July Part IV
Summaries of recently released decisions to be included in the next issue of the Digest (uncorrected)
Trivial Defect in Sidewalk Not Actionable/First Floor
Tenant Abutting Sidewalk Not a Proper Defendant
In a sidewalk slip and fall case, over a substantial dissent, the First Department determined “a three-quarter-inch expansion joint, which was not filled to grade level, coupled with a one-fourth-inch height differential between slabs … was “trivial” and therefore not actionable as a matter of law…”. Although there was evidence the width of the expansion joint exceeded the Department of Transportation construction specifications, the First Department noted there was no evidence the sidewalk was constructed with the defect. The First Department also dismissed the action against the first-floor commercial tenant of the abutting building on the ground that the tenant was not an owner within the meaning of section 7-210 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. Fayolle v East W Manhattan Portfolio LP, 2013 NY Slip Op 05431, 1st Dept 7-23-13
Janitorial Schedule Alone Not Enough to
Demonstrate Lack of Constructive Notice
In a slip and fall case, over a dissent, the First Department determined the defendant did not demonstrate a lack of constructive notice of a wet substance on the stairway of defendant’s apartment building. Although the defendant produced evidence of a janitorial schedule, the defendant did not present any evidence the schedule was followed on the day of the accident:
…[D]efendant submitted the deposition testimony of its superintendent about the building's regular janitorial schedule. However, it offered no evidence that the schedule was followed on the day of the accident … . Moreover, constructive notice remains an issue in this case because defendant made no showing as to when the stairway was last inspected before plaintiff's accident… . Gautier v 941 Intervale Realty, LLC, 2013 NY Slip Op 05432, 1st Dept 7-23-13
Dismissal of Complaint Was Too Severe a
Sanction for Spoliation
The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) sued a security company and others based upon a fire that apparently was started by a cigarette carelessly thrown into a wastebasket. During discovery defendants requested the surveillance video. Plaintiff had reviewed the video and apparently had deleted portions of it considered unnecessary. Defendants’ motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3126 (spoliation of evidence) was granted and the complaint was dismissed. The First Department determined dismissal of the complaint was too severe a penalty and ordered that plaintiff be precluded from using the video as evidence. The court explained:
As a threshold issue, NYCHA unconvincingly argues that no sanction is appropriate because litigation was not pending when the video was edited. For a spoliation sanction to be applicable, there need only be the "reasonable anticipation of litigation" … . The day after the fire, [NYCHA] was already viewing and editing the video, identifying images he thought would be relevant to determine how the fire started. These actions indicate that NYCHA may have been contemplating litigation, or at least wanted to identify the culpable person, and therefore the records were destroyed with a "culpable state of mind" … . For the purposes of a spoliation sanction, "[a] culpable state of mind . . . includes ordinary negligence"… .
Although NYCHA should be sanctioned for the destruction of portions of the surveillance video, the dismissal of the complaint was too harsh a remedy. Dismissing an action is "usually not warranted unless the evidence is crucial and the spoliator's conduct evinces some higher degree of culpability" … . It is a "drastic sanction" and should only be done when a party has destroyed key evidence… .
The record does not support defendants' contention that dismissal is required because the unredacted video is key evidence without which they will be "substantially prejudiced"… . New York City Hous Auth v Pro Quest Sec, Inc, 2013 NY Slip Op 05429, 1st Dept 7-23-13
E-Mail Met All Criteria for a Stipulation of
Settlement Including the “Subscribed Writing” Requirement
In a full-fledged opinion by Justice Sgroi, the Second Department determined an e-mail message satisfied the criteria of CPLR 2104 as a binding and enforceable stipulation of settlement.
The e-mail, written by plaintiff’s counsel, read:
"Per our phone conversation today, May 3, 2011, you accepted my offer of $230,000 to settle this case. Please have your client executed [sic] the attached Medicare form as no settlement check can be issued without this form.
"You also agreed to prepare the release, please included [sic] the following names: Xerox Corporation, Gelco Corporation, Mitchell G. Maller and Sedgwick CMS. Please forward the release and dismissal for my review. Thanks Brenda Greene."
