JUST RELEASED

February Page III

Summaries of recently released decisions to be included in the next issue of the Digest (uncorrected)

COURT OF APPEALS

 

REAL PROPERTY TAX LAW/MUNICIPAL LAW/CONSTITUTIONAL LAW

 

County Could Not Shift Obligation to Pay Property Tax Refunds to Taxing Districts

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Abdus-Salaam, which includes extensive historical, theoretical, constitutional and statutory discussions of the issues involved, the Court of Appeals determined Nassau County could not shift its obligation to pay real property tax refunds from the county to its individual taxing districts. The county’s attempt to supersede a special state tax law exceeded its statutory and constitutional authority:

 

As limited by the State and Federal Constitutions' protection of individual rights and restriction of State power, the State Constitution establishes the State government as the preeminent sovereign of New York, and the three coordinate branches of the State government may exercise the entire legislative, executive and judicial power of the State, as entrusted to them by the people … .Given that the authority of political subdivisions flows from the State government and is, in a sense, an exception to the State government's otherwise plenary power, the lawmaking power of a county or other political subdivision "can be exercised only to the extent it has been delegated by the State"… .. Furthermore, because the Constitution expressly imbues the State government, rather than any locality, with "[t]he power of taxation" (NY Const art XVI, § 1), State law governs the tax field unless the State Legislature or the Constitution unambiguously delegates certain taxation authority to a political subdivision… . Matter of Baldwin Union Free School District v County of Nassau, 9, Ct App 2-18-14

 

 

CRIMINAL LAW/ATTORNEYS

 

No Prosecutorial Misconduct Where Prosecutors Told the Grand Jury that the Witness Defendant Asked the Grand Jury to Call Would Not Provide Relevant Evidence/Prosecutor’s Role in Grand Jury Explained in Some Detail

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Abdus-Salaam, over a dissent, the Court of Appeals determined the prosecutors did not impair the integrity of the grand jury proceedings by suggesting a witness the defendant asked the grand jury to subpoena would not provide relevant testimony. The court explained the prosecutor’s role in the grand jury:

 

CPL article 190 governs the conduct of the grand jury and the parties which appear before that body, and it requires that all grand jury proceedings remain secret to protect the essential functions of those various actors (see generally CPL 190.05; 190.25 [4] [a]). Under this statutory regime, the exclusive "legal advisors of the grand jury are the court and the district attorney" (CPL 190.25 [6]), and their decision to present certain items of evidence and to exclude others is for the most part limited only by the rules of evidence applicable at trial (see CPL 190.30 [1]…).  In the same vein, the prosecutor enjoys "broad powers and duties, as well as wide discretion in presenting the People's case" to the grand jury … . Indeed, the prosecutor "determines the competency of witnesses to testify," and he or she "must instruct the jury on the legal significance of the evidence" … .

 

Notably, though, due process imposes upon the prosecutor a "duty of fair dealing to the accused and candor to the courts," thus requiring the prosecutor "not only to seek convictions but also to see that justice is done" … . This duty extends to the prosecutor's instructions to the grand jury and the submission of evidence … . The prosecutor also cannot provide "an inaccurate or misleading answer to the grand jury's legitimate inquiry" …, nor can the prosecutor accept an indictment that he or she knows to be based on false, misleading or legally insufficient evidence … .

 

Even under those principles, "[a] Grand Jury proceeding is not a mini trial, but a proceeding convened primarily to investigate crimes and determine whether sufficient evidence exists to accuse a citizen of a crime and subject him or her to a criminal prosecution" … . That being so, the prosecutor need not tread too lightly in pressing the People's case or rebutting the defendant's assertions. For example, where the defendant chooses to testify, the prosecutor may, within limits, ask probing or even skeptical questions of the defendant about issues raised by his or her testimony … . Similarly, in the role of legal advisor, the prosecutor need not instruct the grand jury on the full extent of its investigatory and deliberative powers … . The prosecutor may decline to instruct the grand jury about a variety of defenses, and he or she need not disclose certain forms of exculpatory evidence or reveal to the grand jury the circumstances surrounding the authorities' investigation of the case … . These examples illustrate that, in occupying a "dual role as advocate and public officer" … , the prosecutor is not obligated to present the evidence or make statements to the grand jurors in the manner most favorable to the defense. People v Thompson, 10, Ct App 2-20-14

 

CRIMINAL LAW/EVIDENCE

 

Deception Used By Interrogators Rendered Confession Involuntary As a Matter of Law

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Lippman, the Court of Appeals determined, as a matter of law, defendant’s confession had been coerced by impermissible deception. The confession was suppressed and a new trial ordered. The interrogators told the defendant (1) his wife would be arrested if he did not confess to responsibility for injuries to their child and (2) disclosure of the circumstances of the injury was necessary to allow the doctors to save the child’s life (the child already had been declared brain-dead):

 

