422 F.3d 77 (2nd Cir. 2005), 04-5876, Hoblock v. Albany County Bd. of Elections

Docket Nº:Docket Nos. 04-5876-CV(L), 04-5993-CV(XAP).
Citation:422 F.3d 77
Party Name:William M. HOBLOCK, Candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 26th District, and Lee R. Carman, Candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 29th District, Plaintiffs-Appellees-Cross-Appellants, Philip Sgarlata, Patricia Sgarlata, John Stewart, Carol Stewart, Mary Maybee and Ellen Graziano, and other voters similarly situated, Plaintiffs-App
Case Date:September 02, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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422 F.3d 77 (2nd Cir. 2005)

William M. HOBLOCK, Candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 26th District, and Lee R. Carman, Candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 29th District, Plaintiffs-Appellees-Cross-Appellants,

Philip Sgarlata, Patricia Sgarlata, John Stewart, Carol Stewart, Mary Maybee and Ellen Graziano, and other voters similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

The ALBANY COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee,

Richard A. Gross, Candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 26th District, and Gene Messercola, Candidate for Albany County Legislator for the 29th District, Defendants.

Docket Nos. 04-5876-CV(L), 04-5993-CV(XAP).

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.

Sept. 2, 2005

Argued March 3, 2005.

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Tom Marcelle, Albany, New York, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

Michael C. Lynch, Albany County Attorney's Office, Albany, New York, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before: WALKER, Chief Judge, CARDAMONE and B.D. PARKER, Circuit Judges.

JOHN M. WALKER, JR., Chief Judge.

Because of litigation in state and federal courts, winners have yet to be declared in an election for two seats in the Albany County, New York, Legislature first scheduled for November 2003 and not held until April 2004. Appellant, the Albany County Board of Elections, would like to

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declare the winners, and the New York Court of Appeals has instructed the Board to exclude certain absentee ballots in doing so. Appellee voters, along with two candidates who have since dropped out of the case, argued in the district court (Lawrence E. Kahn, Judge ) that their constitutional rights would be violated if the Board certified the election results without counting the disputed absentee ballots, and the district court preliminarily enjoined the Board from certifying the election results.

The Board argues that under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the district court should have dismissed the voters' suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction in light of earlier state-court litigation over the absentee ballots. The Board also contends that state-law principles of claim and issue preclusion require dismissal of the voters' suit. 1 Alternatively, the Board asserts that on the merits, this court should vacate the district court's preliminary injunction because the voters have not sufficiently established that their constitutional claim is likely to succeed. Although we are unpersuaded by the Board's arguments, we remand the case to the district court for further proceedings and leave the preliminary injunction in place.

I. BACKGROUND

This appeal is the latest installment in litigation that began in 2003 over elections for the Albany County Legislature. In August 2003, ruling on a challenge brought by voters and the NAACP, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York held that Albany County's redistricting plan for the then-upcoming November 2003 election likely violated the federal Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973. Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany ( Arbor Hill I ), 281 F.Supp.2d 436, 456-57 (N.D.N.Y.2003). Although the district court ultimately approved a substitute redistricting plan, by then it was too late to hold the November 2003 election in accordance with the substitute plan, and the district court declined to order a special election. Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany ( Arbor Hill II ), 289 F.Supp.2d 269, 276-77 (N.D.N.Y.2003); see also Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany ( Arbor Hill III ), 357 F.3d 260, 262 (2d Cir.2004) (per curiam). On appeal, this court partially reversed the district court's decision and ordered that a special primary election be held in March 2004 and that a special general election be held thereafter on a schedule and subject to procedures to be established by the district court on remand. Arbor Hill III, 357 F.3d at 263.

As directed by the district court on remand, the Albany County Board of Elections issued absentee ballots for the March 2004 special primary to voters who had requested absentee ballots for the originally scheduled Fall 2003 general or primary elections. The Board also issued absentee ballots for the special general election, scheduled for April 27, 2004, to those same voters. Gross v. Albany County Bd. of Elections ( Gross III ), 3 N.Y.3d 251, 785 N.Y.S.2d 729, 819 N.E.2d 197, 198 (N.Y.2004) (per curiam). The district court,

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however, had directed that ballots for the special general election be issued in accordance with Article 8 of the New York Election Law, which would have required voters to file a new request for such ballots. Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, No. 03 CV 502, slip op. at 6-7 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 2, 2004); N.Y. Elec. Law § 8-400. Contrary to Article 8's requirement, the Board issued the special-general-election ballots, as it had issued the special-primary-election ballots, without the voters' having filed a new request for absentee ballots.

