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Rubeor v. Town of Wright

United States District Court, N.D. New York

February 18, 2014

STEVEN RUBEOR, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF WRIGHT; TOWN BOARD OF THE TOWN OF WRIGHT; AMBER BLEAU, individually and as Town Board member; ALEX LUNIESKI, individually and as Town Board member; ED THORNTON, individually and as Town Board member; SUSAN CROSBY, individually and as Town of Wright Assessor, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

LAWRENCE E. KAHN, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court is Defendants Town of Wright; Town Board of the Town of Wright; Amber Bleau; Alex Lunieski; Ed Thornton; and Susan Crosby's (collectively, "Defendants") Motion for judgment on the pleadings, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), and attached Memorandum of law. Dkt. Nos. 7 ("Motion"); 7-1 ("Memorandum").[1] The Court abstains from exercising jurisdiction. The overriding issues in this litigation are ones of state law-whether, under New York Public Officials Law § 36, Plaintiff remained a public officer after the dissolution of an inter-municipality agreement, and whether New York law vested Plaintiff with a property right in his assessor position that survives that abstention.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts[2]

The Town Board of the Town of Wright ("Town Board") appointed Plaintiff to the position of Assessor following the death of the previous assessor. Compl. ¶ 44, 45. The Town Board minutes from September 2, 2008 indicate that the Town Board hired Plaintiff as "ASSESSOR TO THE TOWN OF WRIGHT." Compl. Ex. B (emphasis added). However, Plaintiff's Oath of office states that Plaintiff would "faithfully discharge the duties of Town of Esperance, Wright, and Schoharie Assessor for CAP1, "[3] an inter-municipality-assessor-sharing agreement among neighboring towns ("CAP Agreement"). See Compl. ¶ 48-49; Ex. C. On December 10, 2010, the Town Board voted to withdraw from the CAP and appoint a new assessor to replace Plaintiff. See id. ¶¶ 48, 50. The Town Board appointed a new assessor shortly thereafter. Id. at 52.

B. Procedural Posture

Plaintiff filed a complaint pursuant to New York Civil Procedure Law Rule § 7801 ("Article 78") in New York Supreme Court, seeking an annulment of his removal as assessor for the Town of Wright on the basis of Defendants' failure to comply with state law and the United States Constitution. See Dkt. No. 1-1 ("Complaint"). The Complaint further asserted claims for back pay and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, citing deprivation of Plaintiff's property rights without due process of law. Id . Defendants removed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Dkt. No. 1. Defendants then filed their Motion and Memorandum. Plaintiff responded, and Defendants replied. See Dkt. Nos. 12 ("Response"); Reply. The Reply requested that the Court consider Defendants' Motion as a motion for summary judgment to determine Plaintiff's property rights as assessor in order to reach Defendants' attached Declaration and five Exhibits. See Reply at 2; Dkt Nos. 17; XX-X-XX-X.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Property Rights in a 14th Amendment Due Process Claim

The Fourteenth Amendment provides, in relevant part, that "[n]o state shall... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const. Amend. XIV, § 1. "To plead a violation of procedural due process, a plaintiff must plausibly allege that he was deprived of property without constitutionally adequate pre- or post-deprivation process." J.S. v. T'Kach , 714 F.3d 99, 105 (2d Cir. 2013) citing Ahlers v. Rabinowitz , 684 F.3d 53, 62 (2d Cir. 2012)). "[A] plaintiff must first identify a property right, second show that the [government] has deprived him of that right, and third show that the deprivation was effected without due process.'" Id . (quoting Local 342 v. Town Bd. of Huntington , 31 F.3d 1191, 1194 (2d Cir. 1994)) (second alteration in original).

A plaintiff's property interest in the employment context, or her right to continued employment, is granted by state law. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill , 470 U.S. 532, 538 (1985). Once an interest has been established, federal constitutional law determines whether that interest is a property right carrying a "legitimate claim of entitlement" to merit due process prior to deprivation. Bd. of Regents v. Roth , 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972). A "legitimate claim" is more than a "unilateral expectation"; it is a claim to something on which "people rely in their daily lives, reliance that must not be arbitrarily undermined." Id . A showing that an employee cannot be removed except for cause is sufficient to show entitlement to due process. Loudermill , 470 U.S. at 538-39. However, if an officer's removal is discretionary or incident to other functions, the plaintiff does not have a property right. See Schwartz v. Mayor's Comm. on Judiciary of City of N.Y. , 816 F.2d 54, 56 (holding that a judge subject to discretionary reappointment need be afforded no process).

B. Pullman Abstention

Federal courts may abstain from the exercise of jurisdiction when faced with a constitutional challenge to state law or state action. R.R. Comm'n v. Pullman Co. , 312 U.S. 496, 498-501 (1941). In cases where a federal court is presented with both state and federal constitutional grounds for relief, the court may "abstain from decision when difficult and unsettled questions of state law must be resolved before a substantial federal constitutional question can be decided." Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff , 467 U.S. 229, 236 (1984). Three elements are required for abstention: (1) state law is undecided and unclear; (2) resolution of the federal constitutional issue depends on interpretation of state law; and (3) the law may be interpreted by a state court in a manner that avoids or modifies the constitutional issue. Vt. Right to Life Comm'n, Inc. v. Sorrell , 221 F.3d 376, 385 (2d Cir. 2000). The Second Circuit has held that courts have "a sua sponte ...


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