The plaintiff, Michael Dellutri, initiated this action alleging the Village of Elmsford and its officials acted improperly when they prosecuted Dellutri for alleged land use violations. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Dellutri set forth four claims against the defendants: abuse of process and malicious prosecution; Due Process Clause violations; Equal Protection Clause violations; and, a tort claim under state law. Dellutri voluntarily dismissed his claims against village officials, with prejudice. This action was commenced in state court and removed to the United States District Court, Southern District of New York. Upon the Village’s motion, the District Court dismissed Dellutri’s federal claims, declined to grant supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, and dismissed the action.
Dellutri was prosecuted in 2006 for having an additional illegal dwelling unit in the basement of his residence. Dellutri’s conviction was overturned by the New York Supreme Court, which found the state law charge inapplicable and the local law charge improper. The local law charge was thrown out because the locality knew of the Certificate of Compliance that authorized the second unit Dellutri was charged for. It became evident that the locality initiated the action because they suspected the use of an illegal third dwelling unit above Dellutri’s garage. Following the reversal of his conviction, Dellutri filed this action claiming abuses by the local government, alleging that the local building inspector knew of the Certificate of Compliance, that the Village attorney should have known the charges were false, and that the local judge had actually helped Dellutri procure the Certificate of Compliance, yet let the initial action continue.
The District Court first addressed Dellutri’s federal law claims, finding them barred by the doctrine of res judicata. The court provided that where a plaintiff stipulates to voluntarily dismiss an action with prejudice, all the claims that would have been litigated and all relevant issues that could have been decided are barred in a later action. The plaintiff cannot later litigate these claims or issues against the same party or one in privity with the dismissed party. Government officials sued in their official capacity are usually considered to be in privity with the government they served. The District Court found that the dismissed village officials were in direct privity with the Village, because the claims against the two officials were, at all times, claims against the Village. Given the finding of privity and that the dismissal was voluntary and with prejudice, res judicata applied to the claims against the Village. The District Court ruled that Dellutri was barred from continuing his federal law claims against the Village.
The District Court then addressed the timeliness of Dellutri’s action. With the exception of the malicious prosecution suit, the court found that all the federal law claims against the Village were time-barred. The District Court stated that for § 1983 suits, the New York three year statute of limitations applies, but the federal rule of accrual applies, which occurs when the plaintiff knows or should have known of the injury giving rise to the cause of action. The District Court found that for the Equal Protection and Due Process claims, the action accrued before or during the land use trial, as it is at this time Dellutri became aware of the harm. Dellutri was convicted in October, 2006, but did not file this action until 2010. Thus, those claims are time barred. The malicious prosecution cause of action is not time barred because the harm was not evident, and the action did not accrue, until the conviction was overturned in 2008.
Next, the court addressed the issue of imputed municipal liability for the § 1983 claims. In creating § 1983, Congress did not intend for municipalities be liable under the statute unless the officials acted under municipal policy. Thus, respondeat superior will not facilitate a cause of action; there needs to be a direct causal link between the unconstitutional harm and municipal policy. This policy can come in the form of official policy or widespread and well settled custom. Official policy can result from the actions of an official with final policymaking authority. Since Dellutri failed to plead the existence of any municipal policy or custom leading to his earlier prosecution, the District Court determined liability for the § 1983 claims could not be imputed to the Village. Further, the court stated that the conduct of the local actors could not impute liability because they did not possess final policymaking authority. In any event, even if imputed liability were found, the claims would be barred by res judicata.
Next the court addressed the malicious prosecution claim. The court assumed, without deciding, that liability could be imputed to the Village. New York law applies to this claim, and in pertinent part requires the plaintiff to show a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In a malicious prosecution case, in order to show seizure, the plaintiff would need to show a post-arraignment liberty restraint. In reference to numerous previous cases, the District Court determined that the facts of this case did not evidence a seizure, and thus did not support the malicious prosecution claim. In making this determination, the court pointed out that the plaintiff did not plead the number of times that he was required to show up to court, nor whether he was restrained in any manner. Thus, the malicious prosecution claim was dismissed.
The District Court then focused on Dellutri’s other claims. The court held that the abuse of process claim failed because Dellutri did not plead the third element of the claim – that legal process was used to illegitimately further a collateral objective. Dellutri’s equal protection claim was dismissed because the conclusory allegations failed to plead the existence of a similarly situated comparator. The two substantive due process claims were likewise dismissed. The first claim was based on the unfounded malicious prosecution and abuse of process claims. The second concerned the alleged deprivation of a property right, which the court likewise dismissed because Dellutri could not show the Village acted in an arbitrary manner in attacking his certificate of occupancy. The court also found Dellutri’s procedural due process claims without merit as he was afforded notice, an opportunity for trial, and an appeal.
The Village also sought dismissal of the state law claims. Since the case had yet to reach discovery, instead of dismissing the claims, the District Court declined to exercise supplementary jurisdiction. This was appropriate given the dismissal of all the federal law claims.
Dellutri v. Village of Elmsford, 2012 WL 4473268 (S.D.N.Y., Sept. 28, 2012).
The opinion can be accessed here.