Summaries of recently released decisions to be included in the next issue of the Digest (uncorrected)
COURT OF APPEALS
Attorney Conflict Waiver Criteria Discussed/Whether Molineux Analysis Should Be Applied to “Prior Bad Thoughts” in Journal Entries Discussed
In two concurring opinions, one by Judge Lippman and the other by Judge Abdus-Salaam, the Court of Appeals determined defendant did not raise an error warranting reversal.
The defendant contended (1) his attorney had personal interests which conflicted with her professional obligations to him, and (2) journal entries which were unrelated to the murder with which defendant was charged should not have been admitted in evidence.
One of defendant’s attorneys was under indictment by the same district attorney’s office for allegedly smuggling drugs to a client in jail. The defendant waived the conflict. The two judges disagreed about what such a conflict waiver should include and agreed the defendant’s conflict waiver was inadequate, but determined reversal was not required because there was an insufficient showing the conflict operated on the defense.
The journal entries were essentially “bad thoughts” about women other than the victim. Judge Lippman determined that the “prior bad thoughts” should have been analyzed under the Molineux criteria for the admission of evidence of prior crimes and bad acts. Judge Abdus-Salaam determined that Molineux should not be extended to such “prior bad thoughts,” which should simply be scrutinized under relevancy criteria. Both judges determined the erroneous admission of the “bad thoughts” evidence was harmless error. People v Cortez, 225, Ct App 1-21-14
Court May Impliedly Vacate Note of Issue by Directing Discovery
Although the trial court did not impliedly vacate the note of issue in this case, the Third Department explained the criteria for such a vacation:
A court may be deemed to have vacated a note of issue sua sponte, even without explicitly stating so, if the court's directives with respect to discovery "clearly evince its intent to do so and have the same practical effect"… . McDowell & Walder Inc v Micha…, 516375, 3rd Dept 1-23-14
Notice of Voluntary Discontinuance Filed After Opponents’ Motions to Dismiss Is Untimely
The First Department determined plaintiff’s (BDO’s) notice of voluntary discontinuance was untimely because it was filed after the defendants filed motions to dismiss:
BDO unilaterally filed a notice of voluntary discontinuance. This notice was untimely because BDO served it after defendants filed their motions to dismiss (see CPLR 3217[a]; … David D. Siegel, Practice Commentaries, McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 7B, CPLR C3217:8 ["[t]he defendant who has moved to dismiss under CPLR 3211 has already done as much in the litigation (and more) than if she had merely answered the complaint"]). Indeed, if a motion to dismiss is not a "responsive pleading" within the meaning of CPLR 3217(a)(1), a plaintiff would be able to freely discontinue its action without prejudice solely to avoid a potentially adverse decision on a pending dismissal motion. This Court has made clear that such conduct is improper … . Thus, BDO's notice was ineffective and a nullity… . BDO USA, LLP v Phoenix Four Inc, 2014 NY slip Op 00410, 1st Dept 1-23-14
Judicial Estoppel Applies Only to Party Who Prevailed in Prior Proceeding
The First Department explained that the concept of judicial estoppel only applies to the prevailing party in the prior action:
Contrary to defendant's argument, plaintiffs' previous assertion of their own claim for contractual indemnification does not judicially estop them from denying that defendant is entitled to indemnification of attorneys' fees under the agreement. The doctrine of judicial estoppel " precludes a party who assumed a certain position in a prior legal proceeding and who secured a judgment in his or her favor from assuming a contrary position in another action simply because his or her interests have changed'" … . As plaintiffs did not prevail on their contractual indemnification claim, the doctrine of judicial estoppel does not apply… . Wells Fargo Bank NA v Webster Bus Credit Corp, 2014 NY Slip Op 00412, 1st Dept 1-23-14
What To Do If the District Attorney Does Not Wish to Prosecute But the Judge Does
The Third Department determined a trial judge exceeded his powers when he ordered the prosecutor to produce witnesses at a suppression hearing. The prosecutor did not wish to proceed with the case. The Third Department determined that the prosecutor could not be ordered to produce witnesses at the suppression hearing (the prosecutor’s tactic for dismissing the case) because the CPL did not require the prosecution to present such witnesses. The Third Department went on to suggest that, in this situation, a motion for “dismissal in the interest of justice” might be used, or the prosecutor could simply not present any inculpatory proof at trial:
A district attorney has "unfettered discretion to determine whether to prosecute a particular suspect" … . Once prosecution of the case is pursued and pending, the district attorney remains "presumptively the best judge of whether a pending prosecution should be terminated" …; nonetheless, at such point dismissal cannot properly be done unilaterally on the sole whim of the district attorney … . * * * Unless the district attorney has engaged in egregious misconduct violative of the public interest, the limitation generally will not create difficulty in obtaining swift dismissal where a defendant also desires dismissal, since various procedures are available for disposing of a pending criminal case.
