New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

FONTAINE v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-015-548, Claim No. 109452


Synopsis


Following trial, Court rejected the argument that State is immune from liability for purely governmental activity of DMV. Proper inquiry is not whether the act is uniquely sovereign, but whether the acts are a governmental function involving the exercise of discretion. While the record-keeping activities of DMV were ministerial in nature, claimant failed to establish that the State was negligent.

Case Information

UID:
2006-015-548
Claimant(s):
SCHUBER FONTAINE
Claimant short name:
FONTAINE
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
109452
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
Francis T. Collins
Claimant’s attorney:
Neal Forman, EsquireBy: Michael W. O'Sullivan, Esquire
Defendant’s attorney:
Honorable Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General
By: Michael C. Rizzo, EsquireAssistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
October 25, 2006
City:
Saratoga Springs
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

The trial of this claim alleging that the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) negligently failed to update the claimant's driver record was bifurcated by order of the Court dated March 6, 2006. The decision herein addresses solely the issue of liability.


The claimant testified on his own behalf that at "sometime in the year previous" to the arrest at issue herein he was issued a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. In early January, 2004 he was notified that he had failed to appear with regard to the previously issued seat belt ticket. Claimant testified that in response to the notice he went to the Department of Motor Vehicles, paid the appropriate fine and was given a new permanent driver's license.

Approximately two months later[1] the claimant was stopped by two New York City Police Officers as he left his office and was informed that either his signal light was not functioning or he had failed to properly signal a turn. The officers returned to their vehicle and thereafter informed the claimant that his license was suspended. The claimant was placed under arrest and taken to the 20th Precinct where he was fingerprinted and placed in a cell. Approximately one-half hour thereafter, Mr. Fontaine was taken to a separate room for questioning and then returned to the cell where he remained until 8:00 p.m. that evening. At that time the claimant was taken to a precinct house located on 44th Street where he remained until 9:00 a.m. at which time he was assigned a lawyer and arraigned. The claimant testified that he entered a plea of not guilty to a charge of driving with a suspended license and the case was adjourned upon posting of a $35.00 bond.

Following his release from custody on March 25, 2004 the claimant went to a local DMV Office and inquired as to why his license was suspended. Exhibit 7 is a copy of correspondence dated March 26, 2004 addressed to the claimant and signed by a representative of the Department of Motor Vehicles Traffic Violations Division. The correspondence reads as follows:
Dear Sir:

Our present Traffic Violation records do not contain any outstanding summonses issued in your name and DOB 4/20/57. You may take this letter to your local Motor Vehicle issuing office as confirmation that your current driver's license record is clear of any Traffic Violations scofflaw cases.

Your license was valid on 03/24/04.

On cross-examination the claimant testified that he was issued a ticket for failure to wear a seat belt during November, 2003. On or about January 18, 2004 he received notification from the Department of Motor Vehicles that his license had been suspended as a result of his failure to appear or respond with regard to the prior seat belt infraction. On January 20, 2004 he went to the Department of Motor Vehicles Office located on Rector Street in Manhattan where he paid a bond and was issued a new license.

Claimant testified that he lost his license approximately one month prior to his arrest on March 24, 2004. The claimant went to a Department of Motor Vehicles Office and was issued a replacement license. He was not informed at that time by DMV personnel that his license was suspended.

On March 24, 2004, the claimant was stopped while in his vehicle by two New York City Police Officers. Claimant testified that the officers approached his vehicle and that he provided them with his license and registration. Both officers then returned to their vehicle and later informed the claimant that he was under arrest for driving with a suspended license. Although claimant testified that his arrest resulted from a computer search of records made by the officers he also acknowledged that he did not know what information the officers entered into the computer in conducting their search (e.g., claimant's name, motorist ID, etc.). The claimant also acknowledged that various criminal court records (Exhibits 2, 2a, 2b, 2c, 2d) pertaining to his arrest and prosecution refer to him as "Schubar" Fontaine. The claimant's name is properly spelled "Schuber" Fontaine.

Finally, Mr. Fontaine testified that immediately following his release from custody on March 25, 2004 he went to a Department of Motor Vehicle Office and obtained an abstract of his license which did not show that his driving privileges were suspended on March 24, 2004. Various exhibits were received in evidence and the defendant moved to dismiss the claim at the close of claimant's proof for failure to establish a prima facie case. The Court reserved decision on the motion at trial. That motion is now denied.

