New York courts have never definitively decided if, in a malicious prosecution case, the issuance of a desk appearance ticket launches a criminal proceeding.

But as far as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is concerned, the answer is yes.

In a unanimous opinion Wednesday, the panel upheld a malicious prosecution verdict involving the Long Island Rail Road, but slashed the amount of damages owed to a locomotive engineer who was arrested and issued an appearance ticket but never prosecuted for forcibly touching a co-worker.

The case, Stampf v. Trigg, 11-3225-cv, began in 2006 when engineer Angela Trigg complained that a LIRR co-worker reached into her car and “jiggled” her breast.

Melissa Stampf, the alleged culprit, was arrested and jailed for several hours on false charges, issued a desk appearance ticket in a case the Manhattan district attorney ultimately declined to prosecute, and had to hire an attorney with money her father obtained by taking out a second mortgage on his home, the court said.

An Eastern District jury seated before Magistrate Judge Steven Gold (See Profile) awarded Stampf $480,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Trigg appealed on several grounds. In its decision Wednesday, the Second Circuit upheld the verdict while finding the award excessive. The court whittled the damages to $250,000.

The main legal finding in the 31-page decision by Circuit Judge Pierre Leval (See Profile), who was joined by Chief Judge Robert Katzmann (See Profile) and Judge Debra Ann Livingston (See Profile), was whether the issuance of a desk appearance ticket begins a criminal proceeding.

Leval said the “answer is not clearly established in New York law,” but is apparent in decisions by the Third and Fourth departments of the state Appellate Division that addressed conflicting rulings.

Thirty-five years ago, the Second Circuit, lacking any controlling state authority, surmised in Rosario v. Amalgamated Ladies Garment Cutters Union, 605 F.2d 1228 (1979), that a New York court “would rule that the issuance of a [desk appearance ticket] commences a prosecution for purposes of determining whether an action for malicious prosecution lies.”

Two years later, a New York Civil Court judge in Brooklyn specifically rejected Rosario in McClellan v. New York City Transit Authority, 444 N.Y.S. 2d 985 (1981).

But McClellan was not appealed, and subsequent rulings by appellate courts in Rochester and Albany adopted the Rosario reasoning (see Snead v. Aegis, 428 N.Y.S. 2d 159, Fourth Department, 1984; and Allen v. Town of Colonie, 583 N.Y.S. 2d 24, Third Department, 1992).

In arguable contrast, the Second Department in 1991 held that a malicious prosecution claim “may arise only after an arraignment or indictment” (Stile v. City of New York, 569 N.Y.S. 2d 129). Several trial courts have concluded that decision implies that a desk appearance ticket does not qualify, even though the Second Department justices did not specifically say so.

The state Court of Appeals has not weighed in, so Leval relied on the Third and Fourth department holdings.

“[I]n view of the fact that the Second Department has never held that a [desk appearance ticket] does not initiate a criminal proceeding for the purposes of a malicious prosecution claim, and that the Third and Fourth Departments in Snead and Allen held, in accordance with Rosario, that it does, we adhere to the position we took in Rosario that, under New York law, the issuance of a [ticket] sufficiently initiates a criminal prosecution to sustain a claim of malicious prosecution,” Leval wrote.

With that foundation, the court concluded that Stampf sufficiently established that Trigg played a role in initiating a criminal proceeding that ended in Stampf’s favor and that the jury appropriately held Trigg liable.

“In the instant case, with actual malice, Trigg made false statements to the police accusing Stampf of grabbing her breast, which resulted in Stampf’s arrest at work in front of a number of coworkers,” Laval wrote. “Due to Trigg’s malicious conduct, Stampf spent an evening in prison, experienced public embarrassment at her place of work, and experienced significant stress that contributed to her alcohol abuse problems and the end of a long-term committed relationship.”

Still, the court said that even though Stampf suffered “greater than garden variety emotional distress,” the award of damages was excessive given verdicts involving conduct of comparable “reprehensibility.”

It cut the jury’s $200,000 award for past emotional distress in half, reduced the award for future emotional and mental suffering from $100,000 to $20,000 and lowered the punitive damage sum from $150,000 to $100,000. The only number the court did not change was the $30,000 reimbursement for out-of-pocket losses, resulting in a total award of $250,000, or about 48 percent less that the jury deemed fair.

Philip Dinhofer, an attorney in Rockville Centre who represented Stampf, criticized what he characterized as the Second Circuit’s “sterile” second-guessing of the jury verdict.

“There is a difference between sitting in ivory tower on a bench and being in the courtroom,” Dinhofer said. “The appellate court really trivialized what happened here. The mathematical approach they took to damages did not convey the sense of passion and the suffering of my client in what was really a deliberate and malicious act. A life was destroyed.”

Brian Kenneth Saltz of the LIRR represented the railroad and Trigg.

LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said the agency is studying the ruling and could not immediately comment on the decision.

“While we cannot respond to questions concerning discipline, I can tell you that Melissa Stampf is still employed by the Long Island Rail Road,” Arena said. “Angela Trigg is not.”