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Zeigler v. State

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 6, 2013

JASON ZEIGLER, Individually and in his capacity as Court Appointed Attorney for Indigent Citizens in the County of Onondaga together with all of those similarly situated and JEFF WITKOWSKI, Individually as well as the representative of all of those similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
THE STATE OF NEW YORK; THE OFFICE OF COURT ADMINISTRATION OF THE UNIFIED COURT SYSTEM; HON. JAMES TORMEY, Individually and in his official capacity as District Administrative Judge of the Fifth Judicial District; and ONONDAGA COUNTY, Defendants.

OFFICE OF JEFFREY R. PARRY, JEFFREY R. PARRY, ESQ., Attorney for Plaintiffs, Liverpool, NY.

C. HARRIS DAGUE, ESQ., Ass't Attorney General, HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General for the State of New York, Attorney for Defendants State of New York, Office of Court Administration of the Unified Court System, and Hon. James Tormey, Albany, NY.

ONONDAGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF LAW CAROL L. RHINEHART ESQ., Attorney for Defendant Onondaga County, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse, NY.

NEW YORK CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, COREY L. STOUGHTON, ESQ., Attorney for Amici Curiae Hurrell-Harring Class, New York, NY.


DAVID N. HURD, District Judge.


Plaintiffs, a putative class of appointed attorneys for indigent criminal defendants in Onondaga County, New York, represented by plaintiff Jason Zeigler ("Zeigler") (the "attorney class"), and a putative class of indigent criminal defendants in local courts within Onondaga County, New York, represented by Jeff Witkowski ("Witkowski") (the "criminal defendant class") bring this action for money damages and declaratory relief against defendants the State of New York (the "State"); the Office of Court Administration of the Unified Court System ("OCA"); Hon. James Tormey ("Judge Tormey"), individually and in his official capacity as District Administrative Judge of the Fifth Judicial District (collectively the "State defendants"); and Onondaga County (the "County") (the State defendants and the County collectively "defendants") asserting claims under the United States Constitution pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and state law.

The State defendants and the County separately moved for judgment on the pleadings dismissing the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) ("Rule __"). Plaintiffs opposed and the State defendants replied. Finally, the "Hurrell-Harring Class, " as Amici Curiae, submitted a brief in opposition to the County's motion. Oral argument was heard on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 in Utica, New York. Decision was reserved.[1]


The facts upon which this action is based are summarized briefly below. Facts set forth in the amended complaint will be taken as true for the purpose of these motions.

New York County Law Article 18-B was enacted following the United States Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright , 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792 (1963) (holding that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments require that states provide counsel to indigent criminal defendants charged with a felony offense) and the New York Court of Appeals' decision in People v. Witenski , 15 N.Y.2d 392 (1965) (finding that court must inform defendants of right to assignment of counsel). Article 18-B was enacted to put into operation a plan that would provide both representation to indigent persons charged with a crime and a means to compensate the attorneys assigned to represent those individuals.

Article 18-B requires each county or municipality to have "a plan for providing counsel to persons charged with a crime [for which a sentence of imprisonment is authorized]... who are financially unable to obtain counsel." N.Y. County Law § 722. Section 722 provides four options for such a plan: (1) an office of a public defender; (2) a private legal aid society or bureau organized and operating for the provision of indigent defense counsel; (3) a plan of a bar association utilizing private attorneys on rotating panels; or (4) a plan using a combination of any of these options. Id . § 722(1)-(4).

The County has contracted with the Onondaga County Bar Association Assigned Counsel Program, Inc. ("ACP") to administer the bar association plan option. Ziegler Aff., June 8, 2012, Ex. B Part 1 (the "contract"). The bar association plan is set out in ACP's "Handbook of Policies, Rules and Procedures" (the "Plan"), which calls for panels of attorneys who have agreed to its terms. Ziegler Aff., June 8, 2012, Ex. B Parts 2-3. Various courts throughout the County are charged with appointing attorneys from these panels to represent indigent criminal defendants who qualify for free legal services. The panel attorneys then submit vouchers for their services to ACP, which reviews the vouchers and forwards them to the appropriate trial court judge for approval.