For example, a motion to dismiss in the interest of justice can be made (see CPL 170.40; see also CPL 210.40). Such motion can be initiated by a defendant, a district attorney, or even by the court before which the case is pending * * *. Although there are statutory criteria that must also be addressed as part of a motion to dismiss in the interest of justice (see CPL 170.40  [a]-[j]), the criteria include a catchall (see CPL 170.40  [j]), and there is flexibility in the manner in which the criteria are weighed and applied … . * * *
Another, but more time consuming, option is similar to the one ostensibly embarked upon by petitioner. Consistent with the CPL, a district attorney can stipulate at a suppression hearing to the granting of a defendant's motion (see CPL 710.60  [b]). Further, the failure at an eventual trial to produce any inculpatory proof would result in dismissal and, since reprosecution would then be precluded (see e.g. CPL 40.20, 40.30), the primary purpose for abolishing nolle prosequi would not be implicated … . Matter of Soares v Carter…, 517191, 3rd Dept 1-23-14
Counsel’s Expressed Objections to His Client’s Motion to Withdraw His Guilty Plea Required the Assignment of New Counsel
The Second Department determined defendant should have been assigned a different attorney after his attorney expressed objections to the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea:
Assigned counsel expressed his opinion that the defendant should "maintain his plea" and informed the court that he didn't "feel that [he] could represent [the defendant] at any further proceedings." The defendant's right to counsel was adversely affected when his attorney took a position adverse to the defendant's with respect to that branch of the defendant's motion which was to withdraw his plea of guilty to attempted use of a child in a sexual performance … . The County Court should have assigned a different attorney to represent the defendant before it determined that branch of the defendant's motion… . People v Duart, 2014 NY Slip Op 00373, 2nd Dept 1-22-14
Attorney’s Defamation Suit Against Client Based Upon Letters Sent to the Attorney by the Client Dismissed
In a full-fledged opinion by Justice Saxe, the First Department determined that letters written by a client to an attorney, terminating the attorney’s employment, were not actionable under a defamation theory for three reasons: the statements constituted opinion; the statements were absolutely privileged; and the statements were qualifiedly privileged. With respect to qualified privilege, the First Department wrote:
…[T]he statements contained in defendants' letters would be subject to a qualified privilege as communications upon a subject matter in which both parties had an interest … . "The shield provided by a qualified privilege may be dissolved if plaintiff can demonstrate that defendant [made the statement] with malice,'" which may mean either spite or ill will, or knowledge that the statement was false or made in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity … . The statement must have been made with a proper purpose, and publication must be in a proper manner and to proper parties only … .
A client's letter to an attorney terminating the attorney's services and explaining the client's perceived grounds for the termination qualifies as a communication on a subject in which sender and recipient have a shared interest. Where the letter is sent only to the attorney, and access to its contents is limited to the recipient and the defendant (which includes any of defendant's employees who assisted in its preparation), proper publication is established as a matter of law. Plaintiff's bare allegations of malice are insufficient to prevent dismissal on this ground.
