Engels v. Town of Potsdam, et al et al
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER: It is ORDERED that the # 37 Motion to Dismiss is denied. It is further ORDERED that the # 65 Motion to Dismiss is granted and all claims against the Town of Potsdam are dismissed with prejudice. Signed by Senior Judge Norman A. Mordue on 7/25/2014. [Copy served upon pro se plaintiff via regular and certified mail.] (nmk)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
JAMES P. ENGELS,
TOWN OF POTSDAM; JONATHAN RYAN,
Environmental Conservation Officer; FRANK
DUNNING, Town of Parishville Justice; SAMUEL
CHARELSON, Town of Potsdam Justice;
JONATHAN BECKER, Assistant District
Attorney; and JOSHUA HABERKORNHALM,
Assistant District Attorney,
James P. Engels
152 Maple Street
Potsdam, New York 13676
Plaintiff pro se
Carter, Conboy, Case, Blackmore, Maloney & Laird, P.C.
Adam H. Cooper, Esq., of counsel
Alaina K. Laferriere, Esq., of counsel
William C. Firth, Esq., of counsel
20 Corporate Woods Boulevard
Albany, New York 12211
Attorney for Defendant Town of Potsdam
Shantz & Belkin
M. Randolph Belkin, Esq., of counsel
26 Century Hill Drive, Suite 202
Latham, New York 12110
Attorney for Defendant Frank Dunning
Hon. Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General of the State of New York
Timothy P. Mulvey, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
615 Erie Boulevard West, Suite 102
Syracuse, New York 13204-2455
Attorney for Defendant Jonathan Ryan
Hon. Norman A. Mordue, Senior U.S. District Judge:
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
In this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, defendant Jonathan Ryan moves (Dkt.
No. 37) to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim and/or on statute of limitations
grounds. Defendant Town of Potsdam moves (Dkt. No. 65) to dismiss the complaint for failure to
state a claim.1 As set forth below, the Court denies the motion by Ryan and grants the motion by
the Town of Potsdam.
To survive a dismissal motion, “a complaint must plead ‘enough facts to state a claim to
relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ruotolo v. City of N.Y., 514 F.3d 184, 188 (2d Cir. 2008)
(quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The plaintiff “must provide the
grounds upon which his claim rests through factual allegations sufficient ‘to raise a right to relief
above the speculative level.’” ATSI Commc'ns, Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir.
2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The Court must accept as true all factual allegations
in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor. See ATSI, 493 F.3d at 98.
Where, as here, the plaintiff is proceeding pro se, and the complaint alleges civil rights violations,
the complaint should be read especially liberally. See Fernandez v. Chertoff, 471 F.3d 45, 51 (2d
Cir. 2006). The submissions of a pro se litigant should be interpreted “to raise the strongest
arguments that they suggest.” Triestman v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d
Cir. 2006) (citations omitted).
Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“section 1983”) states in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom,
or usage, of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the
Plaintiff’s claims against all other defendants except Frank Dunning have been dismissed (Dkt.
United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation
of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws,
shall be liable to the party injured[.]
MOTION BY JONATHAN RYAN
With respect to plaintiff’s claim against defendant Jonathan Ryan, the complaint (Dkt. No.
1) alleges as follows: plaintiff was charged in Town of Parishville Justice Court with violation of
6 N.Y.C.R.R. § 360-13.1(b), which provides that “No person shall engage in storing 1,000 or
more waste tires at a time without first having obtained a permit to do so....”; that Parishville
Town Justice Frank Dunning disqualified himself and transferred the case to Town of Potsdam
Justice Court (“Potsdam Town Court”); that on July 29, 2009, plaintiff agreed in the Potsdam
Town Court to a 90-day conditional discharge; that after the lapse of the 90-day period, Ryan and
Jennifer Lauzon, Environmental Conservation Officers, came to plaintiff’s premises for an
inspection; that Ryan told plaintiff that Frank Dunning had stated that he “wants all the tires out
of here”; and that “Ryan and local courts are influenced by Mr. Dunning.”