It is the People's burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that statements of a defendant they intend to rely upon at trial are voluntary … . To do that, they must show that the statements were not products of coercion, either physical or psychological …, or, in other words that they were given as a result of a "free and unconstrained choice by [their] maker" … . The task is the same where deception is employed in the service of psychologically oriented interrogation; the statements must be proved, under the totality of the circumstances … -- necessarily including any potentially actuating deception -- the product of the maker's own choice. The choice to speak where speech may incriminate is constitutionally that of the individual, not the government, and the government may not effectively eliminate it by any coercive device. It is well established that not all deception of a suspect is coercive, but in extreme forms it may be. Whether deception or other psychologically directed stratagems actually eclipse individual will, will of course depend upon the facts of each case, both as they bear upon the means employed and the vulnerability of the declarant. There are cases, however, in which voluntariness may be determined as a matter of law -- in which the facts of record permit but one legal conclusion as to whether the declarant's will was overborne … . This, we believe, is such a case. What transpired during defendant's interrogation was not consonant with and, indeed, completely undermined, defendant's right not to incriminate himself -- to remain silent. People v Thomas, 18, Ct App 2-20-14

 

 

CRIMINAL LAW/EVIDENCE

 

No Prejudice from Loss of Hand-Written Police Report (Rosario Material)/Trial Judge Did Not Abuse Discretion In Denying Request for Adverse Inference Jury Charge

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Read, over a dissent, the Court of Appeals determined the trial judge did not abuse his discretion by failing to give the adverse inference charge with respect to a hand-written police report (“scratch 61”) which could not be located. The opinion explains the history of the sanctions appropriate when Rosario material is not turned over to the defense. With respect to nonwillful loss or destruction of Rosario material, the court explained the defendant must demonstrate prejudice, not demonstrated under the facts here:

 

…[O]ur rule is clear: nonwillful, negligent loss or destruction of Rosario material does not mandate a sanction unless the defendant establishes prejudice … . If prejudice is shown, the choice of the proper sanction is left to the sound discretion of the trial judge, who may consider the degree of prosecutorial fault … . The focus, though, is on the need to eliminate prejudice to the defendant … . Here, defendants did not establish prejudice, as is their burden. Defendants fault the trial judge for not analyzing prejudice when he denied their request for an adverse inference charge, but they did not even mention the word. … The judge essentially (and correctly) ruled that inadvertent loss alone was insufficient to require a sanction. Of course, it is difficult to imagine how defendants might have been prejudiced by the loss of the scratch 61, as the defense attorneys and the judge all no doubt knew. A scratch 61 is a handwritten complaint report that [was] placed in a bin for typing, likely by a civilian employee of the police department. Defendants were provided the typewritten complaint report, which would have differed from the scratch 61 only if the typist made a mistake -- i.e., the handwritten scratch 61 is not subject to editing before typing. People v Martinez…, 13, 14, Ct App 2-18-14

 

 

INSURANCE LAW

 

Contradictory Information in Disclaimer Letters Did Not Invalidate the Disclaimer of Assault and Battery Coverage

 

Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals determined the insurance company, QBE, properly disclaimed coverage for an assault and battery claim against the insured bar, Jinx-Proof, despite contradictory language in the two disclaimer letters:

 

The courts below properly determined that QBE effectively disclaimed coverage for the assault and battery claims asserted in the underlying action. The first letter sent to Jinx-Proof stated that QBE would not defend or indemnify Jinx-Proof "under the General Liability portion of the policy for assault and battery allegations" and that Jinx-Proof did not have liquor liability coverage. The second letter stated that Jinx-Proof did have liquor liability coverage but that the policy excludes coverage for assault and battery claims. Specifically, the second letter stated:

 

"[W]e are defending this matter under the Liquor Liability portion of the [general commercial liability] coverage, and under strict reservation of rights for allegations of Assault and Battery. Your policy excludes coverage for assault and battery claims . . . Therefore, should this matter proceed to verdict, any awards by the Court stemming from allegations of Assault and Battery will not be covered under your Commercial General Liability policy."

 

Although the letters contain some contradictory and confusing language, the confusion was not relevant to the issue in this case. The letters specifically and consistently stated that Jinx-Proof's insurance policy excludes coverage for assault and battery claims. These statements were sufficient to apprise Jinx-Proof that QBE was disclaiming coverage on the ground of the exclusion for assault and battery, and this disclaimer was effective even though the letters also contained "reservation of rights" language … . QBE Insurance Corporation v Jinx-Proof Inc, 25, Ct App 2-18-14

 

 

INSURANCE LAW

Disclaimer Based Upon Insured’s Non-Cooperation Was Timely—Must Allow Longer Period to Demonstrate Diligence In Seeking Cooperation

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Pigott, the Court of Appeals determined that the insurers disclaimer based upon the insured’s failure to cooperate with the investigation was timely and enforceable:

 

