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Civil rights plaintiffs seeking relief against state officials can be denied a jury trial under a law that limits such actions to the Court of Claims, federal civil rights law notwithstanding, an upstate New York appellate panel has found. In a recent decision, the Appellate Division, 3rd Department, narrowly held 42 USC �1983 does not require the state to provide a forum for the resolution of civil rights claims. The practical effect of its ruling in Woodward v. State, 96745, is that civil rights claimants targeting state employees have at best a limited and round-about remedy. The case stems from an employment discrimination claim in which Larry Woodward, a counselor with the state Department of Correctional Services, contended he was denied promotion and assigned undesirable tasks in retaliation for initiating employment-related grievances and independently adjudicating inmate discipline matters. Woodward filed several causes of action under 42 USC �1983. Acting Supreme Court Justice Louis C. Benza dismissed the �1983 claims seeking damages against DOCS supervisors and managers, finding those actions precluded under state Correction Law �24. Under �24, DOCS officials are personally immune from legal action for any act performed in discharge of their duties. The consequences of those actions can be challenged only in a suit against the state in the Court of Claims, where there are no jury trials. On appeal, Albany attorney Lewis B. Oliver, representing Woodward, argued that Correction Law �24 is pre-empted by federal statute to the extent it obstructs Woodward’s ability to prosecute a �1983 claim. But a divided 3rd Department panel disagreed. “A finding of preemption here would have to be based on the unwarranted assumption that the states are required to provide a judicial forum for all section 1983 claims,” Justice Robert S. Rose wrote in an opinion joined by Justices D. Bruce Crew III and John A. Lahtinen. The majority noted that the 3rd Department had addressed the same issue in 1987 in Cepeda v. Coughlin, 128 AD2d 995. In that case, the court, citing Martinez v. State of California, 444 US 277 (1979), held that since New York does not provide a forum for a similar claim, it need not provide one for a federal �1983 damages action. In Woodward, the majority said nothing in the years since Martinez was decided changes the posture. TWO JUSTICES DISSENT But two justices dissented, finding a plethora of federal precedent — not the least of which is the Supremacy Clause. “Under the doctrine of preemption, which gives force to the Supremacy Clause, any state law which interferes with or is contrary to a federal law must yield to that federal law,” Justice Anthony T. Kane wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Carl J. Mugglin. “Correction Law �24 is an obstacle to the enforcement of 42 USC �1983 rights because it completely bars such actions for monetary relief against individual employees of defendant Department of Correctional Services in their personal capacity in any court in the State.” The dissenters also took issue with Benza’s finding that the plaintiff, after obtaining monetary relief in the Court of Claims, could then go to federal court for injunctive relief. “Not only does this suggestion waste judicial resources, it demonstrates that Correction Law �24 indeed frustrates the purpose of the federal laws and burdens litigants’ rights of recovery by creating obstacles to bringing such actions in state courts and requiring two separate actions in two different jurisdictions to obtain full recovery,” Kane wrote. Further, Kane rejected the majority’s reliance on what he described as Cepeda dicta. “Because Correction Law �24 burdens the right of recovery under federal law, creates obstacles to the enforcement of federal civil rights and frustrates the purposes of such laws, it is preempted by 42 USC �1983 to the extent that such federal claims may be raised in state Supreme Court against DOCS employees and officers in their personal capacities,” Kane wrote. Oliver said he will take an appeal as of right to the Court of Appeals. “Any employee discriminated against for any reason has a right to a jury trial in a civil rights acton,” Oliver said. “This deprives employees of the Department of Correctional Services of a jury trial if they have been discriminated against. It is a serious deprivation of a constitutional right not to have a jury trial in a case like this.” Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Grace argued for the state. There was no immediate reaction from the attorney general’s office to the decision.

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