State law sets compensation rates for attorneys practicing pursuant to Article 18-B plans and compensation of attorneys assigned pursuant to the Plan is fixed by the trial court judge in accordance with rates established by the New York Legislature. N.Y. County Law § 722-b. While courts maintain the inherent power to assign any particular counsel to an indigent criminal defendant, only those attorneys appointed pursuant to the Plan are compensated by the County. In other words, a court may not order that an attorney not assigned pursuant to the Plan be compensated.

Zeigler and those similarly situated are attorneys licensed to practice in New York who serve pursuant to the Plan to provide legal representation to indigent criminal defendants in the County.[2] Ziegler contends he is a party to a contract with the County, pursuant to which all participating ACP attorneys must agree to in order to serve on the panel. Witkowski and those similarly situated are or were indigent criminal defendants who have been assigned legal representation in the County pursuant to the Plan.[3] Plaintiffs assert that defendants created, oversee, and control the Plan.

Plaintiffs argue the Plan suffers from systemic deficiencies like inadequate compensation, lack of resources, lack of representation, and overly stringent eligibility policies. Because of these deficiencies, plaintiffs allege indigent criminal defendants confront critical stages of criminal proceedings including arraignment, without counsel, or with counsel who fail to meaningfully represent them. Plaintiffs specifically attack several aspects of the Plan.

First, they allege they are deprived of the right to counsel by defendants' implementation of the Plan via two distinct arraignment methods, each of which is unconstitutional. The first method is employed in city courts in Syracuse, New York. Plaintiffs allege Judge Tormey instituted a process by which "arraigning attorneys" are assigned to a criminal defendant only for the purpose of arraignment; the attorney withdraws from the client immediately after the arraignment is completed. According to Witkowski, this is unconstitutional and deprives the criminal defendant class of their right to counsel because the "arraigning attorney" does not have time to learn about the case, meet the client, or engage in meaningful motion practice, thus the representation is inadequate and falls below accepted standards contemplated by the Sixth Amendment. Plaintiffs also take issue with the post-arraignment process in city courts. Following the withdrawal of the "arraigning attorney, " a panel attorney is provisionally assigned but his/her work may not commence until the defendant is deemed to qualify for legal services by the County, a process plaintiffs claim takes too long, is too stringent, and should be performed by a court. According to plaintiffs, during the qualification process, the defendant is without representation in violation of the Sixth Amendment.

The second allegedly unconstitutional arraignment method occurs in county courts. There, defendants are arraigned with no counsel at all (the prosecutor is not present either). As a result, defendants do not receive counsel prior to the grand jury indictment process, in violation of their Fifth Amendment rights.

Plaintiffs next describe a "core attorney" system within the city courts in which groups of lawyers are devoted exclusively to one judge for purposes of assignments. Plaintiffs argue this system is illegal because the law requires rotation among attorneys. Further, plaintiffs contend the system is unconstitutional because it favors attorneys who expedite cases, and disfavors those who zealously represent their clients, like Zeigler. The pressure to minimize adequate representation, in conjunction with pressure to adjourn court appearances, results in additional Sixth Amendment violations.

Finally, plaintiffs take issue with the compensation of Plan attorneys. In addition to extremely low pay rates, plaintiffs contend that the review and payment of attorney submitted vouchers actually deters attorneys from providing necessary representation because the County is slow to process vouchers and does not pay for certain legal services, in violation of the law.


In summary, plaintiffs claim that the Plan violates the constitutional rights of participating attorneys and indigent criminal defendants and that defendants breached certain contractual obligations concerning the Plan. They specifically allege the following causes of action in the amended complaint: (1) deprivation of rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to § 1983, relating to the arraignment processes and the other ways in which the Plan denies the right to counsel;[4] (2) deprivation of rights under the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to § 1983, alleging defendants retaliated against plaintiffs for exercising their Sixth Amendment rights; specifically that attorneys who protest the Plan, both verbally and also through their proper representation of defendants, are given unfavorable assignments and review of their vouchers is intentionally slow; (3) deprivation of rights under the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to § 1983, alleging that defendants' actions in delaying and reducing the Ziegler plaintiffs' vouchers constitute an illegal taking without due process and deprive the Witkowski plaintiffs access to the courts[5]; and (4) breach of contract relating to the assignment and compensation of attorneys under the Plan.