"The threat of being put to the defense of a lawsuit . . . may be as chilling to the exercise of First Amendment freedoms as fear of the outcome of the lawsuit itself" … . As a matter of public policy, which should protect open and honest communication between attorneys and their clients, clients must be permitted to make such claims, or complaints, directly to their attorneys, and to their attorneys alone, without threat of a lawsuit. Frechtman v Gutterman, 2014 NY slip Op 00437, 1st Dept 1-23-14
Stipulation that Did Not Comply with Child Support Standards Act Upheld
In upholding a child support stipulation which did not comply with the Child Support Standards Act (CSSA), the Second Department explained the procedure for waiving the act:
Parties to a separation agreement are free to "opt out" of the provisions of the CSSA so long as their decision is made knowingly … . To ensure that waivers of the statutory provisions of the CSSA are truly knowingly made, Domestic Relations Law § 240(1-b)(h) requires specific recitals: (1) that the parties have been made aware of the CSSA; (2) that they are aware that the guidelines would result in the calculation of the presumptively correct amount of support; (3) that in the event the agreement deviates from the guidelines, it must recite the presumptively correct amount of support that would have been fixed pursuant thereto; and (4) the reason for the deviation … . The policy reasons underlying the requirement that waivers must be knowingly made are so strong that agreements that do not comply with the strictures of the CSSA are invalid and unenforceable, at least to the extent of the child support provisions set forth therein… . Rockitter v Rockitter, 2014 NY Slip Op 00336, 2nd Dept 1-22-14
Analytical Criteria for Stipulation of Settlement Which Is Incorporated But Not Merged
In finding that a stipulation of settlement did not obligate the parties to file joint income tax returns, the Second Department explained the analytical criteria to be applied to a stipulation that is incorporated but not merged into a judgment of divorce:
" A stipulation of settlement which is incorporated but not merged into a judgment of divorce is a contract subject to principles of contract construction and interpretation'" … . " Where such an agreement is clear and unambiguous on its face, the intent of the parties must be gleaned from the four corners of the instrument, and not from extrinsic evidence'" … . "A court may not write into a contract conditions the parties did not insert or, under the guise of construction, add or excise terms, and it may not construe the language in such a way as would distort the apparent meaning" … . "Moreover, a court cannot reform an agreement to conform to what it thinks is proper, if the parties have not assented to such a reformation"… . Tamburello v Tamburello, 2014 NY Slip Op 00342, 2nd Dept 1-22-14
Separate Dispositional Hearing to Determine Best Interests of the Child Appropriate in Mental Illness Parental-Rights Termination Proceeding
The Second Department explained when a separate dispositional hearing is appropriate in a proceeding to terminate parental rights based on mental illness:
Although, in the context of a proceeding pursuant to Social Services Law § 384-b to terminate parental rights based on mental illness, a separate dispositional hearing is not necessarily required in every case … the circumstances of a particular case may warrant a dispositional hearing such that a court's determination to forgo such a hearing constitutes an improvident exercise of discretion … . Here, the evidence adduced at the fact-finding hearing indicated that the mother consistently continued her treatment, successfully completed parenting classes, and regularly visited the subject child. Furthermore, the record indicated that the subject child, who is now 13 years old, has long opposed adoption and has expressed a desire to maintain a close relationship with her mother. Under these circumstances, the court should have granted the mother's motion for a dispositional hearing so that the parties could introduce evidence as to which of the dispositional alternatives would be in the best interests of the child… . Matter of Christina LN, 2014 NY Slip Op 00361, 2nd Dept 1-22-14
2009 Statute Setting Aside Money for Increased Judicial Compensation Did Not Constitute a Pay Raise for Judges
The Second Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Miller, determined that a 2009 law which set aside $51 million for increases in judicial pay did not increase judicial compensation. The plaintiffs, judges and justices, argued that the legislation effected a pay raise because it did not reference the need for any future legislation:
To accept the plaintiffs' argument would require us to conclude that the Legislature intentionally deleted what would have been explicit amendments to the salary schedule set forth in article 7-B of the Judiciary Law so that judicial compensation could be adjusted by utilizing the doctrine of repeal by implication, in conjunction with the implementation of the deleted salary schedules… . Pines v State of New York, 2014 NY Slip Op 00335, 2nd Dept 1-22-14