The question whether an insurer disclaimed as soon as reasonably possible is necessarily case-specific. In some cases, very different from this one, the justification for disclaimer is "readily ascertainable from the face of the complaint in the underlying action" … or "all relevant facts supporting . . . a disclaimer [are] immediately apparent . . . upon . . . receipt of notice of the accident" … . In such cases, a disclaimer must be made rapidly. The present appeal, on the other hand, involves disclaimer for noncooperation by an insured. A determination as to whether such a disclaimer was made within a reasonable time is more complex because "an insured's noncooperative attitude is often not readily apparent"… . We have emphasized that "insurers must be encouraged to disclaim for noncooperation only after it is clear that further reasonable attempts to elicit their insured's cooperation will be futile" … .The primary reason that we allow a longer period for disclaimer for noncooperation lies in a well-established principle of our case law, which is intended to facilitate the full compensation of injured victims suing for damages. This is the requirement that an insurer may not properly disclaim for noncooperation unless it has satisfied its burden, described in the precedent as "a heavy one indeed," of showing "that it acted diligently in seeking to bring about the insured's co-operation; that the efforts employed by the insurer were reasonably calculated to obtain the insurer's co-operation; and that the attitude of the insured, after his co-operation was sought, was one of willful and avowed obstruction"… . Country-Wide Insurance Company v Preferred Trucking Services Corp, 21, Ct App 2-18-14

 

 

INSURANCE LAW

Reversing Its Prior Decision in this Case, the Court of Appeals Determined the “Servidone” Rule Is to Be Followed in New York/An Insurer Which Has Breached Its Duty to Defend the Insured May Rely On Policy Exclusions to Escape Its Duty to Indemnify the Insured

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Smith, over a dissent, the Court of Appeals reversed itself on reargument and adhered to precedent---Servidone Const Corp v Security Ins Co of Hartford, 64 NY 2d 419. Under Servidone, an insurer which breached its duty to defend can still rely on policy exclusions to escape the duty to indemnify:

 

In Servidone -- a case in which, as in this one, the insurer was relying on policy exclusions in defending against a suit for indemnification -- we stated the question as follows:

 

"Where an insurer breaches a contractual duty to defend its insured in a personal injury action, and the insured thereafter concludes a reasonable settlement with the injured party, is the insurer liable to indemnify the insured even if coverage is disputed?"… .

 

We answered the question in Servidone no. In K2-I [the initial ruling in the instant case], we held that "when a liability insurer has breached its duty to defend its insured, the insurer may not later rely on policy exclusions to escape its duty to indemnify the insured for a judgment against him" …. . The Servidone and K2-I holdings cannot be reconciled. * * *In short, to decide this case we must either overrule Servidone or follow it. We choose to follow it. K2 Investment Group LLC v American Guarantee & Liability Insurance Company, 6, Ct App 2-18-14

 

 

 

LABOR LAW-CONSTRUCTION LAW

 

In a Falling Object Case, the Device Which Failed Was Not a Safety Device---Defendant Not Liable

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Pigott, over a dissent, the Court of Appeals determined the action based upon injury from a falling conduit should have been dismissed because the device which failed was not a safety device:

 

 

Labor Law § 240 (1) … requires owners and contractors to provide proper protection to those working on a construction site … . It imposes absolute liability where the failure to provide such protection is a proximate cause of a worker's injury … .In order to prevail on summary judgment in a section 240 (1) "falling object" case, the injured worker must demonstrate the existence of a hazard contemplated under that statute "and the failure to use, or the inadequacy of, a safety device of the kind enumerated therein" … . Essentially, the plaintiff must demonstrate that at the time the object fell, it either was being "hoisted or secured" …, or "required securing for the purposes of the undertaking" … . Contrary to the dissent's contention, section 240 (1) does not automatically apply simply because an object fell and injured a worker; "a plaintiff must show that the object fell . . . because of the absence or inadequacy of a safety device … of the kind enumerated in the statute" … .

 

The Appellate Division … in denying summary judgment to defendants … , because they established as a matter of law that the conduit did not fall on plaintiff due to the absence or inadequacy of an enumerated safety device.

 

The compression coupling, which plaintiff claims was inadequate, is not a safety device "constructed, placed, and operated as to give proper protection" from the falling conduit. Its only function was to keep the conduit together as part of the conduit/pencil box assembly. The coupling had been installed a week before the incident and had been serving its intended purpose until a change order was issued and plaintiff dismantled the conduit/pencil box assembly. Fabrizi v 1095 Avenue of the Americas…, 15, Ct App 2-20-14

 

 

MUNICIPAL LAW/REAL PROPERTY LAW/LANDLORD-TENANT/TRUSTS AND ESTATES

 

Public Trust Doctrine Re: Allowing a Restaurant in a Public Park/License and Lease Characteristics Compared

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Graffeo, the Court of Appeals determined that a the city’s allowing a restaurant to operate in a public park did not violate the public trust doctrine and the arrangement between the city and the restaurant was a valid license, not a lease (which would have required approval by the legislature):

 