The State defendants argue they are entitled to judgment on the pleadings because: (1) the attorney class does not have standing to assert constitutional claims; (2) the State, OCA, and Judge Tormey in his official capacity are entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment; (3) Judge Tormey enjoys absolute judicial immunity from suit; (4) the Younger doctrine requires abstention on the criminal defendant class's claims; and (5) the attorney class's claims are barred by res judicata.

The County argues it is entitled to judgment on the pleadings because: (1) plaintiffs fail to state claims of equal protection violations, retaliation, and due process violations; (2) plaintiffs fail to sufficiently allege a Monell claim based on a County policy; (3) plaintiffs fail to name a necessary party with respect to the breach of contract claim; (4) the attorney class's claims are barred by res judicata; and (5) the attorney class does not have standing to assert constitutional claims.

It should be noted that the bulk of plaintiffs' allegations are leveled against all defendants collectively, making it difficult to discern how plaintiffs allege each individual defendant violated specific constitutional or contractual rights. Likewise, the amended complaint does not distinguish whether each claim is asserted on behalf of the attorney class, the criminal defendant class, or both. It is clear that the fourth cause of action is brought solely by the attorney class. For purposes of these motions, it will be assumed that the first, second, and third causes of action are asserted on behalf of both classes of plaintiffs.

A. Judgment on the Pleadings-Legal Standard

The standard for granting a Rule 12(c) judgment on the pleadings is identical to that of a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Cleveland v. Caplaw Enters. , 448 F.3d 518, 521 (2d Cir. 2006). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). Although a complaint need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)), more than mere conclusions are required. Indeed, "[w]hile legal conclusions can provide the complaint's framework, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 664, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1940 (2009).

When considering a motion to dismiss, the complaint is to be construed liberally, and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the plaintiffs' favor. Zinermon v. Burch , 494 U.S. 113, 118, 110 S.Ct. 975, 979 (1990); In re NYSE Specialists Secs. Litig. , 503 F.3d 89, 91 (2d Cir. 2007). Dismissal is appropriate only where plaintiff has failed to provide some basis for the allegations that support the elements of his claims. See Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. at 1974 (requiring only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face). The issue on a motion to dismiss is "not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims." Todd v. Exxon Corp. , 275 F.3d 191, 198 (2d Cir. 2001) (internal quotations omitted).

B. State Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

1. Sovereign Immunity: All claims against State defendants

The State defendants argue that the State, OCA, and Judge Tormey in his official capacity are entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment on all claims.

It is well-established that the Eleventh Amendment bars actions against states and state agencies. Gollomp v. Spitzer , 568 F.3d 355, 365-66 (2d Cir. 2009). Eleventh Amendment immunity precludes a plaintiff from seeking any relief against states and state agencies-including monetary and injunctive relief. Cory v. White , 457 U.S. 85, 90-91, 102 S.Ct. 2325, 2329 (1982). This immunity "extends beyond the states themselves to state agents and state instrumentalities that are, effectively, arms of a state." Gollomp , 568 F.3d at 366 (internal quotations omitted). Specifically, the New York State Unified Court System has been deemed an arm of New York. Id. at 368. It follows that the Office of Court Administration of the Unified Court System is an arm of New York. Trivedi v. N.Y.S. Unified Court Sys. Office of Court Admin. , 818 F.Supp.2d 712, 727 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) ("The OCA is a government entity that, pursuant to sovereign immunity, is not amenable to suit.").

