New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

RIVERS, SR. v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-007-056, Claim No. 94730, Motion No. M-61853


Offensive use of collateral estoppel not permitted under the prevailing facts and circumstances.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):

John L. Bell
Claimant's attorney:
Mark A. Schneider, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General (Kevan J. Acton, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, of Counsel)
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 20, 2000

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimant has made an application for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability with respect to his causes of action for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. The following papers were read and considered by the court:

Notice of Motion, Revised Notice of Motion,

Affirmation of Mark A. Schneider, Esq.,
Annexed Exhibits, Memorandum of Law 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Affirmation in Opposition of Kevan J. Acton,

Esq., Affidavit of Richard J. O'Brien,

Affidavit of Douglas B. Appel, Memorandum
of Law 6, 7, 8, 9

Reply Memorandum of Law of Claimant 10

Filed Papers: Second Amended Claim,
Answer to Second Amended Claim 11, 12

On March 29, 2000, following the presentation of proof in a trial in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Trooper Richard J. O'Brien, who had been sued by claimant for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment in an action pursuant to 42 USC § 1983. Ironically, claimant now seeks to use the Federal court jury's answer to the first question on the special verdict sheet to establish liability of the State for the acts of Trooper O'Brien under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. The paradoxical quandary before this court is whether one favorable aspect in a special verdict can be extracted from an overall unfavorable verdict and subsequently be used as the premise upon which to position liability as a matter of law under collateral estoppel.

In September 1995, Trooper O'Brien went to claimant's home in the Town of AuSable, Clinton County, to discuss with claimant information the trooper had received indicating that claimant's son, Steven Rivers, had threatened a fellow student at AuSable Valley Central School.[1] The threats were purportedly made because such student was ostensibly cooperating with police in an investigation regarding several stolen cars. Trooper O'Brien recalled that claimant seemed genuinely upset and intent upon ensuring that his son would not continue such conduct. Shortly thereafter, however, Trooper O'Brien was contacted regarding further threats made by claimant's son to the same student. Following an investigation, which included interviewing several individuals and obtaining a sworn statement from the threatened student, Trooper O'Brien requested and received an arrest warrant from a Town Justice of the Town of AuSable.

On September 27, 1995, at approximately noon, Trooper O'Brien proceeded to claimant's premises intent upon arresting claimant's son. Upon arriving at claimant's premises, the trooper was invited into the home by claimant's wife and he informed claimant's son that he was going to take him to appear before a judge. Claimant's son refused to accompany the trooper. Claimant ostensibly entered the room and a verbal confrontation ensued. Trooper O'Brien asked claimant to assist in keeping matters calm and reminded him that as a State correction officer claimant was a peace officer (see, CPL 2.10). Claimant, however, purportedly told his son that he did not have to go with the trooper. When Trooper O'Brien attempted to place claimant's son in the troop car, a melee ensued in which, at one point, claimant grabbed his son, pulled him away from the trooper and allegedly stated, "We're getting out of here." Other relatives of claimant also became involved in the fracas. Trooper O'Brien used pepper spray to help quell the incident and eventually additional police officers arrived at the scene.

Claimant was arrested and charged with the crimes of resisting arrest and failing to assist a peace officer upon command. He was detained at a State Police substation in the Village of Keeseville until 5 p.m. Claimant pleaded not guilty to the charges. On November 10, 1995, claimant was acquitted by a jury following a trial in the Justice Court of the Town of AuSable. Claimant commenced an action against defendant in the Court of Claims and against Trooper O'Brien in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.[2] The Federal court action was tried in March 2000. The first question on the verdict sheet asked jurors:
Do you find that defendant O'Brien had probable cause to arrest plaintiff Rivers with respect to the following charges at the time he seized the plaintiff:

Refusing to Aid a Police Officer on Command:

Resisting the arrest of Steven Rivers:

The jurors answered "no" regarding both the charges. The verdict sheet instructed jurors to then proceed to the next question, which asked:
Do you find that a reasonable police officer in the defendant's position would have believed his conduct was legal?