Under the public trust doctrine, dedicated parkland cannot be converted to a non-park purpose for an extended period of time absent the approval of the State Legislature … . * * * … [A]lthough it is for the courts to determine what is and is not a park purpose, … the Commissioner enjoys broad discretion to choose among alternative valid park purposes. Observing that restaurants have long been operated in public parks, we [in 795 Fifth Ave Corp v City of New York, 15 NY2d 221] rejected plaintiffs' public trust claim, holding that they could show only a "difference of opinion" as to the best way to use the park space and that this "mere difference of opinion [was] not a demonstration of illegality"… . * * *

 

We have stated that parkland cannot be leased, even for a park purpose, absent legislative approval … . * * *

 

A document is a lease "if it grants not merely a revocable right to be exercised over the grantor's land without possessing any interest therein but the exclusive right to use and occupy that land" … . It is the conveyance of "absolute control and possession of property at an agreed rental which differentiates a lease from other arrangements dealing with property rights" …. . A license, on the other hand, is a revocable privilege given "to one, without interest in the lands of another, to do one or more acts of a temporary nature upon such lands" … . That a writing refers to itself as a license or lease is not determinative; rather, the true nature of the transaction must be gleaned from the rights and obligations set forth therein. Finally, a broad termination clause reserving to the grantor "the right to cancel whenever it decides in good faith to do so" is strongly indicative of a license as opposed to a lease … . Union Square Park Community Coalition Inc v New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, 17, Ct App 2-20-14

 

 

TAX LAW

 

A “Statutory Resident” of New York for Income Tax Purposes Must Actually Reside In New York, Not Merely Maintain Property in New York

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Judge Pigott, the Court of Appeals determined that the residency requirement in the income tax law means the taxpayer must actually reside in the dwelling, not merely maintain it. Here the Tax Tribunal determined the petitioner, who had a business in New York to which he traveled from New Jersey each day, and who owned and maintained an apartment house in New York where his elderly parents lived, was not a “statutory resident” of New York within the meaning of the Tax Law:

 

The Tax Tribunal has interpreted "maintains a permanent place of abode" to mean that a taxpayer need not "reside" in the dwelling, but only maintain it, to qualify as "statutory resident" under Tax Law § 605 [b][1][B]. Our review is limited to whether that interpretation comports with the meaning and intent of the statutes involved … . We conclude there is no rational basis for that interpretation. Notably, nowhere in the statute does it provide anything other than the "permanent place of abode" must relate to the taxpayer. The legislative history of the statute, to prevent tax evasion by New York residents, as well as the regulations, support the view that in order for a taxpayer to have maintained a permanent place of abode in New York, the taxpayer must, himself, have a residential interest in the property. Matter of Gaied v New York State Tax Appeals Tribunal, 26, Ct App 2-18-14

 

 

 

APPELLATE DIVISION

 

ADMINISTRATIVE LAW

 

Revocation of Day-Care License “Shocking to One’s Sense of Fairness”

 

The Third Department determined revocation of petitioner’s day-care license was too severe a penalty for a situation in which two children were left unsupervised for 20 to 30 minutes. The children, ages 11 and 13, had a cell phone and were never in any imminent danger of harm:

 

Although petitioner violated a regulation, the penalty of revocation is too disproportionate to this isolated violation that was the result of extenuating circumstances. An administrative penalty "must be upheld unless it is 'so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness'" …, "thus constituting an abuse of discretion as a matter of law" … , * * *Based on the children's ages and their possession of a cell phone that they used to contact petitioner, the children were not put in danger by this incident, despite the potential danger that existed from children being left unsupervised …. . Although the regulation makes clear that it is not appropriate to leave children unsupervised (see 18 NYCRR 417.8 [a]), petitioner did not violate the regulation intentionally, as she had established a plan for the supervision of the children in her absence, and the violation occurred as "the result of extenuating circumstances"… . Matter of Lewis v NYS Office of Children and Family Services, 516650, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

ARBITRATION/CIVIL PROCEDURE

 

“Common Law Arbitration” Explained/”Common Law Arbitration” Waived by Seeking Relief in a Counterclaim

 

The Second Department explained “common law arbitration,” i.e., an oral agreement to arbitrate, and determined defendant had waived the agreement to arbitrate by raising a counterclaim which related to the subject of the agreement to arbitrate:

 

Although there was no written agreement to arbitrate in this case, where one party demands arbitration, and the other party accepts the demand, an oral agreement to arbitrate may be formed … . Oral agreements to arbitrate are not covered by CPLR article 75, and are referred to as "common-law arbitration" agreements… . * * *However, the defendants, by their conduct in this lawsuit, waived arbitration. As this Court explained in Reynolds & Reynolds Co., Automotive Sys. Div. v Goldsmith Motor Corp. (251 AD2d 312, 313),"[t]here is no inflexible or mechanical rule as to what constitutes a waiver of the right to arbitrate. Rather, determination of the issue depends on the facts and circumstances of each particular case . . . Among the factors to be considered are the extent of the party's participation in litigation and conduct inconsistent with the assertion of a right to arbitrate, the delay in seeking arbitration, and whether the other party has been prejudiced"… . Willer v Kleinman, 2014 NY Slip Op 01164, 2nd Dept 2-19-14

 

 

