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Marcia Cohen v. State of New York - New York Attorney General

August 11, 2011



Presently before the Court are a Motion to dismiss ("Mot. to Dismiss") (Dkt. No. 29) filed on November 8, 2010, by New York State's Attorney General ("AG"), Department of Taxation and Finance ("the DOT"), and Commission on Judicial Conduct ("the CJC") ("State Defendants"), and Columbia County ("County Defendant")'s Cross-motion to dismiss, filed on December 3, 2010. Cross-mot. to Dismiss (Dkt. No. 34). Plaintiff Marcia Cohen ("Plaintiff") has filed an Opposition to both Motions to dismiss. Memorandum in opposition to Motions to dismiss ("Opp'n Mem.") (Dkt. No. 36) at 9-11.

Plaintiff commenced this action pro se on January 4, 2010, and later filed an Amended Complaint on July 22, 2010. Complaint ("Compl.") (Dkt. No. 1); Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl.") (Dkt. No. 21-1). Plaintiff's Complaint was originally filed in federal court in Massachusetts, but was transferred to the Northern District of New York on October 28, 2010, pursuant to a Motion to transfer or dismiss filed by Defendants. Compl.; Motion to transfer or dismiss ("Mot. to Transfer") (Dkt. No. 17); Memorandum and Order regarding Motion to transfer or dismiss ("Transfer Order") (Dkt. No. 26-2). Plaintiff's claims against Defendants stem from events that allegedly occurred during and as a result of her divorce proceedings. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5-35. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is apparently filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§ 1983"), as she contends that Defendants acted in violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Id. at 1; U.S. CONST. art. IV, § 2, cl. 1; U.S. CONST. amend XIV, § 1. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion and Cross-motion to dismiss are granted.


In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff details her allegations against the various State and County Defendants. Although he is not named as a defendant, the majority of Plaintiff's claims are against Columbia County Supreme Court Justice George Cobb. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11-28. She contends that in addition to wrongfully denying her a divorce, Justice Cobb improperly denied her access to funds from the family business, unfairly allowed her husband's business partner to untimely amend a submission to the court while denying Plaintiff the ability to similarly file late, and improperly allowed funds from a relevant foreclosure to be distributed without notice during her divorce proceedings. Id. ¶¶ 11-23. She also claims that the "underlying political justice system," as well as Justice Cobb's decisions, resulted in a state of confusion that caused a state tax bill to go unpaid. Id. ¶¶ 24-28.

Plaintiff's remaining allegations concern the DOT and CJC. She claims that the DOT never contacted her or otherwise made her aware of an outstanding tax bill on a foreclosed property, originally for $2800.10, that has since ballooned to over $20,000 with interest and penalties. Id. ¶ 29. According to Plaintiff, the DOT should have placed a lien on the property to pay the bill from the proceeds of the foreclosure sale. Id. ¶¶ 28, 33. Plaintiff also takes issue with the CJC, to whom she complained about Justice Cobb's actions, for finding his decisions acceptable. Id. ¶¶ 31-32. Plaintiff claims that the actions of Justice Cobb, the DOT, and the CJC are all evidence of New York's unconstitutional discrimination against her because she is a Massachusetts resident. Id. ¶ 35.


Under FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a)(2), pleadings "must contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Detailed factual allegations are not required, but the complaint must provide the defendant with fair notice of the claim and its basis. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957). Failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is grounds for dismissal. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6).

To prevent dismissal, a complaint must contain "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). This plausibility standard does not require that the alleged events probably happened, but it "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). When ruling on a motion to dismiss, courts must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), and draw all inferences in favor of the non-movant. In re NYSE Specialists Sec. Litig., 503 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 2007). Mere legal conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth, so only factual allegations will be assessed when determining the plausibility of a claim. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. A court's determination is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. (citation omitted).

In addition, the Second Circuit requires courts to be more cautious when dismissing pro se complaints. Easton v. Sundram, 947 F.2d 1011, 1015 (2d Cir. 1991). This does not mean that a party's pro se status exempts her from "compliance with relevant rules of procedural and substantive law." Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 477 (2d Cir. 2006). However, the Court must liberally construe pro se submissions, McPherson v. Coombe, 174 F.3d 276, 280 (2d Cir. 1999), and interpret them "to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994).


State Defendants argued that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint warrants dismissal on the grounds that they are protected by sovereign immunity. Mot. to Dismiss at 3-6. County Defendant contends that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint fails to state a cause of action against it because Plaintiff alleges no misconduct that can be attributed to the County. Cross-mot. to Dismiss; see also Answer (Dkt. No. 9) at 1. The Court addresses each of these arguments in turn.

A. State Defendants: Sovereign Immunity and Rooker-Feldman

The Eleventh Amendment provides that federal judicial power does not extend to "any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state." U.S. CONST. amend. XI. The basic principle of the Eleventh Amendment is that each state retains a degree of sovereignty protecting it from suit in federal court by citizens outside the state. See Fed. Mar. Comm'n v. S.C. State Ports Auth., 535 U.S. 743, 751-52 (2002); Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10-11 (1890). When the defendant is protected by sovereign immunity, the case must be dismissed. See Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 76 (1996); Ford Motor Co. v. Dep't of Treasury of State of Ind., 323 U.S. 459, 470 (1945).

The doctrine of sovereign immunity operates as a bar to suits where the state is the real party of interest, even if it is not named as a party. See Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663 (1974). For example, sovereign immunity extends to state officials acting in their official capacity. See Ford Motor Co., 323 U.S. at 462; Great N. Life Ins. Co. v. Read, 322 U.S. 47, 50 (1944). State agencies are also often entitled to sovereign immunity. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984); Fla. Dep't of Health and Rehabilitative Servs. v. Fla. Nursing Home Ass'n, 450 U.S. 147, 150 (1981). In assessing whether a state agency is immune from suit, the Supreme Court has held that "when the action is in essence one for the recovery of money from the state, the state is the real, substantial party in interest and is entitled to invoke its sovereign immunity from suit." Ford Motor, 323 U.S. at 464. Even where state money is not at stake, the potential legal liability of the state is cause to extend sovereign immunity to agencies that are arms of the state. See Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 431 (1997). In determining whether an agency is an arm of the state and therefore immune from suit, the Second Circuit has considered a number of factors, including: whether the agency is an independent political subdivision, whether its governing members are appointed by the state, whether its funding is provided by the ...

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