Attached to plaintiff’s objection (Dkt. No. 12) to Magistrate Judge Baxter’s Report and
Recommendation is a memorandum dated November 6, 2009, from Ryan to Potsdam Town Court
Justice Charleson and Jonathan Becker, Assistant District Attorney of St. Lawrence County,
regarding the “James Engels case.” Ryan’s memorandum, on the letterhead of New York State
Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Law Enforcement, states in full:
I am writing this in reference to the October 30, 2009 date for Mr. Engels plea
cleanup date. On November 3, 2009, Jennifer Lauzon (D.E.C. Solid Waste
Eng.), Mr. Engel, and I inspected Mr. Engel’s property on the Hanson Road
Parishville. This property has not been cleaned to the satisfaction of the
D.E.C. The majority of the tires have not been removed. Please see attached
photos of Engels Property. Thank you for your time in this matter.
Plaintiff also submits the “Affidavit in Support of Declaration of Delinquency” filed with
Potsdam Town Court by ADA Becker, stating in full:
1. I am an Assistant District Attorney in St. Lawrence County. This
Affirmation is made upon information and belief. The source of my
information and belief is my review of the file, discussions with the
investigating officer, and photos of the subject location, dated 11/3/2009,
copies of which are attached and thereby annexed hereto.
2. The defendant was granted a Conditional Discharge by this Court, dated
7/30/2009, which required, among other things, that the defendant clean his
property to the satisfaction of the D.E.C. It appears from the attached annexed
pictures that the Defendant has failed to comply with those conditions.
Wherefore, the People request that this Court vacate the Conditional
Discharge and re-sentence the defendant upon his conviction of ECL §
71-2703-2bi, together with such additional relief as the Court may deem just
Plaintiff further submits a transcript of a hearing on March 11, 2010 in Potsdam Town
Court in which that court recited:
... [O]n 11/3 of ‘09 the Court was supplied an affidavit in support of
declaration of delinquency. It was received here 11/17, with an affidavit from
D.E.C. Officer Jonathan Ryan ... stating that to the satisfaction of the
Department of Environmental Conservation, the site had not been cleaned.
Therefore there was a declaration of delinquency filed with the Court, a
hearing held, and Mr. Engels was found in violation of that conditional
discharge, and we proceeded to set dates for sentencing.
The Potsdam Town Court continued that it intended to issue fines in excess of $1 million.
According to the complaint, throughout this time plaintiff was “in full D.E.C. compliance with
less than one thousand tires on [his] property.”
The record is incomplete, but, as noted by this Court in its August 26, 2013 decision (Dkt.
In his objection (Dkt. No. 12), plaintiff alleges for the first time that the
revocation of his conditional discharge and the ensuing fine were reversed by
St. Lawrence County Court on August 24, 2012 on the ground that the Town
Court failed to comply with N.Y.C.P.L. § 410.70. Although plaintiff does not
attach a copy of the County Court’s decision, this allegation is sufficient to
make out a plausible claim that the revocation and resentencing have been
reversed on direct appeal as required by Heck [v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477,
486-87 (1994)]. Given plaintiff’s pro se status and under the circumstances of
this case, the Court deems the facts alleged in plaintiff’s objection to be part
of plaintiff’s complaint.
On this motion, the Court considers all of plaintiff’s submissions including his objection
and attachments in response to the Report and Recommendation. Accepting as true all factual
allegations in plaintiff’s submissions, and drawing all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor,
the Court reads his papers as alleging that he was in compliance with the requirements of the
conditional discharge; that Ryan, acting under color of state law, knowingly submitted a false
report to Potsdam Town Court stating that plaintiff was not in compliance; that Ryan did so
because he was improperly influenced by Town of Parishville Justice Frank Dunning, who had
stated that he “wants all the tires out of here”; and that due to Ryan’s false report, plaintiff’s
sentence of conditional discharge was revoked. As a result, plaintiff was required to make 22
court appearances, threatened with jail time, and sentenced to a fine in excess of $1 million.