ARBITRATION/EMPLOYMENT LAW/EDUCATION-SCHOOL LAW

Limited Role of Courts in Determining Applications to Stay Arbitration (Re: a Collective Bargaining Agreement [CBA]) Explained

 

The Third Department determined the petition to stay arbitration in a teacher-tenure matter should have been denied. In so finding, the Third Department explained the limited role of the courts in determining applications to stay arbitration:

 

The court's role in determining applications to stay arbitration is limited and, as relevant here, requires a determination of whether the parties have agreed to arbitrate the dispute at issue … .Inasmuch as respondent has asserted a violation of the evaluation procedures agreed to by the parties as part of the CBA, there is a rational relationship between the subject of the grievance and the CBA … . The question of whether petitioner violated these procedures "goes to the merits of the grievance, not to its arbitrability" … . "[T]he fact that the substantive clauses of the contract might not support the grievances . . . is irrelevant on the threshold question of arbitrability. It is for the arbitrator, and not the courts, to resolve any uncertainty concerning the substantive rights and obligations of the[] parties'" … . Matter of Brunswick Central School District …, 517060, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

CRIMINAL LAW

 

Attempted Kidnapping Charge Supported by Sufficient Evidence/Defendant Tried to Convince the 10-Year-Old Victim to Take His Keys and Go to His Apartment

 

The First Department, over a dissent, determined there was sufficient evidence to support the attempted kidnapping charge, in spite of the absence of force. The defendant tried to convince the 10-year-old victim to take his keys and go to his apartment:

 

The crime of attempted kidnapping in the second degree was established by evidence that defendant intended to secrete or hold the 10-year-old victim in his apartment, a place where she was not likely to be found; that he made efforts to move or confine the victim without consent (see Penal Law §§ 135.00; 135.20); and that defendant came dangerously near to achieving his objective.The evidence left no doubt that the victim was unlikely to be found had she succumbed to defendant's pressure to take his keys and go to the apartment. Similarly, the evidence left no doubt that defendant, a "highly-fixated" pedophile, attempted to restrain the victim, i.e. to move her to a different location without the permission of her mother.The dissent, in arguing that the crime was not established because defendant did not grab or unsuccessfully attempt to grab the victim, misconstrues the statutory requirement of restraint. While, with respect to an adult, it is necessary to establish that the movement or confinement was accomplished by "force, intimidation or deception," the definition of restraint, with respect to a child less than 16 years of age, encompasses movement or confinement by "any means whatever," including the acquiescence of the child (Penal Law § 135.00[1][b]). In relaxing the requirement with respect to minors, the Legislature recognized that a child is not possessed of the same faculties as an adult and is incapable of consenting to any type of confinement. People v Denson, 2014 NY Slip Op 01141, 1st Dept 2-18-14

 

 

CRIMINAL LAW

Handling Of Consecutive Sentences Under the Drug Law Reform Act Explained

 

Finding the resentence excessive, the Second Department reduced defendant’s resentence under the Drug Law Reform Act (DLRA) from five consecutive 20-year terms to five consecutive 15-year terms, noting that because the original sentence (five 25-to-life terms) was consecutive, the terms imposed under the Drug Law Reform Act must also be consecutive:

 

Here, the defendant sought to be resentenced for the convictions of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree, for which he had originally received consecutive sentences amounting to a total aggregate term of imprisonment of 125 years to life. Although the Supreme Court correctly observed that it was powerless, under the DLRA, to alter the defendant's sentence so that the five terms of imprisonment imposed for the convictions of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree run concurrently with each other …, it was nevertheless permitted to "consider any facts or circumstances relevant to the imposition of a new sentence" (L 2004, ch 738, § 23…). Accordingly, under the circumstances, in evaluating the appropriate terms of imprisonment to impose upon resentencing, the Supreme Court should have considered the fact that the sentences that were originally imposed for the convictions of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree were directed to run consecutively to each other … . Here, since the resentences imposed by the Supreme Court were required to run consecutively with each other, the total aggregate term of imprisonment for the convictions of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree still amounted to 100 years in prison. * * *Under the circumstances of this case, including the fact that the courts are constrained from giving effect to the ameliorative purpose of the DLRA by directing resentences to run concurrently with each other when they were originally directed to run consecutively …, we conclude that the resentence imposed was excessive to the extent indicated… . People v Cole, 2014 NY Slip Op 01182, 2nd Dept 2-19-14

 

 

CRIMINAL LAW/EVIDENCE

Presentation of Evidence of an Uncharged Offense Without Seeking a Ruling on Its Admissibility in Advance Deprived Defendant of a Fair Trial

 

The Third Department determined the presentation of evidence of an uncharged sexual offense deprived defendant of a fair trial. Without seeking a ruling in advance, and without presenting an argument why the evidence was relevant to anything other than criminal propensity, the prosecutor presented evidence alleging defendant’s sexual misconduct involving a child other than the victim in the charged offense. In ordering a new trial, the Third Department explained:

 

