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Beck v. City of New York

United States District Court, Second Circuit

January 3, 2014

JEANINE L. BECK, Plaintiff,


RONNIE ABRAMS, District Judge.

Jeanine Beck asserts claims of false arrest, malicious abuse of process, and negligence against the City of New York, Police Officer Stephen Collier, Police Officer Christopher Diaz, Lieutenant Jeffrey Tuechler and unidentified police officers (collectively, "Defendants"). Before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is granted.

I. Background[1]

On March 31, 2012, Beck was driving north on Amsterdam Avenue in the vicinity of 94th Street in Manhattan. (Compl. ¶ 29.) At approximately 10:15 p.m., she was involved in an automobile collision with a police vehicle driven by an individual she identifies in the complaint as Police Officer Stephen Collier.[2] ( Id. ¶ 32.) According to Beck, although the vehicle was a marked police car, "the lights and sirens of said motor vehicle were not in operation" at the time of the accident. ( Id. ¶ 31.)

"Hours after the aforementioned motor vehicle accident, " Beck was issued two traffic summonses for violations of N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law. §§ 401 and 1144(a). ( Id. ¶ 42; Defs.' Ex. B.[3]) Beck alleges that the summonses were "drafted by defendant Diaz pursuant to the orders of defendant Tuechler, " although neither officer had witnessed the accident. (Compl. ¶¶ 43-44.) The summonses required Beck to appear for a hearing on June 11, 2012 at 2:30 p.m. ( Id. ¶ 46.) Both summonses were dismissed after trial. ( Id. ¶ 47.)

Beck served a notice of claim on the Comptroller of the City of New York on May 31, 2012, (id. ¶ 13) and commenced the instant action on December 19, 2012.

II. Discussion

When adjudicating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must "accept as true all statements alleged in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party." Vietnam Ass'n for Victims of Agent Orange v. Dow Chem. Co. , 517 F.3d 104, 115 (2d Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id.

A. False Arrest

A. "§ 1983 claim for false arrest derives from [a plaintiff's] Fourth Amendment right to remain free from unreasonable seizures." Jaegly v. Couch , 439 F.3d 149, 151 (2d Cir. 2006). To determine the elements of a false arrest claim, the Circuit has looked to the tort law of the state in which the false arrest allegedly occurred. See Davis v. Rodriguez , 364 F.3d 424, 433 (2d Cir. 2004). "Under New York law, a plaintiff claiming false arrest must show, inter alia, that the defendant intentionally confined him without his consent and without justification." Amore v. Navarro , 624 F.3d 522, 532 n. 13 (2d Cir. 2010).

Defendants assert that Plaintiff's claim for false arrest must be dismissed because she has not plausibly alleged that she was confined. The Court agrees.

The complaint does not allege where Plaintiff was confined, the manner in which she was confined, or for how long. Instead, it makes the following allegations with respect to the false arrest claim. After describing the collision between Plaintiff's car and the NYPD vehicle, the complaint states that "[h]ours after the aforementioned motor vehicle accident, either late in the night on March 31, 2012 or early in the morning on April 1, 2012, plaintiff was issued" the two summonses described above (Compl. ¶ 42); that the officers who drafted the summonses did not observe the accident (id. ¶¶ 43-45); that the summonses required Plaintiff to appear for a hearing (id. ¶ 46); and that the summonses were dismissed after trial (id. ¶ 47). The complaint then alleges that "Plaintiff's rights have been violated pursuant to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution made applicable to the states by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by reason of the fact that plaintiff was falsely arrested by the defendants" and that "Plaintiff was confined by defendants; defendants intended to confine plaintiff; plaintiff was conscious of her confinement; and plaintiff did not consent to the confinement which was not otherwise privileged." ( Id. ¶¶ 48-49.) The complaint does not allege any other facts bearing on Plaintiff's confinement.

It may be that the complaint is attempting to allege that the summonses requiring Plaintiff to appear for a later court hearing constitute "confinement." The Second Circuit, however, has concluded that such an allegation cannot form the basis for a false arrest claim, holding that a "pre-arraignment, non-felony summons requiring no more than a later court appearance does not constitute a Fourth Amendment seizure." Burg v. Gosselin , 591 F.3d 95, 101 (2d Cir. 2010). The Circuit has since reaffirmed Burg, and concluded that a summons requiring even multiple court appearances did not rise to the level of a seizure. See Faruki v. City of N.Y., 517 Fed.App'x 1, 1 (2d Cir. 2013); see also Dellutri v. Village of Elmsford , 895 F.Supp.2d 555, 571 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (concluding, on a motion to dismiss, that "the weight of district court authority in circumstances similar to those here - involving a plaintiff charged with non-felony offenses who was neither arraigned nor physically detained but who might have made a number of court appearances - counsels against finding a constitutional injury").

Plaintiff attempts to evade the rule set forth in Burg by asserting that "she was detained and not free to leave the scene of the collision until after the false summonses were issued." (Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Opposition at 4.) In other words, Plaintiff argues that the seizure occurred when she was allegedly detained at the scene of the accident, not when she was required to make a later court appearance.