The Eleventh Amendment also bars claims for money damages against state officials acting in their official capacities. Kentucky v. Graham , 473 U.S. 159, 167-68, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 3106 (1985). However, suits against state officials in their official capacities for prospective injunctive relief to stop ongoing violations of federal law are permitted. Ex parte Young , 209 U.S. 123, 159-60, 28 S.Ct. 441, 453-54 (1908). "In determining whether the doctrine of Ex parte Young avoids an Eleventh Amendment bar to suit, a court need only conduct a straightforward inquiry into whether the complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective." Verizon Md., Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of Md. , 535 U.S. 635, 645, 122 S.Ct. 1753, 1760 (2002) (internal quotations omitted).

Eleventh Amendment immunity is lost only if Congress unequivocally abrogates states' immunity or a state expressly consents to suit. Gollomp , 568 F.3d at 365-66. It is well-settled that Congress did not abrogate states' immunity through § 1983. Quern v. Jordan , 440 U.S. 332, 343-45, 99 S.Ct. 1139, 1146-47 (1979); Dube v. State Univ. of N.Y. , 900 F.2d 587, 594 (2d Cir. 1990).

Accordingly, the State and OCA are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, and all claims against them will be dismissed. All claims against Judge Tormey in his official capacity for money damages will also be dismissed as they are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. However, claims against Judge Tormey in his official capacity for prospective injunctive relief may proceed, subject to the judicial immunity analysis below, because plaintiffs allege facts suggesting he has a connection with the enforcement of the acts allegedly in continued violation of federal law, and thus the exception created by Ex parte Young applies.

2. Judicial Immunity: All claims against Judge Tormey

Judge Tormey argues he is entitled to judicial immunity from suit and all claims against him must be dismissed. Following the sovereign immunity analysis above, the only remaining claims against Judge Tormey are those for money damages in his individual capacity, and claims for prospective injunctive relief in both his individual and official capacities.

It is well-established that judges enjoy "absolute immunity from suits for money damages for their judicial actions." Bliven v. Hunt , 579 F.3d 204, 209 (2d Cir. 2009). Moreover, § 1983 provides that "in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, [prospective] injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable." 42 U.S.C. § 1983; see also Jacobs v. Mostow , 271 F.Appx. 85, 88 (2d Cir. Mar. 27, 2008) (summary order) (citing Montero v. Travis , 171 F.3d 757, 761 (2d Cir. 1999) (per curiam)). Plaintiffs do not allege this is the case. Indeed, plaintiffs seek a declaration that "defendants' conduct complained of herein [is] a violation of plaintiff's rights as secured by the First, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983." Am. Compl., ¶ 151. Since a declaratory decree was not violated and declaratory relief is available, plaintiffs' attempt to seek prospective injunctive relief from Judge Tormey in any capacity is prohibited.

Allegations of "bad faith or malice" cannot overcome judicial immunity. Bliven , 579 F.3d at 209. Indeed, "the scope of the judge's jurisdiction must be construed broadly where the issue is the immunity of the judge, " and "[a] judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority." Stump v. Sparkman , 435 U.S. 349, 356, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 1105 (1978). There are only two ways to overcome judicial immunity. "First, a judge is not immune from liability for nonjudicial actions, i.e., actions not taken in the judge's judicial capacity. Second, a judge is not immune for actions, though judicial in nature, taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction." Mireles v. Waco , 502 U.S. 9, 11-12, 112 S.Ct. 286, 288 (1991) (internal citations omitted).

When determining whether an action is judicial, courts are instructed "to take a functional approach" and consider whether the action is one expected to normally be performed by a judge. Bliven , 579 F.3d at 209. Generally, "acts arising out of, or related to, individual cases before the judge are considered judicial in nature." Id. at 210. Even "informal and ex parte" proceedings that are "otherwise within a judge's lawful jurisdiction" are considered judicial. Forrester v. White , 484 U.S. 219, 227, 108 S.Ct. 538, 544 (1988). Administrative actions such as terminating a court employee, compiling general jury lists, and promulgating an attorney code of conduct do not fall within the range of judicial actions protected by judicial immunity. Bliven , 579 F.3d at 210. However, administrative functions such as "[t]he assignment of cases and issuance of consolidation orders are judicial functions normally performed by, and ...

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