The defendant called Carol Stone to the stand who testified that she has been employed by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles since 1987, and is currently a supervisor in the Department's communications and records office. She stated that she is familiar with the Department's computer record processes and procedures including those relating to license suspensions and the issuance of duplicate licenses. Ms. Stone testified that prior to issuing a duplicate license the Department searches the applicant's license record. If the original license is suspended, a duplicate license will not be issued.

The witness identified Exhibit A as an expanded ticket display containing information relating to ticket no. 4157799549 issued to the claimant Schuber Fontaine on November 12, 2003 for failure to wear a seat belt. Exhibit A reflects a return date of December 19, 2003 and that a scofflaw notice was mailed to the claimant on December 29, 2003 upon his failure to appear on the seat belt ticket. Exhibit A also relates that claimant's license was suspended on January 18, 2004 and that on January 20, 2004 the claimant paid a $40.00 bond, $35.00 suspension/termination fee and a fine. Claimant's license suspension was terminated as of January 20, 2004 upon payment of the bond, fee and fine.

The witness identified Exhibit B as a license display for Schuber Fontaine. The document contains the claimant's motorist identification number which is the same as shown on Exhibit D, an interim license issued to the claimant. Exhibit B contains an entry which indicates "CLEAR ON; 01/20/2004 scofflaw answered". Claimant's license status was indicated as "valid". According to Ms. Stone the claimant's license was valid on March 24, 2004 and any police officer accessing claimant's driving record would have been so advised.

On cross-examination the witness testified that changes or updates to driver records are processed automatically by the DMV computer system.

The defendant next called Stephen Mattison. Mr. Mattison testified that he is the manager of the DMV data processing unit and that he is familiar with the Department's computer systems relative to license sanctions, including suspensions. He identified Exhibit C as records obtained from the DMV license update program which he described as a computer program which runs each evening to update license records. Exhibit C contains log records relating to the claimant Schuber Fontaine and includes both his date of birth and client identification number.

According to the witness, license update program logs utilize numeric codes to identify license status and the dates of any changes thereto. Mr. Mattison marked Exhibit C to identify the numeric code which indicates that the claimant's license was suspended on January 18, 2004 and that the suspension related to a particular ticket issued to the claimant bearing ticket no. 4157799549. The witness also marked the exhibit to indicate a clearance transaction processed on January 28, 2004. The numeric code contained in the log indicates the reason for the clearance transaction was that the claimant had answered a ticket. Upon completion of the clearance transaction the claimant's license display as well as his license status was updated automatically.

Mr. Mattison testified that he is aware that law enforcement personnel access DMV license display files and that the files may be searched using a motorist's client identification number, motorist's identification number or name and date of birth. According to the witness the latest date by which DMV records would have shown the claimant's license as suspended was January 28, 2004, the date the clearance transaction was processed. After that date, claimant's license display would not have shown his license as suspended.

On cross-examination the witness testified that Exhibit C was produced "within the last month". He described Exhibit C as raw data shown or contained in the Department of Motor Vehicles computer archives. He agreed that expertise is required to read and interpret the coded information contained in the exhibit and that the information entered into the Department's computer logs is not checked or reviewed to make sure that the information entered is accurate.

Mr. Mattison testified that the New York State Police Information Network (NYSPIN) is an application used by police agencies to access Department of Motor Vehicle records. Information contained in DMV license update files are transmitted directly to NYSPIN which in turn makes the records available to police personnel. The witness testified that he is not aware of procedures in place to verify that the information given to NYSPIN by DMV is accurate.

On redirect the witness testified that based upon his review of Exhibits A, B and C, a check of the claimant's driving record on March 24, 2004 would have shown that his license was valid and would not have shown the license to be suspended.

The defendant rested upon the conclusion of Mr. Mattison's testimony and defense counsel renewed his previous motion to dismiss for failure to establish a prima facie case. That motion is denied.