The court determined the phrase “Thanks Brenda Greene” rendered the e-mail a subscribed writing:
…[W]e hold that where, as here, an email message contains all material terms of a settlement and a manifestation of mutual accord, and the party to be charged, or his or her agent, types his or her name under circumstances manifesting an intent that the name be treated as a signature, such an email message may be deemed a subscribed writing within the meaning of CPLR 2104 so as to constitute an enforceable agreement. Forcelli v Gelco Corp, 2013 NY Slip Op 05437, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Family Offense of Disorderly Conduct Not Proven---No Proof
of Public Inconvenience, Annoyance, or Alarm
In a full-fledged opinion by Justice Skelos, the Second Department determined the wife’s allegations against her husband did not demonstrate the family offense of disorderly conduct. The wife alleged the husband tried to push her down stairs, twisted her arm and pushed her against a wall. Under the Penal Law, disorderly conduct requires an intent to cause or the reckless creation of a risk of causing public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm. However, Family Court Act section 812 provides: “For purposes of this article, disorderly conduct included disorderly conduct not in a public place.” The Second Department determined that, even in the context of a family offense proceeding, the “public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm” element must be proven:
We … hold that, even where the conduct at issue is alleged to have occurred in a private residence, in order for a petitioner to meet his or her burden of establishing the family offense of disorderly conduct, there must be a prima facie showing that the conduct was either intended to cause, or recklessly created a risk of causing, public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm. The intent to cause, or recklessness in causing, public harm, is the mens rea of the offense of disorderly conduct … . The plain language of the subject provision of Family Court Act § 812, in contrast, provides only that the conduct need not occur in a public place (see Family Ct Act § 812). The plain language of Family Court Act § 812 therefore pertains only to the actus reus of the offense—specifically, the place where it is committed—and does not speak to the mens rea of the offense. Indeed, since Family Court Act § 812 does not specify an alternative culpable mental state, if the mens rea provided for in the Penal Law were not applicable in family offense proceedings, it is unclear what the mens rea of this family offense would be. * * *
One can certainly contemplate conduct occurring in a private residence that is intended to cause, or evinces a reckless disregard of causing, public harm. Such conduct might include, for example, a loud fight, or a loud argument with disturbing content, occurring in an apartment building late at night, or under other circumstances where the public may reasonably be expected to hear or see the altercation. As the Court of Appeals has observed, "the risk of public disorder does not have to be realized," in order to infer that an individual intended to cause, or recklessly disregarded the risk of causing, such a threat… . Matter of Cassie v Cassie, 2013 NY Slip Op 05446, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Out of State Visitation for All School Breaks and
Three-Day Weekends (In Addition To Summers)
Should Not Have Been Granted
The Second Department determined Family Court correctly awarded visitation with the father in Kentucky for the entire summer, but should not have awarded visitation with the father in Kentucky for school breaks and three-day weekends throughout the year: In remitting the matter for re-working the The visitation, the court wrote:
The provision of the visitation schedule which, in addition to the summer visitation, awards the father visits in Kentucky during school breaks for “every Thanksgiving, Christmas, winter, mid-winter, spring, and Easter,” effectively deprives the mother “of any significant quality time” with the children, and is therefore “excessive… . While that provision takes into account the children’s need to spend time with the father and his family, it does not take into account the importance of their relationship with the mother and her extended family, in that it deprives the children of contact “during times usually reserved for family gatherings and recreation” … . We note that the court-appointed forensic evaluator recommended that the parties share parenting time during major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. There was no contrary evidence that awarding all parenting time during these holidays to the father furthers the children’s best interests. The opinions of experts “are entitled to some weight” …, and, under the circumstances presented here, the Family Court should have awarded equal parenting time to the parties for these school breaks. Accordingly, we remit the matter to the Family Court to set forth a new visitation schedule regarding “Thanksgiving, Christmas, winter, mid-winter, spring, and Easter” that apportions those school breaks equally between the parties. Matter of Felty v Felty, 2013 NY Slip Op 05454, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Father’s Petition to Relocate to North Carolina Properly Denied
The Second Department determined Family Court had properly denied father’s petition for permission to relocate to North Carolina. A prior consent order had awarded joint legal custody with primary physical custody to the father. The father, who is in the military, was transferred from West Point to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The court explained the applicable (relocation) considerations as follows:
“Relocation may be allowed if the custodial parent demonstrates, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the proposed move is in the child’s best interests”…. When evaluating whether a proposed move is in the child’s best interest, “the factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, each parent’s reasons for seeking or opposing the move, the quality of the relationships between the children and each parent, the impact of the move on the quantity and quality of the children’s future contact with the noncustodial parent, the degree to which the lives of the custodial parent and the children may be enhanced economically, emotionally, and educationally by the move, and the feasibility of preserving the relationship between the noncustodial parent and the children through suitable visitation arrangements” … . Although a multitude of factors may be considered, “ the impact of the move on the relationship between the child and the noncustodial parent will remain a central concern’”…. Matter of Hirtz v Hirtz, 2013 NY Slip Op 05457, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Mother Did Not Stipulate to Order of Reference/Therefore
Referee Only Had Power to Hear and Report
The Second Department determined mother did not stipulate to the order of reference (referring the custody and visitation proceeding to a referee) in the manner required by CPLR 2104. Therefore, although the order of reference authorized the referee to “hear and determine the parties’ rights to custody … and visitation…,” absent the parties’ consent to the reference, the referee only had the power to hear and report.