The jurors answered the question in the affirmative. The action was therefore dismissed upon the ground that Trooper O'Brien's actions were protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity (see, Anderson v Creighton, 483 US 635). Claimant now seeks to use the jury's response to the first question to impose liability upon defendant in this court for the common-law torts of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

Defendant's argument that the Federal court jury's verdict was internally inconsistent as a matter of law and thus cannot serve as a predicate for collateral estoppel is unpersuasive. A jury's answers to special interrogatories should be construed, if possible, as consistent (see, Atlantic & Gulf Stevedores v Ellerman Lines Ltd., 369 US 355, 364; Robinson v Cattaraugus County, 147 F3d 153, 160). While a cursory reading of the findings of the special verdict could cause concern about their cohesiveness, closer scrutiny reveals that the findings comply with established Federal law. A Section 1983 cause of action alleging false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment is not established merely upon a showing of no probable cause for the arrest. The analysis must include a determination whether the police officer was protected by qualified immunity (see, e.g., Anderson v Creighton, supra; Lauro v Charles, 219 F3d 202; Linen v County of Rensselaer, AD2d , 711 NYS 2d 236). One of the grounds for qualified immunity provides that an arresting officer is not liable if his or her actions were objectively reasonable at the time they were taken (see, e.g., Lee v Sandberg, 136 F3d 94). The test for immunity regarding allegations of false arrest has been further refined to provide that "an officer is entitled to qualified immunity * * * for arrest without probable cause if either (a) it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that probable cause existed, or (b) officers of reasonable competence could disagree on whether the probable cause test was met" (Golino v City of New Haven, 950 F2d 864, 870, cert denied sub nom Lillis v Golino, 505 US 1221). Federal courts have consistently instructed that an arrest without probable cause may nevertheless be protected by qualified immunity (see, e.g., Lee v Sandberg, supra; Lennon v Miller, 66 F3d 416). Here, the Federal court jury determined that, while no probable cause existed for the arrest, the trooper's conduct was protected by qualified immunity.

Although defendant's argument that the verdict was inconsistent as a matter of law is rejected, the primary issue of whether claimant should be permitted to use the extracted favorable aspect of the special verdict remains. The two requirements that must be established before collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, may be employed are as follows: (1) the identical issue was necessarily decided in the prior action; and (2) the party to be precluded had a full and fair opportunity to contest the prior determination (see, e.g., D'Arata v New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 76 NY2d 659, 664; Kaufman v Lilly & Co., 65 NY2d 449, 455). The elements of the doctrine, however, are "not to be mechanically applied as a mere checklist" (Staatsburg Water Co. v Staatsburg Fire Dist., 72 NY2d 147, 153). Indeed, when the Court of Appeals expanded the doctrine of collateral estoppel to its modern framework in Schwartz v Public Administrator (24 NY2d 65), the Court recognized that many factors could be implicated when considering whether to employ the doctrine, such as "the size of the claim, the forum of the prior litigation, the use of initiative, the extent of the litigation, the competence and experience of counsel, the availability of new evidence, indications of a compromise verdict, differences in applicable law and foreseeability of future litigation" (id., at 72; see, Ryan v New York Tel. Co., 62 NY2d 494, 501). More recently, the Court of Appeals has stated that collateral estoppel is "an elastic doctrine" and its elements are "intended as a framework, rather than a substitute, for analysis" (Staatsburg Water Co. v Staatsburg Fire Dist., supra, at 153). The goals of the doctrine include reducing litigation and conserving resources of the court and litigants (see, e.g., Kaufman v Lilly & Co., supra, at 455). Sprinkled throughout the cases in which the doctrine is discussed is an overriding concern that the use of collateral estoppel must be compatible with notions of fundamental fairness (see, e.g., Matter of Halyalkar v Board of Regents of State of N.Y., 72 NY2d 261, 268-269; Matter of Reilly v Reid, 45 NY2d 24, 28).