Defendant argues in its post-trial brief that dismissal is appropriate on the ground that waiver of immunity from suit does not extend to claims arising out of the exercise of governmental activity that is uniquely sovereign in nature and foreign to any activity which could be carried on by a private person. The defendant cites Williams v State of New York, 90 AD2d 861, to support its contention that the recordkeeping activity of the DMV in this case was a purely governmental activity outside the scope of the State's waiver of immunity. Williams, however, was reconsidered by the Third Department in Ford Motor Credit Co. v State of New York, 133 AD2d 980. The claimant in Ford alleged that the certificate of title for a motor vehicle it owned was negligently issued to the lessee of the vehicle instead of to the claimant thereby resulting in damage to the claimant when the lessee sold the vehicle to a bona fide purchaser. Ford rejected the argument that Williams created a blanket sovereign immunity in the area of the State's recordkeeping activities stating: "[T]he issue is not merely whether those acts can be characterized as uniquely sovereign, but whether the acts constitute a governmental function involving the exercise of discretion"(id. at 981, citing Tango v Tulevech, 61 NY2d 34). The preparation of paperwork, the Court held, was a ministerial task not involving the exercise of reasoned judgment which could typically produce different results. Viewed as such, the activities of the State were not subject to sovereign immunity. The Court in Ford made clear that no exception to the traditional analysis exists where the activity is uniquely sovereign. Where the act is governmental in nature, liability may be imposed for ministerial acts under traditional tort principles (Lauer v City of New York, 95 NY2d 95, 99). Conversely, the State is immune from liability for the injurious consequences of official action involving the exercise of discretion (Tarter v State of New York, 68 NY2d 511) Defendant's argument that it is shielded from liability by a cloak of immunity for purely sovereign activities is therefore rejected.

Defendant makes no argument that the activities of the DMV were anything other than ministerial. Indeed, it is apparent from the testimony that the recordkeeping activities for which the claimant seeks to hold the State liable fall comfortably within the realm of exclusively ministerial acts for which the State may be found liable in negligence. Recovery is available, however, only if the ministerial action is otherwise tortious (Tango v Tulevich,, supra, at 40). The evidence presented at trial failed to establish that the defendant was negligent in its recordkeeping activities. Claimant argues in his post-trial brief that "[t]he claimant's arrest is proof positive that his license suspension was not removed and the State failed in its duty to timely post the same, resulting in his arrest and incarceration." Claimant argues in essence therefore that the arrest, without more, is sufficient circumstantial evidence of negligence to permit a finding of liability in his favor. While negligence may be proved circumstantially, and claimant need not " 'positively exclude every other possible cause' of the [incident] but defendant's negligence. . . . [His] proof must render those other causes sufficiently 'remote' or 'technical' to enable [the fact finder] to reach its verdict based not upon speculation, but upon the logical inferences to be drawn from the evidence" (Schneider v Kings Highway Hosp. Center, 67 NY2d 743,744 [citations omitted]; Gayle v City of New York, 92 NY2d 936; Burton v State of New York, 283 AD2d 875 ). As stated by the Court of Appeals in Bernstein v City of New York, 69 NY2d 1020, 1022 , "[i]f 'there are several possible causes of injury, for one or more of which the defendant is not responsible, plaintiff cannot recover without proving the injury was sustained wholly or in part by a cause for which the defendant was responsible.' " Significantly, the fact that claimant's criminal records reflect a misspelling of his name provides an equally plausible explanation for his arrest, i.e., that a mistake in inputting claimant's name while conducting a NYSPIN search resulted in the provision of erroneous information regarding the status of claimant's license. In this case, claimant failed to proffer direct evidence that DMV was negligent in its recordkeeping activities and the facts do not permit an inference of negligence by circumstantial evidence (see Nieskes & Craig v Schoonerman, 40 AD2d 931).

The evidence established that the latest date by which the DMV records would have shown the claimant's license as suspended was January 28, 2004 and that the information provided NYSPIN is taken directly from DMV records. It was established, therefore, that as of the date of the claimant's arrest on March 24, 2004 any inquiry submitted to NYSPIN with the correct name or other identifying information of the claimant would have indicated that his license was valid on the date of his arrest.

Claimant's heavy reliance on Schwandt v State of New York, 4 Misc 3d 405, is misplaced. In that case it was established at trial that the warrant for the claimant's arrest had not been cancelled upon the payment of a fine for traffic infractions and that procedures employed by personnel at the Troy City Police Court had not been followed. As a result, the court found that the defendant was at fault for the claimant's arrest and any injuries arising therefrom. Here, on the other hand, the evidence presented at trial established that the records of DMV appropriately reflected the reinstatement of the claimant's license prior to the date of his arrest.

The claimant did not establish that the State negligently failed to update his license status by a preponderance of the evidence received at trial. As a result, the claim is dismissed.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.


October 25, 2006
Saratoga Springs, New York

HON. FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1].Exhibit 2b establishes the date of claimant's arrest as March 24, 2004.