Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Section 1983 Claims Dismissed Against Private Attorneys For Municipality

A very interesting decision on the civil rights front was handed down recently by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The case is Westhampton Beach Associates LLC v. Strebel (08-CV-1493, Decided: 2/19/09).

In Westhampton, a real estate developer sued a municipality as well as the private attorneys and consultants retained to advise the municipality with respect to the development of a condominium complex. The Amended Complaint alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 which pertains to the deprivation of a Constitutional right, privilege, or immunity by a person acting under color of state law. In other words, the Constitutional deprivation must be the result of some action by the state or its representatives.

The Court dismissed the Section 1983 claims against the private attorneys and consultants hired by the municipality, concluding that they did not act under color of state law in providing advice to the municipal client or demanding changes in Project design. Smart decision since those in private practice are not generally functionaries of the government. Further, the Court held that the Amended Complaint failed to explain how the attorneys deprived the Plaintiff of a constitutionally guaranteed right, privilege, or immunity. Citing to case law in the Second Circuit, the Court affirmed that claims under Section 1983 must allege the personal involvement of each Defendant, and that Plaintiff had failed to do so as to the attorneys and consultants. The Court further relied upon substantial precedent in the Second Circuit holding that attorneys and consultants who provide advice to municipal entities are not acting under color of state law for purposes of Section 1983. Indeed, to find liability for private individuals in such a situation would likely have a chilling effect on the furnishing of legal and other professional advice and/or services to municipal clientele. Not to mention, malpractice insurance rates could likely go through the roof! Whew, what a relief!

Also, the Court dismissed the Amended Complaint as against the municipality, finding that the municipality's actions in evaluating the plan for the proposed Project did not violate the Plaintiff's Constitutional rights.

As an attorney in private practice who advises municipalities on various labor and employment issues (and who is within the class of persons who could have been affected directly by an adverse decision in this instance), I have but one thing to say about the Westhampton case ... YAY!

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