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A landmark New York Court of Appeals ruling recognizing constitutional torts did not address whether they may be pursued against a local government in federal court. And without direction from the state court, a federal judge is declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction. Chief U.S. Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr., of the Northern District of New York, said the constitutional torts asserted in the case before him, Cea v. Ulster County, “present a novel issue of state law which the courts of the State of New York should address in the first instance.” At the heart of the ruling is Brown v. State, 89 NY2d 172 (1996), the case where the Court of Appeals established that the Court of Claims has subject matter jurisdiction over constitutional torts and is not restricted to common-law tort claims. Brown arose from a class action initiated on behalf of non-white males who were stopped and questioned by police officers investigating an assault near the State University of New York at Oneonta campus. The assault victim, an elderly woman, thought her assailant was black, so authorities obtained a list of all non-white males attending the college. When that failed to reveal the perpetrator, authorities broadened the sweep to the entire City of Oneonta. For several days, every non-white male found in or near the city was stopped and questioned. The Court of Claims dismissed an action against the state for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the Appellate Division, 3rd Department affirmed. But on Nov. 19, 1996, the Court of Appeals modified the 3rd Department’s order and found that the Court of Claims did indeed have jurisdiction over constitutional torts. That finding was the impetus behind one of the myriad claims initiated by Steven Cea. Cea’s action against a Supreme Court justice and many other defendants stemmed from his arrest in 1999 for second-degree contempt. He had allegedly failed to surrender his pistol and pistol permit pursuant to a court order. Justice Vincent G. Bradley had revoked the permit because of pending criminal charges. The gist of Cea’s complaint is that he was abused by police officers when they came to arrest him for contempt. The contempt charge was later dismissed. Judge Scullin rejected several of the claims brought by Cea and his wife, including a claim against Justice Bradley. He refused to dismiss claims for malicious prosecution, excessive force, unlawful search and negligent hiring. The Brown claim was predicated on the theory that if the individual defendants — primarily sheriff’s deputies — were liable for violating Cea’s rights, Ulster County was derivatively liable. Absent guidance from the state court on whether such a claim could be brought against a local government in federal court, Scullin dismissed that cause of action. “Although the Brown decision may suggest that a state constitutional tort action may be brought against a county as well as the state, it is not clear that the Court of Claims Act would apply in every respect … to an action initiated in another forum,” Scullin wrote. Cea appeared pro se. Jeremy Chin of Galvin & Morgan in Delmar, N.Y., appeared for Cea’s wife and children. Michael E. Catalinotto Jr. of Maynard, O’Connor, Smith & Catalinotto in Albany represents the defendants.

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