The United States Supreme Court has stated that allowing offensive collateral estoppel may be "unfair to a defendant if the judgment relied upon as a basis for the estoppel is itself inconsistent with one or more previous judgments in favor of the defendant" (Parklane Hosiery v Shore, 439 US 322, 330-331; see, Hardy v Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 681 F2d 334, 346). The New York State Court of Appeals has indicated that special findings rendered by a jury that were favorable to a plaintiff within the context of an overall unfavorable verdict could not be subsequently used by the plaintiff to attain judgment in his favor (Brizse v Lisman, 231 NY 205; see, Greene v Town of Blooming Grove, 935 F2d 507, 512, cert denied 502 US 1005 [the Second Circuit, in a parenthetical summary of the holding in Brizse, stated "special verdict findings by jury for plaintiff in case where ultimate verdict rendered in favor of defendants held to have no collateral estoppel effect against defendants in any future action brought by plaintiff against defendants"]).

Here, the court finds several important policy considerations emanating from the rationale undergirding collateral estoppel weigh against use of the doctrine. Significantly, as cited above, cases from both the United States Supreme Court and the New York State Court of Appeals reflect serious concern about the potential for unfairness and injustice in the offensive use of the doctrine under the prevailing circumstances. Moreover, employing the doctrine would not necessarily advance the goal of reducing litigation (see, Parklane Hosiery v Shore, supra, at 329 [explaining that the offensive use of collateral estoppel often does not promote judicial economy in the same manner as defensive use does]). For example, should collateral estoppel be applied here, future defendants who won a case but had an unfavorable aspect contained within the special verdict might feel compelled to seek further judicial review. The jury in the Federal court action had, in essence, different or at least additional law available to reach a verdict of dismissal than is available in the State common-law causes of action. Federal law permits a finding of no liability based upon qualified immunity, which is not a defense to the State common-law causes of law. Furthermore, claimant has failed to indicate whether he sought to have his common-law causes of action considered within the supplemental jurisdiction of the Federal court (28 USC § 1367; see, e.g., Mine Workers v Gibbs, 383 US 715).[3] The specter of a possible compromise in the Federal jury's determination, in which it made an initial finding for claimant but ultimately returned a verdict of dismissal, cannot be totally ignored. If, however, claimant had attempted to preserve judicial resources by seeking to present all the causes of action to a single jury through the use of the Federal court's supplemental jurisdiction, there might have been no need to now speculate about the jury's determination. While the court is certainly not suggesting that offensive collateral estoppel is inapplicable in the Court of Claims (see, Pratt v State of New York, 181 Misc 2d 488), the court nevertheless is not convinced that fundamental fairness will be best advanced within the context of the facts and circumstances surrounding the current claim by permitting the offensive use of collateral estoppel by claimant.[4] Claimant's motion is thus denied.


September 20, 2000
Plattsburgh, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

Since claimant is moving for partial summary judgment, the facts set forth in the papers are construed in favor of defendant for purposes of the current motion (see, e.g., Currier v Wiltrom Assocs., 250 AD2d 956).
In June 1997, the parties executed and the court ordered a conditional dismissal of the claim pending in the Court of Claims, thus allowing the Federal action to proceed to trial first. Pursuant to the terms of the stipulation, claimant was permitted to reactivate the claim, and he did so in April 2000 following a result unfavorable to him in Federal court.
While supplemental jurisdiction is discretionary (see, e.g., 28 USC § 1367[c]; Hagans v Lavine, 415 US 528, 545; Viacom Intl. v Kearney, 212 F3d 721, 728), the failure by claimant to pursue such an avenue mitigates against permitting him to now invoke a doctrine designed, in part, to reduce litigation. The court is cognizant that the Eleventh Amendment bars claimant from using supplement jurisdiction to bring an action directly against the State in Federal court (see, Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v Halderman, 465 US 89, 120-121). Supplemental jurisdiction, however, regarding the inclusion of common-law causes of action against Trooper O'Brien would have been within the discretion of the court (see, Rodriguez v Phillips, 66 F3d 470, 482-83). The court notes that because of the discretionary nature of supplemental jurisdiction, significant weight is not being placed in its decision upon claimant's failure to indicate whether he attempted to have his common-law claims considered in Federal court.
Since the court is not permitting claimant to use collateral estoppel, it is not necessary to address the issue of whether such doctrine, if employed, would have been sufficient to establish as a matter of law all the elements of false imprisonment (Broughton v State of New York, 37 NY2d 451) and malicious prosecution (Smith-Hunter v Harvey, 95 NY2d 191).