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Baynes v. Ruderfer

United States District Court, S.D. New York

February 14, 2017

DAVID RUDERFER, Individually, Defendant.


          GABRIEL W. GORENSTEIN, United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Harold Baynes (“Baynes”), the administrator of the estate of William Curlin Baynes, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against New York State Trooper David Ruderfer alleging that he used excessive force against William Baynes, resulting in his death. See Complaint, filed Apr. 15, 2015 (Docket # 1) ¶¶ 3-4, 15-18. The complaint alleges that Ruderfer stopped William Baynes's motor vehicle on October 4, 2012, at approximately 7:30 p.m., at an intersection in Newburgh, New York. Id. ¶ 12. William Baynes was inside his vehicle and unarmed at the time. Id. ¶ 14. The complaint alleges that Ruderfer entered the vehicle, assaulted William Baynes, and ultimately shot him, causing his death. Id. ¶ 13.

         The incident was the subject of grand jury investigation in Orange County, New York. See No Bill # 2013-001, dated Jan. 28, 2013 (attached as Ex. B to Declaration of Jason Leventhal, filed Oct. 27, 2016 (Docket # 40) (“Leventhal Decl.”)). On January 28, 2013, the grand jury declined to indict. Id.

         Baynes filed this action on April 15, 2015. On Mach 28, 2016, he applied for an order unsealing the Orange County grand jury minutes, which he asserted contained testimony of Ruderfer and “numerous other witnesses with knowledge of the incident.” See Letter from Jason Leventhal, dated Mar. 28, 2016 (Docket # 12). This Court ruled that Baynes should make the application first to the Orange County Court. See Minute Entry, entered Apr. 26, 2016; see generally Palmer v. Estate of Stuart, 2004 WL 2429806, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 1, 2004) (as a matter of comity, application to seal grand jury minutes in state court proceedings for use in federal court should normally be made first to the court supervising the grand jury). Baynes then made the motion to the Orange County Court, which denied the motion on September 14, 2016. See In re Application of Harold Baynes, No. 3224/2016 (N.Y. Sup. Sept. 14, 2016) (attached as Ex. A to Leventhal Decl.)

         The Orange County Court's decision stated in pertinent part:

[C]ounsel for petitioner states that the purpose of obtaining the minutes of the Grand Jury is to “have a complete and full examination of the witnesses.” The petitioner does not state that the unsealing and release of the Grand Jury minutes is the only means of obtaining the information sought. According to affirmation of the Attorney General, the reports generated by the New York State Police, including witness statements[, ] have already been provided to defendant. In addition, petitioner has also obtained the file maintained by the Orange County District Attorney's Office which also includes information related to witnesses, including their statements.
The use of the Grand Jury minutes as another method of either cross-examining witnesses or refreshing witness memory is not a sufficient reason to order the unsealing and release of the minutes. It is certainly not a basis to find that a compelling or particularized need is present. The testimony, if released, would merely augment the material already obtained. Although possession of the Grand Jury minutes may be another tool for cross-examination, such a purpose does not indicate a compelling or particularized need sufficient to dispose of the secrecy that attaches to the proceedings before the Grand Jury. Moreover, the need asserted by petitioner is non-specific and the request is a generalized request to aggregate more information that might be used in the context of the Federal action. . . . Moreover, the chilling effect upon the Grand Jury's ability to investigate matters based upon complete and accurate testimony cannot be overstated if it becomes commonplace for a witness['s] testimony to be divulged without a compelling or particularized reason. Here, petitioner has not addressed the negative effect his requested order may have and likely cannot favorably do so.
[Petitioner] has failed to adequately present facts or circumstances indicat[ing] that petitioner has a compelling or particularized need for the minutes.

Id. at 2-3.

         Baynes has now moved this Court to unseal the transcripts of testimony by Ruderfer and any other witnesses to the incident.[1] Ruderfer and the Orange County District Attorney's Office have opposed this motion. For the following reasons, the motion is denied.


         Under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 190.25(4), grand jury testimony is secret and may not be disclosed except by court order. Nonetheless, that law and the Orange County Court's denial of Baynes's application does not bind this Court. See, e.g., Vazquez v. City of New York, 2013 WL 2449181, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. June 6, 2013) (“Although the state court denied Plaintiff's request for the grand jury minutes, there is no dispute that this Court has independent authority to unseal the minutes as a matter of federal law.”) (citing Frederick v. New York City, 2012 WL 4947806, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 11, 2012)); Palmer, 2004 WL 2429806, at *2 (once the process of requesting grand jury minutes in state court has been completed with “the grand jury transcripts not having been obtained as a result thereof, the burden falls on [the federal court] to make an independent determination of whether the grand jury transcripts should be released.”) (citation omitted). While it is appropriate for federal courts to recognize state privileges where this can be accomplished “at no substantial cost to substantive and procedural policy, ” Anilao v. Spota, 918 F.Supp.2d 157, 171 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Frederick, 2012 WL 4947806, at *11), “state courts [do not have] a veto over disclosure in [a] federal civil rights case, ” Socialist Workers Party v. Grubisic, 619 F.2d 641, 644 (7th Cir. 1980). Additionally, unlike a state court supervising a grand jury, “courts where related civil cases are pending and in which grand jury testimony is sought to be discovered are ‘armed with . . . special knowledge of the status of the civil actions.'” Scheiner v. Wallace, 1995 WL 753931, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 1995) (omission in original) (quoting Douglas Oil Co. of Cal. v. Petrol Stops Nw., 441 U.S. 211, 230 (1979)).

         Under federal law, parties seeking the unsealing of grand jury minutes “must show that the material they seek is needed to avoid a possible injustice in another judicial proceeding, that the need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy, and that their request is structured to cover only material so needed.” Douglas Oil Co., 441 U.S. at 222 (citing United States v. Procter & Gamble Co., 356 U.S. 677, 682-83 (1958), and Dennis v. United States, 384 U.S. 855, 872 (1966)); accord Anilao, 918 F.Supp.2d at 173. Courts have distilled this three-factor test into a requirement that the person seeking disclosure of grand jury minutes show a “particularized need” for those minutes. See, e.g., Fox v. County of Yates, 657 F. App'x 60, 63 (2d Cir. 2016) (summary order); Mateo v. City of New York, 2016 WL 3545944, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. June 17, 2016); Vazquez, 2013 WL 2449181, ...

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