…[T]he mother did not consent to the reference merely by participating in the proceeding without expressing her desire to have the matter tried before a judge… .
Accordingly, the Court Attorney Referee had no jurisdiction to determine, but only to hear and report, with respect to the parties’ respective petition and cross petition regarding custody and visitation…. Thus, the Court Attorney Referee’s decision … must be deemed a report (see CPLR 4320[b]), and the matter must be remitted for further proceedings pursuant to CPLR 4403 before a judge of the Family Court. Matter of McClarin v Valera, 2013 NY Slip Op 05461, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Where There Are Sharp Factual Disputes, Forensic
Evaluations Are Required for a Guardianship Determination
In a case with sharp factual disputes, the Second Department determined Family Court should not have decided the issue of guardianship without the aid of forensic evaluations:
The Family Court erred in deciding the issue of guardianship without the aid of forensic evaluations of Stephanie, Shanika, and Jada. Although forensic evaluations are not always necessary, such evaluations may be appropriate where there exist sharp factual disputes that affect the final… . Under the circumstances of this case, the record is inadequate to determine the best interests of the child, particularly as there was no expert assessment of the psychological impact of separating Jada from Shanika. In addition, given Stephanie's allegations of alcohol abuse by Shanika, and Shanika's allegations of alienation by Stephanie and Stephanie's current partner, forensic evaluations of Stephanie, Shanika, and Jada are proper to aid in the resolution of these factual issues. Matter of Shanika M v Stephanie G, 2013 NY Slip Op 05460, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Padilla v Kentucky, Which Held Attorney’s Failure to Inform Client of Immigration Consequences of Plea Was Ineffective Assistance, Not Applied Retroactively Under New York Constitution
The Second Department determined Padilla v Kentucky, 559 US 356, which held an attorney’s failure to inform his or her client of the immigration consequences of a plea constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, should not be applied retroactively under the New York Constitution:
In People v Pepper (53 NY2d 213, cert denied sub nom. New York v Utter, 454 US 1162), the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether a new rule should be retroactively applied under the New York Constitution. It recognized three factors a court should weigh to determine whether to retroactively apply a new rule: (1) the purpose to be served by the new standard, (2) the extent to which law enforcement authorities relied upon the old standard, and (3) the effect a retroactive application of the new standard would have on the administration of justice (see id. at 220). The Court of Appeals explained that "the extent of the reliance and the nature of the burden on the administration of justice are of substantial significance only when the answer to the retroactivity question is not to be found in the purpose of the new rule itself" (id.). Thus, a new rule that goes "to the heart of a reliable determination of guilt or innocence" will be retroactively applied "where otherwise there could be a complete miscarriage of justice" (id. at 221). However, a new rule which is "only collateral to or relatively far removed from the fact-finding process at trial" (id.), will have only prospective application. Although the Supreme Court in Padilla held that the Sixth Amendment requires criminal defense counsel to inform their clients whether a guilty plea carries a risk of deportation, this new rule, rather than going to the heart of a reliable determination of guilt or innocence, instead concentrates on the defendant's appreciation of the immigration consequences that may flow from an otherwise proper plea allocution … .
