Brignall v. N.Y. State Unified Court Sys.

Decision Date13 April 2022
Docket NumberE2022-0241cv
Citation2022 NY Slip Op 34074 (U)
PartiesAMY BRIGNALL, FRAN-MARIE CHERESNOWSKY, PAUL DIPIERRO, JAMIE HAWLEY, GERARD KAELIN, GWEN NANIA, MEREDITH PRATI, NYS COURT EMPLOYEES FOR MEDICAL FREEDOM, INC., Petitioners, v. NEW YORK STATE UNIFIED COURT SYSTEM, OFFICE OF COURT ADMINISTRATION, HON LAWRENCE K. MARKS CHIEF ADMINISTRATIVE JUDGE, NEW YORK STATE UNIFIED COURT SYSTEM, JUSTIN A. BARRY CHIEF ADMINISTRATOR NEW YORK STATE UNIFIED COURT SYSTEM, NANCY J. BARRY CHIEF OF OPERATIONS NEW YORK STATE UNIFIED COURT SYSTEM, Respondents.
CourtNew York Supreme Court
Unpublished Opinion
DECISION, ORDER AND JUDGMENT

Kevin M. Nasca, J Petitioners having filed an order to show cause on March 15 2022, and upon reading and considering the affirmation of Corey J. Hogan, Esq. filed March 15, 2022, and exhibits A - B thereto; petitioners' Verified Petition and Complaint filed March 8, 2022, and exhibits A - L thereto; the expert affidavit of Clayton J. Baker, M.D., C.M. dated February 19,2022, and exhibit A thereto; the expert affidavit of Paulette Niewczyk, MPH, PhD dated March 4,2022, and exhibit A thereto; notice of cross-motion filed March 29, 2022, the affidavit of Justin A. Barry dated March 29,2022, and exhibits 1-10 thereto; and this matter having come before this court for oral argument on April 4,2022, the following constitutes the decision, order and judgment of this court.

BACKGROUND

In September 2021, the Unified Court System ("UCS") issued a policy requiring all UCS employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 ("Vaccination Policy"). The Vaccination Policy allowed employees to seek both medical and religious exemptions from the Vaccination Policy, which included a multilayered review by a committee. Petitioners seek to enjoin respondents from enforcing the Vaccination Policy. Petitioners filed the foregoing special proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78, 42 USC 1983, and 42 USC 1988 seeking: (i) injunctive relief for violations of petitioners' rights under the United States and New York State Constitutions; (ii) challenges to the constitutionality and applicability of the vaccine mandate for employees promulgated by respondents; and (iii) reimbursement of attorney's fees, costs, and expenses incurred by petitioners in seeking to protect against the violation of their rights. (NYSCEF Doc. No. 1).

Petitioners thereafter filed an order to show cause seeking a preliminary injunction pursuant to CPLR 6301, 6311, and 7805, enjoining respondents from enforcing the Vaccination Policy for UCS employees issued by way of memorandum dated September 10 2021, on the grounds that: (i) the Vaccination Policy is arbitrary, capricious, irrational, unnecessary and an abuse of respondents' discretion in this matter; (ii) respondents have proceeded in excess of their jurisdiction; and (iii) the Vaccination Policy violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and is void and unenforceable. In response, respondents filed a cross-motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), on the ground that the Verified Petition and Complaint fail to state a cause of action.

DECISION

I. Preliminary Injunction

Petitioners argue that they are entitled to a preliminary injunction because the vaccine mandate is arbitrary and capricious. Petitioners assert that the penalty for UCS employees who fail to comply with the Vaccination Policy is, in effect termination.

To prevail on a motion for a preliminary injunction, the moving party has the burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence: "(1) a likelihood of success on the merits; (2) irreparable injury in the absence of injunctive relief; and (3) a balance of equities in its favor." Eastman Kodak Co. v. Carmosino, 77 A.D.3d 1434, 1435 [4th Dept 2010], citing Nobu Next Door, LLC. v. Fine Arts Hous., Inc., 4 N.Y.3d 839, 840 [2005]; Sutherland Global Servs., Inc. v. Stuewe, 73 A.D.3d 1473, 1474 [4th Dept 2010]; Marcone APW, LLC v. Servall Co., 85 A.D.3d 1693, 1695 [4th Dept 2011]; Doe v. Axelrod, 73 N.Y.2d 748, 750 [1988]. A preliminary injunction is a drastic remedy and should be issued sparingly. Eastman Kodak, 77 A.D.3d at 1435, citing Sutherland, 73 A.D.3d at 1474. The decision to grant or deny a preliminary injunction is within the sound discretion of the court. Nobu, 4 N.Y.3d at 840; Masjid Usman, Inc. v. Beech 140, LLC, 68 A.D.3d 942, 942 [2d Dept 2009]. However, if any one of the three requirements are not satisfied, the application for a preliminary injunction will be denied as a matter of law without the need to address the remaining prongs of the test. Axelrod, 73 N.Y.2d at 751; Matter of Rochester Police Locust Club, Inc. v. City of Rochester, 176 A.D.3d 1646,1647 [4th Dept 2019].

