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Ranta v. City of New York

United States District Court, E.D. New York

June 26, 2018

PATRICIA RANTA, NICHOLAS RANTA, and PRISCILLA RANTA, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT, and LOUIS SCARCELLA, and STEPHEN CHMIL, individually and as Members of the New York City Police Department, and JOHN AND JANE DOE POLICE OFFICERS #1-15, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          FREDERIC BLOCK SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         David Ranta spent twenty-three years in prison for a murder he did not commit. See Frances Robles, Man Framed by Detective Will Get $6.4 Million From New York City After Serving 23 Years for Murder, N.Y. Times, Feb. 20, 2014, at ¶ 19. He settled with the City of New York before filing suit. See id.

         His ex-wife and children, meanwhile, filed this lawsuit against the City and two detectives with the New York City Police Department, Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil. Invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they claimed that the detectives deprived them of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to (1) familial association and (2) access to courts, and that the City is liable for those deprivations under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). All defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         In a prior memorandum and order, Judge Townes granted the motion with respect to the familial association claim, holding that uncertainty in the law governing the claim entitled the detectives to qualified immunity. See Ranta v. City of New York, 2015 WL 5821658, at *7 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2015). With respect to access to courts, she converted the motion to a motion for summary judgment and gave the parties leave to submit additional factual material. See Id. at *9. Finally, she dismissed the New York City Police Department as a non-suable entity, see id., and deferred consideration of the Monell claim, see Id. at *10.

         The case was reassigned to me following Judge Townes' death. For the following reasons, the motion for summary judgment is granted and the plaintiffs' access-to-courts claim is dismissed. However, the complaint is deemed amended to directly allege the state-law causes of action underlying the access-to-courts claim.

         I

         As Judge Townes explained, the plaintiffs claim that Scarcella and Chmil covered up their efforts to frame David, which “[p]revented them from timely asserting state-law claims including, but not limited to, loss of consortium and marital benefits (Patricia); loss of consortium (Nicholas and Priscilla); and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional and mental pain, suffering, and distress (Patricia, Nicholas, Priscilla).” Ranta, 2015 WL 5821658, at *7. Thus, they assert what the Supreme Court has called “backward-looking access claims, ” Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 414 n.11 (2002), in which “[t]he official acts claimed to have denied access may allegedly have caused the loss or inadequate settlement of a meritorious case, ” Id. In Harbury, the Supreme Court “assume[d], without deciding, the correctness of the [circuit-court] decisions” recognizing backward-looking claims, Id. at 414, n.9. Ten years later, the Second Circuit stated that “[t]he viability of backing-looking right-of-access claims is far from clear in this Circuit.” Sousa v. Marquez, 702 F.3d 124, 128 (2d Cir. 2012).

         Assuming such a claim exists, the plaintiff must establish both “the underlying cause of action and its lost remedy.” 536 U.S. at 415. If the underlying cause of action is still viable, then there can be no access-to-courts claim: “There is, after all, no point in spending time and money to establish the facts constituting denial of access when a plaintiff would end up just as well off after litigating a simpler case without the denial-of-access element.” Id.

         II

         The defendants' principal argument is that “when one spouse settles a claim against a defendant, and signs a release, the other spouse is precluded from bringing a separate action for loss of consortium.” Defs.' Supp. Mem. of Law 3. As an initial matter, that argument would have no bearing on claims for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress; nor is it clear that the same rule applies to loss of consortium claims by children. In any event, even with respect to loss of spousal consortium claims, the rule is not that simple. In Buckley v. National Freight, Inc., 90 N.Y.2d 210 (1997), the New York Court of Appeals held that “a loss of consortium claim must be joined with a claim for illness or bodily harm whenever possible.” Id. at 216 (emphasis added). It then approvingly quoted the Restatement position:

[I]t is possible to join the actions . . . in all situations in which the deprived spouse has had full opportunity to join in the impaired spouse's action and assert a claim and has failed to do so. Thus if the impaired spouse has begun an action for bodily harm, and then settled it and given a release, and the deprived spouse has stood by throughout with full knowledge of the conduct, it has been possible to join in the action at any time before it has become barred by the release, and the deprived spouse cannot now be permitted to maintain a separate action.

Id. at 216-17.

         In Buckley, the injured party had filed suit and then signed a release. Her husband had “stood by throughout with full knowledge, ” and offered “no special circumstances such as illness or disablement which would have explained his failure to prosecute his claim before his wife's action was settled.” Id. at 217 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). Thus, the Court of Appeals held that “when plaintiff's wife released her claim, the release barred plaintiff's claim for loss of consortium.” Id. at 217.

         Here, by contrast, there is no evidence that Patricia, Nicholas and Priscilla had a “full opportunity” to join David's action for the simple reason that David settled before filing suit. Moreover, that David and Patricia are divorced suggests an obvious reason why she might not have been aware of or privy to the settlement discussions in the same way a current spouse would ...


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