It is beyond dispute that evidence of a defendant's uncharged crimes or prior bad acts cannot be admitted solely for the purpose of proving criminal propensity … . Rather, "evidence of uncharged crimes or prior bad acts may be admitted where they fall within the recognized Molineux exceptions – motive, intent, absence of mistake, common plan or scheme and identity – or where such proof is inextricably interwoven with the charged crimes, provide[s] necessary background or complete[s] a witness's narrative" …, and the trial court further determines that the probative value of such evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect … . Here, the record does not reflect that the People sought any sort of ruling from County Court regarding the admissibility of defendant's uncharged crime/prior bad act before eliciting such testimony from the victim's mother on their case-in-chief …, nor does the record reveal that the People made any attempt to "identify some issue, other than mere criminal propensity, to which the evidence [was] relevant"… . People v Brown, 105062, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

CRIMINAL LAW/EVIDENCE

 

Questioning of Defendant Did Not Constitute “Custodial Interrogation”

 

The Third Department determined County Court should not have suppressed defendant’s statements as the product of custodial interrogation. The police investigation had led to defendant’s IP address being associated with accessing child pornography on the Internet. The investigator went to defendant’s place of employment and asked the defendant to accompany him to the police station, which the defendant agreed to do:

 

The testimony … revealed that defendant was brought to a room at the police station where he was interviewed for a total of no more than 30 minutes. During the brief period that preceded the Miranda warnings, defendant was not handcuffed or restrained in any manner and the investigators did not do anything to convey that defendant was not free to leave … . Moreover, the two questions that preceded the Miranda warnings – the first asked defendant for his address and the second inquired into defendant's Internet service – were investigatory, as opposed to accusatory. Considering the totality of the circumstances, and in light of County Court's determinations that [the interrogating officer] was "frank, candid, and trustworthy and [that] his testimony had the general force and flavor of credibility," we find that the People met their burden of establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant's pre-Miranda statements were not the product of a custodial interrogation… . People v Henry, 106048, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

CRIMINAL LAW/MENTAL HYGIENE LAW

 

Re: A Mental Hygiene Law Civil Commitment Proceeding for a Sex Offender, Failure to Give the Jury an Adequate Explanation of the Meaning of “Sex Offense” May Have Resulted in an Unsupported “Mental Abnormality” Finding

 

The Second Department determined the trial court committed reversible error by not, upon defense counsel’s request, giving a further instruction to the jury on the meaning of “sex offense” as part of the jury charge on mental abnormality. The jury found the appellant had committed a sexually motivated felony and suffers from a mental abnormality (re: civil commitment of a sex offender under the Mental Hygiene Law). The appellant had pled guilty to the burglary of a woman’s home. During the burglary the appellant allegedly had “touched that woman’s vagina and buttocks with a hard object.” At the “Mental Hygiene Law” trial, the State presented evidence of appellant’s sexual behavior in prison which did not constitute a sex offense enumerated under the Mental Hygiene Law. The jury may not have understood how to evaluate the “unenumerated” behavior under the Mental Hygiene Law:

 

Here, the State's evidence consisted predominantly of instances of the appellant's sexually inappropriate acts that would not constitute sex offenses under Mental Hygiene Law article 10. Specifically, the State's expert testified at length regarding instances in which the appellant masturbated while he could be observed by prison officers or by staff members while placed at a secure treatment facility, and his propensity to continue to act in a sexually improper manner. The appellant's conduct, however, at most, might constitute the crime of public lewdness (Penal Law § 245), a class B misdemeanor, which is not one of the sex offenses enumerated under Mental Hygiene Law article 10. In light of the particular circumstances presented in this proceeding, the Supreme Court should have granted the appellant's request to issue an expanded charge to the jury containing supplemental information as to the specific statutory meaning of "sex offense," so that the jury could make a proper evaluation of the evidence.…

 

[T]he Supreme Court's failure to either provide the statutory definition of "sex offense" under Mental Hygiene Law article 10 or to inform the jury that there is a distinction between a predisposition to commit a "sex offense" and a predisposition to commit nonenumerated acts of sexual misconduct could have misled the jury into making a finding of mental abnormality, based solely upon the evidence of the appellant's predisposition to commit any improper sexual conduct. Consequently, a new trial is required … . Matter of State of New York v Adrien S, 2014 NY Slip Op 01175, 2nd Dept 2-19-14

EMPLOYMENT LAW/EDUCATION-SCHOOL LAW/ATTORNEYS

 

Attorney Was an "Employee," Not an Independent Contractor, for Puposes of the State and Local Employees' Retirement System

 

The Third Department reversed the Comptroller’s ruling that petitioner, an attorney, was not an employee of the school district for purposes of benefits provided by the New York State and Local Employees’ Retirement System:

 

…"[W]here professional services are involved, the absence of direct control is not dispositive of the existence of an employer-employee relationship" … . "Rather, such an employment relationship may be evidenced by control over important aspects of the services performed other than results or means" … . In other words, "over-all control is sufficient to establish the employee relationship where [professional] work is concerned" … . Upon our review, we fail to find substantial evidence to support the Comptroller's determination that petitioner was an independent contractor and not an employee of the school district.Here, the school district's former superintendent, who worked with petitioner for nearly four decades, testified that during his tenure he supervised all staff at the school district, including petitioner. Matter of Brothman v DiNapoli, 517032, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