A. Preliminary Injunction on Petitioners' CPLR Article 78 Cause of Action i. Success on the Merits

Petitioners argue that they have made a prima facie showing of their right to relief. Petitioners argue that Article 78 of the CPLR allows petitioners to seek injunctive relief from "arbitrary and capricious" determinations made by the Unified Court System ("UCS"), Office of Court Administration ("OCA"), and their officers. Petitioners argue that the Vaccination Policy arbitrarily deemed petitioners, who are unvaccinated against COVID-19, as "unfit to work" and is without sound basis in reason, logic, law, or fact. Petitioners argue that the Vaccination Policy requires UCS employees, including those who have developed natural immunity from COVID-19, to be vaccinated, despite having at least equally as strong protection from the virus. Petitioners also argue that respondents proceeded without and/or in excess of their jurisdiction in adopting the Vaccination Policy, and failed to articulate the authority for such implementation.

The first prong of a preliminary injunction review is whether the moving party has established a likelihood of ultimate success on the merits. Axelrod, 73 N.Y.2d at 750. The moving party need not demonstrate a certainty of success on the merits, only the likelihood of success. Holdsworth v. Doherty, 231 A.D.2d 930, 930 [4th Dept 1996]. However, ''when the facts necessary to establish the cause of action are, as here, in sharp dispute," a preliminary injunction should not be issued. Holdsworth, 231 A.D.2d at 930, quoting Sutton, DeLeeuw, Clark & Darcy v. Beck, 155 A.D.2d 962, 963 [4th Dept 1989]. On judicial review of an administrative action under CPLR Article 78, courts must uphold the administrative exercise of discretion unless it has "no rational basis" or the action is "arbitrary and capricious." Pell v. Bd of Educ. Union Free Sch. Dist., 34 N.Y.2d 222, 230-231 [1974]. Judicial review of an administrative determination under CPLR Article 78 is limited to the "evaluation of whether the determination is consistent with lawful procedure, whether it is arbitrary or capricious, and whether it is a reasonable exercise of the agency's discretion." Dist. Council 37, Am. Fedn. of State, County &Mun. Empl., AFL-CIO v. City of New York, 804 N.Y.S.2d 10, 14 [1st Dept 2005]; citing Pell, 34 N.Y.2d at 230-231. Where the administrative interpretation is founded on a rational basis, the interpretation should be affirmed. Mid-State Mgt. Corp. v. New York City Conciliation and Appeals Bd., 112 A.D.2d 72, 76 [1st Dept 1985]. A court may not substitute its judgment for that the of the agency. Mid-State Mgt. Corp., 112 A.D.2d at 76; Matter of Ignizio v. City of New York, 85 A.D.3d 1171, 1174 [2d Dept 2011].

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, UCS followed the guidance of public health authorities at the federal, state, and local levels, in order to take what it deemed appropriate steps to provide the safest and healthiest environment possible for individuals who need to access the legal system, as well as for judicial and non-judicial employees of UCS. (NYSCEF Doc. Nos. 39, ¶3-4, ¶31; 41, pg. 21, ¶26). As UCS's constitutionally mandated mission is to provide an accessible forum for justice for litigants who use the court system, UCS determined that the most important element to restart in-person operations and to maintain a safe environment for judges, non-judicial employees, and court users, was the widespread vaccination of its employees against COVID-19. (NYSCEF Doc. No. 39, ¶3-5). UCS implemented the Vaccination Policy as a means of minimizing the spread of CO VID-19 throughout the UCS courtrooms, protecting the safety of UCS employees and the public, avoiding shortages of essential staff members, and enabling UCS to maintain an accessible forum for justice. (NYSCEF Doc. No. 39, ¶5). While petitioners do not agree with the appropriateness of the Vaccination Policy, such is not a basis to disturb the determination. UCS had a rational basis for implementing the Vaccination Policy as a means for achieving its goal of minimizing the spread of COVID-19 through the UCS facilities and maintaining an accessible forum for justice. Ferrelli v. State of New York Unified Ct. Sys., 2022 U.S. Dist LEXIS 39929, *19, 2022 WL 673863, *6 [ND NY March 7,2022, No. 1:22-CV-0068].

Petitioners' argument regarding respondents' authority to impose the Vaccination Policy is also without merit. Access to the legal system is an inherent right of citizenship guaranteed by the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Matter of Lippman v. Pub. Empl. Relations Bd., 746 N.Y.S.2d 77, 81 [3d Dept 2002]. UCS issued the Vaccination Policy pursuant to its constitutionally delegated authority to enact policies that enable it to meet its constitutional obligations of facilitating public access to the courts. The New York State Constitution specifically states that there shall be a unified court system for the state. NY Const, art VI § 1 (a). The New York State Constitution further provides that the chief judge of the...

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