“Foreseeability” In the Context of a Building Collapse
The First Department explained the “foreseeability” aspect of a Labor Law 240(1) action stemming from the collapse of a building:
A plaintiff in a case involving collapse of a permanent structure must establish that the collapse was "foreseeable," not in a strict negligence sense, but in the sense of foreseeability of exposure to an elevation-related risk… . Garcia v Neighborhood Partnership Hous Dev Fund Co Inc, 2-14 NY Slip Op 00298, 1st Dept 1-21-14
Question of Fact Whether Vacuuming an HVAC Duct Was a Covered Cleaning Activity Under the Labor Law
The Second Department determined there was a question of fact whether vacuuming an HVAC duct was a covered “cleaning” activity under Labor Law 240(1):
Outside the sphere of commercial window washing (which is covered by Labor Law § 240), the determination of whether an activity may be characterized as "cleaning" under the statute depends on a consideration of four factors. An activity cannot be considered "cleaning" under the statute if it: "(1) is routine, in the sense that it is the type of job that occurs on a daily, [*2]weekly or other relatively-frequent and recurring basis as part of the ordinary maintenance and care of commercial premises; (2) requires neither specialized equipment or expertise, nor the unusual deployment of labor; (3) generally involves insignificant elevation risks comparable to those inherent in typical domestic or household cleaning; and (4) in light of the core purpose of Labor Law § 240(1) to protect construction workers, is unrelated to any ongoing construction, renovation, painting, alteration or repair project" … . Collymore v 1895 WWA, LLC, 2014 NY Slip Op 00320, 2nd Dept 1-22-14
Tenant Who Successfully Defended a Landlord’s Holdover Action Entitled to Attorney’s Fees
The First Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Renwick, over a dissent, determined that a tenant who prevailed in the defense of the landlord’s holdover proceeding was entitled to attorney’s fees pursuant to Real Property Law 24:
We now find that, having prevailed in his defense of the landlord's holdover proceeding, the tenant is entitled to recover attorneys' fees pursuant to Real Property Law § 234. That section states that when a lease provides for a landlord's recovery of attorneys' fees resulting from a tenant's failure to perform any covenant under a lease, a reciprocal covenant "shall be implied" for the landlord to pay attorneys' fees incurred as a result of either its failure to perform a covenant under the lease or a tenant's successful defense:
"Whenever a lease of residential property shall provide that in any action or summary proceeding the landlord may recover attorneys' fees and/or expenses incurred as the result of the failure of the tenant to perform any covenant or agreement contained in such lease, or that amounts paid by the landlord therefor shall be paid by the tenant as additional rent, there shall be implied in such lease a covenant by the landlord to pay to the tenant the reasonable attorneys' fees and/or expenses incurred by the tenant as the result of the failure of the landlord to perform any covenant or agreement on its part to be performed under the lease or in the successful defense of any action or summary proceeding commenced by the landlord against the tenant arising out of the lease."
The overriding purpose of the statute is to provide a level playing field between landlords and tenants, by creating a mutual obligation that is an incentive to resolve disputes quickly and without undue expense … . As a remedial statute, Real Property Law § 234 should be accorded its broadest protective meaning consistent with legislative intent … . The outcome of any claim pursuant to Real Property Law § 234 depends upon an analysis of the specific language of the lease provision at issue in each case to discern its meaning and import … . Graham CT Owner’s Corp v Taylor, 2014 NY Slip Op 00311, 1st Dept 1-21-14
Question of Fact About Negligent Supervision at Skating Rink
The Second Department determined there was a question of fact whether injury incurred at defendant’s skating rink was the result of defendant’s negligent supervision:
Those charged with supervising a skating rink cannot be held liable for an injury if the act precipitating the injury was so sudden that no amount of supervision could have averted the accident … . Thus, where reckless behavior that is over and above the usual dangers inherent in the activity of skating is claimed to have caused the injury, the issue of whether the proprietor was negligent in supervising the skaters turns on whether the proprietor had sufficient notice of the allegedly reckless conduct so as to permit it to prevent the injury through the exercise of adequate supervision … . The duration and nature of the allegedly reckless conduct are factors that bear on this issue… . Fader v Town of Oyster Bay, 2014 NY Slip Op 00324, 2nd Dept 1-22-14