FAMILY LAW

 

Review of Stipulated Custody Arrangement Warranted by Change of Circumstances/Seriousness of Mother’s Alcohol-Related Behavior Increased

 

The Third Department reversed Supreme Court finding that a change in mother’s alcohol-related behavior warranted a review of the custody arrangement set out in a stipulation:

 

When parties enter into stipulations resolving custody issues, those stipulations will not be modified unless there is a sufficient change in circumstances since the time of the stipulation, and unless modification of the custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child[]" … . Here, although the father admittedly was aware of the mother's issues with alcohol at the time that he agreed to share custody with her, evidence of the mother's continuing and escalating problems in this regard, coupled with her subsequent alcohol-related arrests and the indicated child protective services reports, "was sufficient to constitute a change in circumstances requiring a review of the existing custody arrangement in order to determine whether [such arrangement] continued to be in the child's best interests" … . Accordingly, Supreme Court should have undertaken a best interests analysis. Matter of Kiernan v Kiernan, 515662, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

FAMILY LAW

Family Court Improperly Delegated Its Responsibility to Set the Terms of Father’s Supervised Visitation

 

The Third Department determined Family Court improperly relinquished its authority to dictate the terms of father’s supervised visitation to the petitioner (grandmother):

 

…[W]e find merit to the father's contention that Family Court erred in granting visitation subject to conditions of supervision set at the sole discretion of petitioner. Family Court is required to determine the issue of visitation in accord with the best interests of the children and fashion a schedule that permits a noncustodial parent to have frequent and regular access … . In doing so, the court may not delegate its authority to make such decisions to a party … . Here, in light of the father's apparent history of domestic violence and failure to submit to a substance abuse screen, the court did not err in requiring that the father be subject to supervised visitation.However, inasmuch as the court granted complete authority to petitioner to determine the father's access to the children and under what conditions that access may occur, the court impermissibly abdicated its responsibility to ensure that the father has regular and meaningful visitation with the children and, therefore, the matter must be remitted for a hearing and redetermination in this regard… . Matter of Aida B v Alfredo C, 515713, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

 

FAMILY LAW/CONTRACT LAW

 

Criteria for Interpreting Ambiguous Terms in Separation Agreement

 

The Third Department explained how ambiguity in the terms of a separation agreement is to be handled by the courts:

 

Ambiguity in a separation agreement is resolved, as with any contract, by determining the parties' intent from within the instrument's four corners, if possible, and otherwise from extrinsic evidence … . In doing so, "[t]he court is not limited to the literal language of the agreement, but should also include a consideration of whatever may be reasonably implied from that literal language"… . Matter of Apjohn v Lubinski, 516326, 3rd Dept 2-20-14

 

 

FALSE ARREST/MALICIOUS PROSECUTION/MUNICIPAL LAW

 

Elements of False Arrest and Malicious Prosecution Explained

 

The Second Department reversed Supreme Court and dismissed plaintiff’s false arrest and malicious prosecution action. The court explained the elements of the two intentional torts:

 

"In order to prevail on a cause of action seeking to recover damages for false arrest or imprisonment, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) the defendant intended to confine the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff was aware of the resulting confinement; (3) the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement; and (4) the confinement was not otherwise privileged" … . "The existence of probable cause serves as a legal justification for the arrest and an affirmative defense to the claim of false imprisonment or false arrest"… . Generally, information provided by an identified citizen accusing another individual of a specific crime is legally sufficient to provide the police with probable cause to arrest'" … . * * *

 

"The elements of the tort of malicious prosecution are: (1) the commencement or continuation of a criminal proceeding by the defendant against the plaintiff, (2) the termination of the proceeding in favor of the accused, (3) the absence of probable cause for the criminal proceeding and (4) actual malice" … . "Once a suspect has been indicted, . . . the indictment creates a presumption of probable cause to believe that the suspect committed the crime" … . "The presumption may be overcome only by evidence establishing that the police witnesses have not made a complete and full statement of facts either to the Grand Jury or to the District Attorney, that they have misrepresented or falsified evidence, [or] that they have withheld evidence or otherwise acted in bad faith" … . Williams v City of New York, 2014 NY Slip Op 01165, 2nd Dept 2-19-14

NEGLIGENCE/PRODUCTS LIABILITY

 

Questions of Fact Raised About Whether Insufficient Warnings On Flammable Floor Refinishing Materials Constituted the Proximate Cause of the Injuries

 

In a full-fledged opinion by Justice Gische, the First Department determined a lawsuit based upon failure to warn survived summary judgment. While plaintiff’s decedent [Carino] was using highly flammable floor refinishing materials, the materials caught fire and plaintiff’s decedent was burned. There were warnings about fire on the containers and plaintiff’s decedent had worked with the materials before. But questions of fact were raised about exactly what dangers plaintiff’s decedent was aware of and, therefore, whether defendants were relieved (by the level of his knowledge) of the duty to warn of the dangers not addressed on the labels:

 

A product may be defective due to inadequate warnings of the risks and dangers involved in its foreseeable use … . The duty also extends to forseeable product misuse … . To be actionable, however, the absence of warnings must be a proximate cause of the claimed injuries … . Even if a duty to warn otherwise exists, recovery may be denied to a knowledgeable user, i.e. one who was fully aware of the specific hazard without receiving the warning … . While in a proper case the court can decide as a matter of law that there is no duty to warn …, in most cases whether a party is a knowledgeable user is a factual question … . Even if a user has some degree of knowledge of the potential hazards in the use of a product, summary judgment will not lie where reasonable minds might disagree as to the extent of the knowledge ….While there is evidence that Carino had some knowledge about general hazards associated with using floor refinishing products, it cannot be said, as a matter of law, that his knowledge base was sufficient to relieve defendants of any duty they may have had to provide adequate warnings. There is evidence that Carino had used floor refinishing products before and that he had been told by his employer that they were flammable and required certain safety precautions, such as shutting off the gas and electricity. There is no evidence, however, that he knew about the particular properties of each product he was using, including their flashpoints, the fact that one product was much more volatile than the other and the specifications for proper ventilation when using these products, or that he knew one product was prohibited for indoor use in the City of New York. Thus, it is for a jury to determine whether Carino had sufficient knowledge of the specific hazards attendant to the use of the floor finishing products to relieve defendants of any duty to warn of those hazards. Public Adm’r of Bronx County v 485 E 188th St Realty Corp, 2014 NY Slip Op 01142, 1st Dept 2-18-14

 

 

NEGLIGENCE

A Prima Facie Case Under the Dram Shop Act Had Been Made Against Both Bars Which Served Plaintiff’s Decedent, Even Though the Alcohol Served at the First Bar Would Have Metabolized by the Time of the Accident Had Plaintiff’s Decedent Not Continued to Drink at the Second Bar

 

The Second Department determined a bar, defendant Mulinos, could be liable under the Dram Shop Act even though the alcohol consumed at Mulinos would have metabolized by the time of the vehicle accident had plaintiff’s decedent not consumed more alcohol. After leaving Mulinos, however, plaintiff’s decedent went to another bar, defendant Trotters Tavern, and was served more alcohol. A jury could have found the alcohol served at Mulinos contributed to his intoxication as he continued drinking at Trotters Tavern. The Second Department determined plaintiff had made out a prima facie case at trial that both bars were liable under the Dram Shop Act and, therefore, the trial judge should not have granted the defendants’ motions for judgments dismissing the complaint as a matter of law:

 

Contrary to the Supreme Court's conclusion, accepting the evidence presented at trial by the plaintiff as true, and according it every favorable inference, the plaintiff established, prima facie, that there was a "reasonable or practical connection" between the alleged unlawful sale of alcohol at Mulinos and the resulting damages … . Although the Medical Examiner acknowledged that the alcohol that Sullivan consumed at Mulinos would have been metabolized by the time of the accident, "assum[ing] that [he] did not consume anymore alcohol that evening," she also opined, based on the testimony of the witnesses and Sullivan's blood alcohol content at the time of the accident, that Sullivan did indeed consume numerous drinks after leaving Mulinos. Considering the evidence presented, a jury could have reasonably concluded that Sullivan remained intoxicated throughout the night, that the alcohol consumed at Mulinos contributed to his intoxication to an appreciable degree, and thus, that there was a reasonable and practical connection between the alcohol served at Mulinos and the damages sustained in the accident … . Sullivan v Mulinos of Westchester Inc, 2014 NY Slip Op 01161, 2nd Dept 2-19-14

 

 

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION

 

“Presumption of Compensability” Applied

 

The decedent was working, driving a truck, when his truck struck a toll booth. There was evidence the decedent had a stroke, either just before or after the accident. In affirming the validity of the claim, the Third Department explained the application of the “presumption of compensability:”

 

…[W]e reject the employer's assertion that claimant failed to meet her burden of establishing a casually related death. "Pursuant to Workers' Compensation Law § 21 (1), a presumption of compensability exists where, as here, an unwitnessed or unexplained injury occurs during the course of the affected worker's employment"… . As relevant here, the statutory presumption is applicable where either a stroke occurs during work … or where the onset of stroke symptoms occurs during work … . If the presumption is applicable, a claimant is not required "'to come forward, in the first instance, with prima facie medical evidence of a causal relationship between' [the] injury and [the] employment" … . * * *Inasmuch as decedent clearly had an accident while working, and it was either the stroke that caused the accident or the accident that caused the stroke, the Board properly applied the presumption that decedent's injury was causally related to his employment (see Workers' Compensation Law § 21 [1]…). Matter of Stevenson v Yellow Roadway Corporation…, 516077, 3rd Dept 2-20-14