Red Light Camera Claim
Since their installation, many members of the citizenry (and the bar) have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to find a way to undermine Nassau and Suffolk County’s red light camera monitoring system. For example, one may argue that the cameras are unconstitutional because, as nonhumans, the cameras do not afford the driver the right to confront their accuser, in violation of the due process right under the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, this argument has been dispensed by courts because the traffic offender does not face a criminal conviction, and thus, has no such constitutional rights. See, County of Nassau v. Levine, 29 Misc.3d 474, 482 (Dist. Ct. Nassau Cnty. 2010).
The most recent challenge was also turned away, this time in federal Court, and upon different grounds. In Leder v. Am. Traffic Solution, the plaintiff, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, brought an action the Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Bureau (“Nassau County”), American Traffic Solutions, Inc. (“ATS”), the vendor used by Nassau County to install and service the Red Light Camera (“RLC”) program, and ATS Consolidated, Inc., the sole shareholders of ATS. The Complaint alleged violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the Due Process Clause of the New York State Constitution, Section 11 of the State Civil Rights Law, common law unjust enrichment, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.
Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that she received a ticket for a “right on red rolling stop.” She was afforded the opportunity to challenge the violation in traffic court, but instead paid the $65 fine. She claims that the RCL program is required to conform to certain federal standards, namely, that the yellow lights be maintained for a minimum of three seconds. She contends that the duration of yellow lights in certain spots in Nassau County has been shortened to less than three seconds, as a way to increase the number of tickets, and thereby result in increased revenues for Nassau County. The Plaintiff relied on a study by the Texas Transportation Institute which concluded that for every second that the yellow light duration is shortened, red light violations doubled.
The defendants, separately, moved to dismiss each of the plaintiff’s causes of action.
First, plaintiff did not oppose defendants’ arguments against her claims brought under the Equal Protection Clause, the procedural component of the Due Process clause, as well as the claims under the New York State Civil Rights Law. Court’s “generally will deem a claim abandoned when a plaintiff fails to respond to a defendant’s arguments that the claim should be dismissed.” Thus, these claims were dismissed.
Next, plaintiff’s substantive due process claim failed because the $65 fine she paid, does not amount to a “valid property interest or fundamental right” so to support a substantive due process claim. Typically, substantive due process claims are reserved for allegations that the State has infringed on a citizen’s right to marriage, family, procreation or the right to bodily integrity — “not actions which will result in relatively small fines.” Moreover, even if deprivation of $65 was a sufficient “property interest” within the meaning of this analysis, plaintiff could not show that “that defendant infringed on that right by conduct that shocks the conscience or suggests a gross abuse of governmental authority.”
Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim also failed because it requires a showing that the defendant should, “in equity and good conscience,” return the money taken. Here, the court held that not only is this claim duplicative of the substantive due process claim, and thus must be dismissed, but because plaintiff did not even exercise her right to contest her ticket, but instead, voluntarily paid it, Nassau County need not “in equity and good conscience,” return the money. Thus, this claim also failed.
As to the Plaintiff’s finals claims, for declaratory and injunctive relief, these causes of action and remedies must be predicated upon another valid cause of action, of which the plaintiff has none. Accordingly, the Court granted the Defendants’ separate motions to dismiss, and plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed.
Stipulation and Eviction Upheld
A recent decision of the Supreme Court, Appellate Term, reinforced the finality of stipulations of settlement, particularly those which were entered into in open court, and where the parties were represented by counsel.
In a landlord-tenant matter, the landlord brought a non-payment summary proceeding alleging that the tenant had not paid its rent in three months. After four more months of litigation, the parties ultimately entered into a stipulation, pursuant to which the landlord was awarded a judgment for possession, a money judgment for $56,000 (i.e., eight months of unpaid rent), and a warrant of eviction, the execution of which would be stayed for three weeks, until January 31, 2012. The stipulation allowed the tenant to avoid eviction if he satisfied the money judgment by the end of the month. Hernco, LLC v. Hernandez, 46 Misc.3d 137(A) (App. Term. 2d Dept. 2015).
On February 21, 2012, the tenant made a $32,000 payment towards the money judgment. According to the tenant, at this time the parties were negotiating a new lease. However, the landlord was apparently under a different impression, as the warrant was executed and the tenant was evicted on March 26, 2012. As a result, the tenant moved, by order to show cause, in the landlord-tenant Court, for a stay of the enforcement of the final judgment, among other relief. In an affidavit, the tenant questioned the propriety of the March eviction, claiming that the landlord promised a new lease, which was never delivered, in exchange for his $32,000 payment. In the alternative, the tenant sought the return of his $32,000 payment, claiming that the landlord fraudulently induced the tenant into making this payment. The tenant also claimed that there were defects in the original service of process and requisite notices, which required vacatur of the stipulation and judgment.