Claims of harm stemming from the fabrication of evidence by a governmental official
have been recognized under the procedural due process guarantee of the Fifth and Fourteenth
Amendments, see Zahrey v. Coffey, 221 F.3d 342, 349 (2d Cir. 2000) (recognizing a due process
“right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of the fabrication of evidence by a government
officer acting in an investigating capacity”), and the fair trial guarantee of the Sixth and
Fourteenth Amendments. See Ricciuti v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 124 F.3d 123, 130 (2d Cir. 1997)
(“When a police officer creates false information likely to influence a jury’s decision and
forwards that information to prosecutors, he violates the accused’s constitutional right to a fair
trial, and the harm occasioned by such an unconscionable action is redressable in an action for
damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”); see also Jovanovic v. City of New York, 486 Fed.Appx. 149,
152 (2d Cir. 2012) (“A person suffers a constitutional violation if an (1) investigating official (2)
fabricates evidence (3) that is likely to influence a jury’s decision, (4) forwards that information
to prosecutors, and (5) the plaintiff suffers a deprivation of liberty as a result.”). To make out a
claim of deprivation of liberty in this context, a plaintiff need not necessarily have been
incarcerated. See, e.g., Morse v. Spitzer, 2013 WL 359326, *3 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 29, 2013)
(“[Plaintiff] suffered a deprivation of liberty as a result of the grand jury indictment. He was
required to make multiple court appearances over the course of the fifteen months following the
indictment, and then defend himself at trial against the criminal charges brought against him.”).
Reading plaintiff’s allegations liberally to raise the strongest arguments they suggest, the Court
finds that plaintiff plausibly pleads a section 1983 claim based on Ryan’s alleged submission of
false evidence to Potsdam Town Court. Ryan has not demonstrated his entitlement to dismissal
for failure to state a claim.
Further, Ryan has not demonstrated entitlement to dismissal on statute of limitations
grounds. Plaintiff alleges that the revocation of conditional discharge and resultant re-sentence
were reversed on August 24, 2012. Until that date, any claim against Ryan would have been
premature and subject to dismissal under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994), on the
ground that in effect it sought to impugn the validity of the revocation and re-sentence. Thus,
based on plaintiff’s allegations, his claim against Ryan accrued on August 24, 2012, and the
action, filed on June 26, 2013, was commenced well within the three-year limitations period.
Dismissal of plaintiff’s claim against Ryan is denied.
MOTION BY TOWN OF POTSDAM
In support of its motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 65), the Town of Potsdam relies on Monell v.
Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Under Monell, a municipality can be held
liable under section 1983 only if the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights under federal law is
caused by a custom, policy, or usage of the municipality. Id. at 690-91. A municipality cannot be
held liable under section 1983 on a respondeat superior theory. Id. at 691. Nowhere in
plaintiff’s submissions does he allege any facts which could support a plausible Monell claim
against the Town of Potsdam. Plaintiff was alerted to this requirement by the Town of Potsdam’s
motion papers but has not added any factual allegations which would support such a claim.
Reading the complaint and plaintiff’s other submissions most favorably to plaintiff, with all the
liberality to which his pro se status entitles him, the Court finds that his claim against the Town of
Potsdam must be dismissed.
It is therefore
ORDERED that the motion (Dkt. No. 37) to dismiss by Jonathan Ryan is denied; and it is
ORDERED that the motion (Dkt. No. 65) to dismiss by the Town of Potsdam is granted
and all claims against it are dismissed with prejudice; and it is further
ORDERED that the Clerk of the Court is directed to serve copies of this MemorandumDecision and Order in accordance with the Local Rules of the Northern District of New York, and
to serve plaintiff by regular mail and certified mail, return receipt requested.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Date: July 25, 2014
Syracuse, New York
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