If Plaintiff was in fact detained at the scene of the accident while officers wrote out the summonses, she may have a plausible claim that she was seized under the Fourth Amendment. See Amore , 624 F.3d at 532 n. 13 ("[A] plaintiff pleads a seizure when he alleges that a police officer held on to his identification and ordered him to stay put while the police officer wrote out a summons."). This argument fails, however, because it is inconsistent with the complaint. Nowhere does the complaint allege that Plaintiff was detained at the scene of the accident while officers wrote out the summons. To the contrary, the complaint alleges that the summonses were issued "[h]ours after" the collision, and that the summonses were drafted by a Defendant (Officer Diaz) who "was not at the scene of the aforementioned motor vehicle accident during the entire time plaintiff was present at the scene."[4] (Compl. ¶¶ 42-45.) "Parties cannot amend their pleadings through issues raised solely in their briefs, " Fadem v. Ford Motor Co. , 352 F.Supp.2d 501, 516 (S.D.N.Y. 2005), and Plaintiff's allegation that she "was confined by Defendants" (Compl. ¶ 49), without more, is simply a legal conclusion. The Court declines to accept as true this "[t]hreadbare recital[]" of one of the elements of a false arrest claim. See Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678.

Although Plaintiff has not sought leave to file an amended complaint, the Court may sua sponte grant leave. See Foundation Ventures, LLC v. F2G, Ltd., No. 08 Civ. 10066(PKL), 2010 WL 3187294, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 11, 2010); S. Ill. Laborers' & Emp'rs. Health & Welfare Fund v. Pfizer Inc., No. 08 Civ. 5175(KMW) , 2009 WL 3151807, at *1 & n.3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2009). At this stage, the Court cannot say that amendment would be futile or would cause Defendants undue prejudice. Accordingly, although the Court dismisses Plaintiff's § 1983 false arrest claim, Plaintiff shall have thirty days to file an amended complaint, if she has a proper basis for doing so.

B. Malicious Abuse of Process

Under New York law, a malicious abuse-of-process claim "lies against a defendant who (1) employs regularly issued legal process to compel performance or forbearance of some act (2) with intent to do harm without excuse o[r] justification, and (3) in order to obtain a collateral objective that is outside the legitimate ends of the process." Savino v. City of N.Y. , 331 F.3d 63, 76 (2d Cir. 2003). These elements of the common law tort also give rise to § 1983 liability for malicious abuse of process, with one key difference: "section 1983 liability may not be predicated on a claim of malicious abuse of civil process." Green v. Mattingly , 585 F.3d 97, 104 (2d Cir. 2009) (alterations omitted and emphasis in original); see also Savino , 331 F.3d at 76-77; Spear v. Town of W. Hartford , 954 F.2d 63, 68 (2d Cir. 1992).

Defendants contend that traffic infractions in New York are civil offenses; therefore, they argue, the summonses issued to Beck constitute civil process. (Defs.' Mem. of Law at 9-11.) The Court agrees.

New York Vehicle and Traffic Law makes clear that traffic infractions are civil violations.[5] The statute explicitly provides that a "traffic infraction is not a crime and the punishment imposed therefor shall not be deemed for any purpose a penal or criminal punishment and shall not affect or impair the credibility as a witness or otherwise of any person convicted thereof." N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 155.

To be sure, the legislature has authorized both fines and imprisonment as potential penalties for driving an unregistered vehicle under N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 401, which is one of the provisions the summonses cite. See id. § 401(18). Nonetheless, this Court held in Standt v. City of New York , 153 F.Supp.2d 417, 434 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), that driving without a license was not a criminal offense for purposes of a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim. "Despite the availability of imprisonment as a punishment for violation of the law against driving without a license, " the Court explained, "the traffic court proceeding is civil in nature, " and was thus "a regulatory rather than a criminal proceeding.'" Id . Other opinions have similarly recognized that traffic infractions are civil violations. See Rackley v. City of N.Y. , 186 F.Supp.2d 466, 480 n.26 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) ("It is undisputed, and of some constitutional significance, that the commission of a parking regulations infraction constitutes a civil violation...."); Yu Juan Sheng v. City of N.Y., No. CV-05-1118, 2009 WL 6871132, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. June 26, 2009) (nothing that under New York Law, "[t]raffic infractions and parking violations are not crimes by definition, because they are neither misdemeanors nor felonies"), report and recommendation adopted in full, 2010 WL 3744428, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 20, 2010).

In view of this authority and the plain text of New York's statute, the Court concludes that the motor vehicle violations with which Plaintiff was charged constitute civil offenses, and the summonses directing Plaintiff to appear for a hearing on those offenses constitute civil process. Because the Second Circuit has repeatedly held that § 1983 does not provide a cause of action for malicious abuse of civil process, see, e.g., Green , 585 F.3d at 104, the Court dismisses Plaintiff's malicious abuse of process claim. It thus need not address Defendants' additional arguments urging dismissal.

C. State Law Claims

Because the Court has dismissed the two federal claims, it declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's remaining state law claims.[6] See, e.g., Carnegie-Mellon University v. Cohill , 484 U.S. 343, 350 n.7 (1988) (noting that "in the usual case in which all federal-law claims are eliminated before trial, " the factors to be considered in exercising supplemental jurisdiction "will point toward declining to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims"). Dismissal of these claims is without prejudice: should Plaintiff file an amended complaint, the Court will reassess whether supplemental jurisdiction is appropriate.

III. Conclusion

Defendants' motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is GRANTED, and Beck's complaint is dismissed. Beck is granted leave to file an amended complaint within thirty days.

The Clerk of Court is directed to close the case, subject to reopening if Plaintiff files an amended complaint within thirty days. The Clerk of Court is also requested to terminate the motion pending at docket number 8.


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