The Court rejected all of these arguments. First, as to the service of process and requisite notice, any such defects did not affect the Court’s jurisdiction, and, in any event, were at this point deemed waived. As to the stipulation, the Court noted that stipulation of settlements “may be vacated on grounds sufficient to set aside a contract, such as fraud, mistake, collusion or accident.” The tenant does not claim that any such defenses were present at the time the stipulation was signed; rather, it was the landlord’s actions subsequent to the stipulation which the tenant argued preclude its enforcement. The Court held that if the landlord’s actions did in fact create new rights between the parties, the proper course of action is to commence a plenary action to review these facts as well as the law. These were not issues properly before the landlord-tenant Court in the underlying proceeding. The same rang true for the refund of the $32,000 sought by the tenant. Thus, the tenant’s motion was denied, and the eviction upheld.
Defaulting Defendant May Still Win
As a plaintiff, when the defendant defaults in answering the complaint, obtaining a judgment seems like a mere formality. At that point, the concern typically turns to collecting on the judgment, which can often prove even more difficult. However, in a rather bizarre case, this is not what happened to the plaintiff in Ghosh v. Neurological Services of Queens, P.C.See, 2015 WL 431807 (E.D.N.Y. 2015).
There, the plaintiff, Siddharth N. Gosh, a citizen of India, resident of New Jersey, and licensed physical therapist, brought an action against his former employer. The complaint alleged that plaintiff was hired at a salary of $70,000 under a one year contract. After the contract expired, plaintiff continued to perform his duties, and was paid in the regular course of business. In May 2011, however, defendant began to delay payment to plaintiff. The last pay check issued to plaintiff was dated December 30, 2011, but was for the pay period July 16, 2011 through July 30, 2011. Plaintiff nevertheless continued to work up until mid-March 2012, when he arrived at work to find the office doors locked, and the space completely emptied.
Plaintiff brought this action, under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the New York Labor Law (“NYLL”), and common law. Plaintiff calculated the amount owed to him as $47,788.05, before taxes and withholdings. Defendants never answered the complaint, and plaintiff moved for a default judgment under FRCP 55.
FRCP 55 sets forth a two-step process for obtaining a default judgment. First the clerk of the court enters the party’s default, and second, the plaintiff must apply for a default judgment. Even though defendants defaulted, the plaintiff still has the burden of establishing entitlement to a default judgment. Courts “supervise default judgments with extreme care to avoid miscarriages of justice. Thus, while the defaulting defendant is deemed to have admitted all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint pertaining to liability, a district court has discretion . . . to require proof of necessary facts and need not agree that the alleged facts constitute a valid cause of action. Additionally, allegations in the complaint pertaining to damages are not deemed admitted and require an independent evidentiary determination.”
Here, plaintiff’s sole federal claim came under the FLSA. That statute requires employers to pay certain employees who engage in commerce . . . a minimum wage.” Plaintiff alleges defendants violated this provision when they failed to pay him for a period of about six months. The FLSA, however, does not apply to “bona fide professional employees.” This includes employees who are compensated on a salary basis by at least $455 per week, “and whose primary duties require advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning.” Here, plaintiff was a licensed physical therapist with a master’s degree in science, as well as a $70,000 per year salary. He is clearly a bona fide professional under the FLSA. Thus, the Court denied his federal minimum-wage claim.
Now, because this was the only federal cause of action alleged in the complaint, the Court no longer has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331’s “federal question” authority. But, because there is complete diversity between the plaintiff and defendants, meaning that they are not citizens of the same state, if it can be demonstrated that the total recovery (i.e., the amount in controversy), is $75,000 or more, the Court may retain jurisdiction. This required the Court to assess plaintiff’s other causes of action arising under the NYLL and common-law.
Under the NYLL, “a plaintiff cannot assert a statutory claim for unpaid wages . . . if he has no enforceable contractual right to those wages.” Here, the plaintiff’s original contract expired in January 2011, well before defendants began withholding payment. Although the common-law rule is that “where one enters the employment of another for a fixed period at a stated annual salary, and the employment continues beyond that period, the presumption is continuance of the relationship for another year at the same salary.” Here, however, the contact itself stated that “both parties will have the option to renew this agreement annually.” Thus, because the agreement imposes an express obligation on the parties to extend the term of employment, the rule cannot be used to imply mutual and silent assent. As a result, the plaintiff was considered an at-will employee, and unable to state a cause of action under the NYLL for unpaid “contractual” wages. Therefore, no recovery is possible under this cause of action orplaintiff’s next cause of action for breach of contract.
With respect to plaintiff’s quantum meruit cause of action, plaintiff must demonstrate, among other things, the reasonable value of his services. Unfortunately, plaintiff’s own complaint alleges that the reasonable value of his services are only $47,775. Thus, he cannot meet the jurisdictional threshold amount in controversy under this theory either.
Lastly, plaintiff’s causes of action for compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful termination fail as a matter of law because New York does not recognize these actions for at-will employees. Thus, it is legally certain that he will not prevail on this claim.
As a result, the federal Court lacked any jurisdiction to enter the default judgment. The federal cause of action was patently meritless, and the amount in controversy was too low. Thus, even though defendants defaulted, plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed. However, this does not prevent plaintiff from re-filing in State court, and ultimately succeeding under his quantum meruit theory.