The absentee ballots for the April 2004 special general election could determine the election to two seats in the Albany County Legislature. Candidates Hoblock, a Republican, and Gross, a Democrat, vied for the 26th District seat; candidates Carman, a Republican, and Messercola, a Democrat, contested the 29th District seat. After the machine count of votes (not including absentee ballots), the election was close: according to the complaint, Hoblock led Gross by three votes, while Messercola led Carman by four votes. On May 5, 2004, when the Board of Elections convened to hand count the absentee ballots, all four candidates raised various challenges. The Board then decided to postpone counting those ballots until a state court ruled on their validity.

All four candidates petitioned the New York Supreme Court in Albany County to have various absentee ballots invalidated; the Board opposed the petition. 2 The state court's opinion reveals that the candidates challenged a total of 83 absentee ballots (Carman challenged 18, Gross 24, Hoblock 16, and Messercola 25). Of the 83 ballots, 40 were challenged on the basis that the Board improperly issued them based on a November 2003 absentee-ballot application and 43 were challenged on other grounds. Of these 43 ballots, the state court invalidated 6 but held 37 to be valid; none of them is at issue in the current litigation.

The state court held that the 40 ballots issued based on November 2003 absentee-ballot applications were invalid because they were issued in violation of the district court's order and Article 8 of the New York Election Law. See Gross v. Albany County Bd. of Elections ( Gross I ), No. 2703-04, slip op. at 4-5 (N.Y. Sup.Ct. June 1, 2004). The Appellate Division, with two judges dissenting, affirmed on the same grounds. Gross v. Albany County Bd. of Elections ( Gross II ), 10 A.D.3d 476, 781 N.Y.S.2d 172, 174 (App.Div.2004) (per curiam); see id. at 176-77 (Spain, J., joined by Carpinello, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). On October 14, 2004, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division's decision, again for the reasons relied on by the trial court and again with two judges dissenting. Gross III, 785 N.Y.S.2d 729, 819 N.E.2d at 202-03; id. at 203-06 (Rosenblatt, J., joined by R.S. Smith, J., dissenting).

Having lost in state court, candidates Hoblock and Carman sued in federal district court along with seven voters (who claim to sue on behalf of other similarly situated voters). 3 The plaintiff voters and

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candidates claimed, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that the Board's refusal to tally the challenged absentee ballots violated their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment's due-process and equal-protection clauses. The district court dismissed the claims of Hoblock and Carman, see Hoblock v. Albany County Bd. of Elections, 341 F.Supp.2d 169, 178 (N.D.N.Y.2004), and they have not appealed the dismissal. The district court also preliminarily enjoined the Board from certifying the election results without tallying the challenged absentee ballots. Id. The Board has now appealed the district court's order granting the preliminary injunction; the district court has yet to rule on the merits of the voters' § 1983 claim.

II. DISCUSSION

A. The Rooker-Feldman question

Where a federal suit follows a state suit, the former may be prohibited by the so-called Rooker-Feldman doctrine in certain circumstances. See 18B Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice & Procedure: Jurisdiction 2d § 4469.1 (2002). The district court raised Rooker-Feldman sua sponte and determined that the doctrine barred the claims of candidates Hoblock and Carman, but not those of the voters. Hoblock, 341 F.Supp.2d at 172-75. Hoblock and Carman abandoned their appeal, so we do not consider whether the district court properly dismissed their claims. We must, however, consider the Board's argument that the district court should have also dismissed the voters' claims on Rooker-Feldman grounds. Because Rooker-Feldman goes to subject-matter jurisdiction, we review de novo the district court's application of the doctrine. Rivers v. McLeod, 252 F.3d 99, 101 (2d Cir.2001) (per curiam).

The Supreme Court's recent decision in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. ----, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 161 L.Ed.2d 454 (2005), examined the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as it has been applied by the lower federal courts. Exxon Mobil thus requires us not only to evaluate how the district court applied Rooker-Feldman, but also to examine anew the doctrine itself.

The...

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