Morgan v. Sylvester

Decision Date26 October 1954
PartiesJudith MORGAN, Plaintiff, v. George SYLVESTER, Nathaniel Goldstein, Wendell P. Brown, Sydney F. Foster, Christopher J. Heffernan, Francis Bergan, O. Byron Brewster, William H. Coon, Thomas E. Dewey, and MacNeill Mitchell, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of New York


Judith Morgan, New York City, plaintiff pro se.

Nathaniel L. Goldstein, Atty. Gen., Samuel A. Hirshowitz, Asst. Atty. Gen., of counsel, for defendants.

WEINFELD, District Judge.

Plaintiff asserts a claim under the Civil Rights Act1 against various judicial, executive, and legislative officials of the State of New York. The defendants answered2 and now move, pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C.A., for judgment on the pleadings or, in the alternative, for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff and the defendants having submitted affidavits, the motion is treated as one for summary judgment.

Plaintiff, following a suicide attempt, was committed to a state mental institution pursuant to an order of the New York State Supreme Court made after a hearing conducted in accordance with the provisions of the Mental Hygiene Law.3 She was confined for a period of sixty-seven days4 from February 25th, 1947 to May 4th, 1947.

About two years after her release she filed a claim against the State of New York in its Court of Claims5 to recover damages for (a) illegal commitment to, and detention at, a state mental institution; (b) gross negligence, abuse and denial of medical treatment and hospitalization while confined at the state institution; (c) malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance while held as an inmate; and (d) deprivation of liberty, civil rights, contributing to the death of her mother and personal suffering to plaintiff. The issues were tried before a Judge of the Court of Claims who after a five-day trial rendered judgment dismissing the claim upon the merits. In substance the Trial Court found that the commitment was properly made and issued by a Court of competent jurisdiction, and as to the claim for damages while confined to the mental institution, that the plaintiff had failed to establish her charges by a fair preponderance of the evidence.

Upon appeal by plaintiff to the Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department, the judgment of dismissal was unanimously affirmed.6 A motion to that Court for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals was denied,7 and, finally, a similar motion made directly to the Court of Appeals was likewise denied.8 Plaintiff never applied for certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Thereafter, in 1953, at the instance of the plaintiff, a bill was introduced and passed in both houses of the New York State Legislature which, in effect, would have permitted a relitigation of the plaintiff's rejected suit before the Court of Claims, but it was vetoed by the Governor in April 1953. In April 1954, plaintiff requested a State Senator to reintroduce the bill but he refused, as did the member of the Assembly who had sponsored it in the previous session.

The present action followed and is brought against the Judge of the Court of Claims who rendered the judgment against her, the five judges of the Appellate Division who voted affirmance of the judgment, the Attorney General who defended the State's interests before the Court of Claims and the Appellate Division, the Solicitor General who was of counsel on the State's brief submitted to the Appellate Division, the Governor of the State who vetoed the bill, and the Senator who in 1954 refused to reintroduce it.

Plaintiff in the State Court proceedings appeared pro se as she does in the present suit.

The complaint, as is not unusual in this circumstance, is prolix, repetitive and contains much irrelevant matter. Stripped of its excessive and at times intemperate verbiage, and construed liberally,9 it appears to charge that defendants (Par. 4) maliciously and corruptly "conspired to obstruct and defeat the due course of justice with intent to deprive her of her constitutional rights under Amendment XIV of the Constitution of the United States, to the equal protection of the laws and equal privileges and immunities under the laws, and did so deprive plaintiff who had lawfully petitioned the State of New York to be redressed for personal injuries wilfully inflicted on her, * * *" and conspired to and did "injure her in mind, body, property and reputation by inflicting upon her further cruel, inhuman and unusual punishments by grossly oppressive injustices for having, exercising and attempting to enforce her constitutional right to a fair trial for the proper redress to which she was lawfully entitled as a substantial right by denying to her the equal protection of the laws."