Retroactive application of Padilla is also not warranted under the second and third Pepper factors. With regard to law enforcement reliance, prior to Padilla, a defendant could prevail on an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim only if it was established that counsel rendered incorrect advice regarding the immigration consequences of the guilty plea and that the defendant was prejudiced thereby … . The failure to advise a defendant of the possibility of deportation did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel …, and such failure to advise did not "affect the voluntariness of a plea of guilty or the validity of a conviction" (CPL 220.50). Thus, under the old standard, prosecutors could recommend acceptance of plea allocutions even where the defendant had not been advised of the immigration consequences of entering into the plea …. As to the third factor, retroactive application of the Padilla rule would potentially lead to an influx of CPL 440.10 motions to vacate the convictions of defendants whose guilty pleas were properly entered and accepted by courts under the old standard …, thus adversely affecting the criminal justice system. Accordingly, we further find that under New York law, the Padilla rule should not be retroactively applied to cases like this one where the convictions became final prior to March 31, 2010, the date Padilla was decided. People v Andrews, 2013 NY Slip Op 05469, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Defendant’s Statements Made in Pre-Trial Plea
Negotiations Should Not Have Been Admitted at Trial
The Second Department determined the prosecutor should not have been allowed to introduce at trial statements made by the defendant in plea negotiations (the error was deemed harmless however):
The defendant and the People executed an agreement, whereby they agreed that the People could introduce those statements against the defendant at a trial, inter alia, "to rebut any evidence" offered by him or on his behalf. At the trial, the Supreme Court found that the defendant had triggered this provision of the agreement and permitted the People to introduce the subject statements.
Statements made during the course of plea negotiations can be used against a defendant only if the People specifically bargained for that…. Under the circumstances of this case, the Supreme Court improperly found that the defendant's trial attorney offered evidence and raised factual issues which triggered the agreement… . People v Thompson, 2013 NY Slip Op 05473, 2nd Dept 7-24-13
Depraved Indifference Murder of Child Count Should Not Have
Been Dismissed Based On the Grand Jury Evidence In Spite of Difficulty of Proving the Count at Trial
The Third Department determined the trial court should not have dismissed the count of the indictment which charged defendant with depraved indifference murder of a child. While acknowledging the prosecution may have difficulty proving the charge at trial, the court determined that a logical inference from the grand-jury proof was that the injuries defendant inflicted on the child were immediately and obviously very serious and defendant callously delayed getting help while minimizing his conduct and the seriousness of the injuries. In explaining the general criteria for the sufficiency of grand jury evidence, the court wrote:
In reviewing a motion to dismiss an indictment, courts view the evidence in a light most favorable to the People and determine only whether the evidence presented to the grand jury was legally sufficient … . "In the context of grand jury proceedings, 'legal sufficiency means prima facie proof of the crimes charged, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt'… . "The reviewing court's inquiry is limited to whether the facts, if proven, and the inferences that logically flow from those facts supply proof of every element of the charged crimes" … . "[I]f the prosecutor has established a prima facie case, the evidence is legally sufficient even though its quality or weight may be so dubious as to preclude indictment or conviction pursuant to other requirements" … . People v Waite, 105416, 3rd Dept 7-25-13
DISCIPLINARY HEARINGS (INMATES)
Criteria for Expungement Explained
In affirming Supreme Court’s annulment of the determination and grant of a new hearing because the recording of the proceeding was incomplete, the Third Department noted that the criteria for expungemet had not been met:
It is well settled that "[e]xpungement will be ordered only where there has been a showing that '(1) the challenged disciplinary determination is not supported by substantial evidence . . .; (2) there has been a violation of one of the inmate's fundamental due process rights, as enunciated in Wolff v McDonnell (418 US 539 ); or (3) other equitable considerations dictate expungement of the record rather than remittal for a new hearing'"… None of the foregoing situations is implicated here. Matter of Barnes v Fischer, 515146, 3rd Dept 7-25-13In
Behavior Did Not Warrant Removal from Hearing
In annulling the determination because the inmate’s behavior did not warrant his removal from the hearing, the Third Department wrote:
It is well settled that "[a]n inmate has a fundamental right to be present during a prison disciplinary hearing unless he or she is excluded for reasons of institutional safety or correctional goals" … . Here, petitioner objected to the continuation of the hearing after the prior Hearing Officer's recusal. It appears that the Hearing Officer became frustrated with petitioner's unwillingness to move forward and warned him that he could be removed. Petitioner then ceased objecting, entered his pleas of not guilty to the charges and stated that he wished to put "a lot" on the record. However, he then twice asked a question that the Hearing Officer apparently deemed irrelevant, and was abruptly removed from the hearing. Under these circumstances, we do not find that petitioner's conduct rose to the level of disruption that warranted excluding him from the remainder of the hearing… . Matter of German v Fischer, 515746, 3rd Dept 7-25-13
Major Capital Improvement Rent Increase Should Not
Have Been Denied in Its Entirety
In a full-fledged opinion by Justice Renwick, the First Department determined the NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s (DHCR’s) complete denial of a rent increase for a Major Capital Improvement (MCI) to an apartment building was arbitrary and capricious. In the past, DHCR had denied an MCI rent increase only with respect to a small percentage of all the apartments in the improved building which were experiencing problems (like water damage) after the improvement was complete. Here the DHCR had denied the increase in its entirety (for all apartments) based upon problems in a small number of apartments. In noting that the DHCR determination was not supported by any relevant precedent (one aspect of a court’s “arbitrary and capricious” review under Article 78), the First Department wrote:
It is well settled that "[j]udicial review of administrative determinations is limited to whether the determination was affected by an error of law or was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion… . Further, the Court of Appeals has held that an administrative agency's determination is arbitrary and capricious when it " neither adheres to its own prior precedent nor indicates its reason for reaching a different result on essentially the same facts'"… . "[A]n agency that deviates from its established rule must provide an explanation for the modification so that a reviewing court can determine whether the agency has changed its prior interpretation of the law for valid reasons, or has simply overlooked or ignored its prior decision'" … .
When a party mounts an attack upon a decision by DHCR as inconsistent with prior determinations, our task is to examine DHCR's precedent in similar situations. In those cases where the DHCR has denied an exterior renovation (waterproofing and pointing) MCI rent increase outright in the first instance, this Court has upheld such determinations where the owner failed to prove that the work was necessary and comprehensive… . There is, however, no evidence that the DHCR has ever had a specific policy to deny a rent increase outright in the first instance in the type of situation, as here, where defects (water damage) relating to the improvement are found in a relatively small number of the building's apartments. Nor does DHCR present any evidence of such policy. Matter of 20 Fifth Ave, LLC, 2013 NY Slip Op 05434, 1st Dept 7-23-13
TRUSTS AND ESTATES
Method of Service of Citation Should Be Calculated to
Provide Notice Based Upon Facts Known To Court
The Second Department determined a decree (admitting decedent’s will to probate) issued by Surrogate’s Court should have been vacated on the ground that decedent’s daughter (Ross) was never properly served with the citation and, therefore, the court never obtained personal jurisdiction over her. The Second Department explained that Surrogate Court should have fashioned a method of service, based upon the unique facts of the case known to the court, that was best calculated to notify Ross:
An elementary and fundamental requirement of due process in any proceeding which is accorded finality is notice reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections"… . In making a determination as to whether notice is "reasonably calculated," the unique information about an intended recipient must be considered, "regardless of whether a statutory scheme is reasonably calculated to provide notice in the ordinary case" … . Here, given that the Surrogate's Court was aware that Ross and her family would be away from her home in Sloatsburg until sometime in late September 2008, and was vacationing in Long Beach Island during that time, and given that there was no indication that Ross's address in Long Beach Island was unavailable, in order for notice of the probate proceeding to be reasonably calculated to reach Ross, the Surrogate's Court should have at least directed that the supplemental citation be mailed to Ross's address in Long Beach Island, instead of solely directing that the supplemental citation be mailed to Ross's address in Sloatsburg. Matter of Skolnick, 2013 NY Slip Op 05463, 2nd Dept 7-24-13