

DISCUSSION I. Standard of Review Under Rule 12(c)

The standard for evaluating a motion for judgment on the pleadings, pursuant to Rule 12(c), is the same standard applied under a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). See Karedes v. Ackerley Group, Inc., 423 F.3d 107, 113 (2d Cir. 2005).

Accordingly, to withstand a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(c), a complaint must plead facts sufficient "to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007) (applying a plausibility standard for a motion under Rule 12(b)(6)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009). "The Plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. Thus, "where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief." Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted).

Examining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 1950. "But where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct," a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Id. In short, a plaintiff's factual allegations must show that the claim is "plausible," and not merely "conceivable." Id. at 1951.

Under Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a claimant is only required to give "a short and plain statement of the claim that will give the defendant fair notice of what the [Plaintiff's] claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S. Ct. 99, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80 (1957)). Thus, for purposes of this motion, the Court need only "assess the feasibility of the complaint, not [] assay the weight of the evidence which might be offered in support thereof." Geisler v. Petrocelli, 616 F.2d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 1980).

II. Collateral Estoppel

A. Standard

Defendants argue that Plaintiff's various claims of constitutional deprivations--specifically, that his confession was involuntary and secured without regard for his Miranda rights--are barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel (or issue preclusion) because these issues have been decided and litigated in other forums. On the other hand, Plaintiff argues that collateral estoppel is inapplicable because his conviction has been vacated.

When applying the doctrine of issue preclusion, a district court must look to the laws of the state in which the action is being litigated. See Green v. Montgomery, 219 F.3d 52, 55 (2d Cir. 2000). Under New York law, a plaintiff seeking to invoke the doctrine of issue preclusion must show (1) "that the identical issue was necessarily decided in the prior action and is decisive in the present action", and (2) that "the party to be precluded from relitigating an issue . . . had a full and fair opportunity to contest the prior determination." Darata v. N.Y. Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 564 N.E.2d 634, 76 N.Y.2d 659, 664, 563 N.Y.S.2d 24 (1990) (citing Kaufman v. Lilly & Co., 482 N.E.2d 63, 65 N.Y.2d 449, 455--56, 492 N.Y.S.2d 584 (1985)); see also Green, 219 F.3d at 55. When a court makes a "final judgment, and the determination is essential to the judgment, the determination is conclusive." Kogut v. County of Nassau, No. 06-CV-6695, 2009 WL 5033937, at *9 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 11, 2009) (quoting Restatement (second) of Judgments § 27 (1980)).

In Owens v. Treder, a plaintiff brought a § 1983 action alleging that his prior confession was false and had been coerced through police brutality. 873 F.2d 604, 605 (2d Cir. 1989)). Defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that the issue of the voluntariness of plaintiff's confession was precluded, since it had been litigated at plaintiff's prior criminal trial and affirmed on appeal. Id. at 606. The District Court held that since the Appellate Division, Second Department, in affirming plaintiff's conviction, failed to make a special finding on the issue of the voluntariness of the confession, the issue was not precluded. Id. at 612. However, the court emphasized that "[h]ad [the Appellate Division] specifically addressed the suppression issue, we would have no problem in determining that collateral estoppel would apply." Id. at 610-11 (emphasis added). However, this standard must be read in conjunction with the other rulings holding that "[a] vacated judgment, by definition, cannot have any preclusive effect in subsequent litigation." Kogut, 2009 WL 5033937 at *10. (quoting Boston Firefighters Union v. Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n, 468 U.S. 1206, 1211, 104 S. Ct. 3576, 82 L. Ed. 2d 874 (1984)).

The plaintiffs in Kogut brought similar § 1983 claims to those alleged here action against Nassau County and Nassau County Police Officers. There, one of the plaintiffs, John Kogut, during a lengthy interrogation without his counsel, confessed to the murder and rape of a fourteen-year-old girl and therein implicated the other two plaintiffs. Years later, after being released from prison because of newly discovered DNA evidence, all three plaintiffs sought to reargue that Kogut's confession was coerced in violation of his constitutional rights. 2009 WL 5033937, at *9. Defendants, however, maintained that relitigation of this issue should be barred by collateral estoppel.

In allowing the plaintiffs' ยง 1983 claims to continue past the motion to dismiss stage, this Court held that collateral estoppel did not prevent the plaintiffs from relitigating the voluntariness of Kogut's confession; the issue had been previously decided in the prior action, but because plaintiffs' convictions had been vacated, the ...

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