The next paragraph sets forth alleged overt acts on the part of individual defendants which may be summarized as follows:

(a) The Trial Judge and the Attorney General withheld "five subpoenaed `adverse and hostile' witnesses from attending the trial to testify";

(b) The Trial Judge impeded the presentation of her case by

(1) obtaining her consent to examine a witness over the telephone;

(2) aiding witnesses hostile to her and curtailing their examinations;

(3) manifest hostility to a witness called by her;

(4) refusing to afford plaintiff an opportunity to submit a brief; and, finally,

(5) deciding the case against her despite "a veritable mountain of credible and convincing evidence";

(c) The State Solicitor General by submitting a brief to the Appellate Division "replete with fraudulent and wilfully distorted statements of the facts and testimony showing an utter disregard for the indisputable documentary evidence";

(d) The Justices of the Appellate Division by affirming the "fraudulent" dismissal of the claim notwithstanding that one of them, the Presiding Justice, at the end of her oral argument, had advised her "that she had proven a conclusive case, that her claim would be `sent back to the lower court for an award of damages or a new trial'";

(e) The Governor by vetoeing the bill passed by the Legislature which would have permitted a rehearing of her claim;

(f) The State Senator by his refusal to aid the plaintiff further in her right again to appeal to the Legislature.

The complaint further alleges that all of the acts were committed by the various defendants under color of law and intended to obstruct and defeat the due course of justice and to deprive plaintiff of (a) her constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment to the equal protection of the laws and the equal privileges and immunities under the law; (b) her constitutional right to a fair trial; (c) her right to petition for redress of grievances.

Thus, plaintiff's claim essentially rests upon § 1985 of Title 42 U.S.C., which grants a right of action "if two or more persons conspire for the purpose of impeding, hindering, obstructing, or defeating, * * * the due course of justice in any State * * * with intent to deny to any citizen the equal protection of the laws, or to injure him or his property for lawfully enforcing, or attempting to enforce, the right of any person, or class of persons, to the equal protection of the laws". This section and its companion section, 1983, "gave a right of action, sounding in tort, to every individual whose federal rights were trespassed upon by any officer acting under pretense of state law."10 However, the defendants contend that this right of action granted by the apparently unqualified language of the Civil Rights Act is not unlimited. They urge that as legislative, judicial and quasi-judicial officials, they are immune from civil liability for acts performed within the scope of their official duties.

The basic issue is whether or not the Civil Rights Act of 1871 abrogated the pre-existing absolute immunity of judicial and legislative officers from civil liability for acts performed in the course of their official duties. As to legislators, Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367, 71 S.Ct. 783, 95 L.Ed. 1019, upheld the continued existence of the immunity. However, the issue as to judicial officers has not as yet been passed upon by the Supreme Court and those Courts of Appeals which have considered the issue are not in accord. Thus, Picking v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 3 Cir., 151 F.2d 240 and McShane v. Moldovan, 6 Cir., 172 F.2d 1016, hold that the common law immunity of judges from civil suit was overridden by the Civil Rights Act, whereas the more recent case of Francis v. Crafts, 1 Cir., 203 F.2d 809, takes the contrary view.11

However unsettled the law on this subject may have been up to the present, I am persuaded that the Supreme Court ruling in Tenney v. Brandhove, supra, charts a clear course. There the Supreme Court held that the Civil Rights Act did not abrogate the immunity enjoyed by legislators, for acts performed within the scope, and during the course, of their official duties, whether maliciously motivated or otherwise. After reviewing the long and historic struggle of the English Parliament to secure the privilege of freedom from arrest or civil process for things said or done during the course of legislative proceedings and the adoption of that hard-won principle by early American legislative bodies, Mr. Justice Frankfurter posed the rhetorical question:

"Did Congress by the general language of its 1871 statute mean to overturn the tradition of legislative freedom achieved in England by Civil War and carefully preserved in the formation of State and National Governments here? Did it mean to subject legislators to civil liability for acts done within the sphere of legislative activity?"12

And speaking for the Court he answered:

"We cannot believe that Congress — itself a staunch advocate of legislative freedom — would impinge on a tradition so well grounded in history and reason by covert

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