III. 1998: Year In Review

This section presents a sampling of the significant decisions the Court of Appeals handed down in 1998, and highlights the range of constitutional, statutory and common law issues that reach the Court every year.

GOVERNMENT LAW

People v Romero (91 NY2d 750)

    Although not licensed to practice law in New York, Israel Romero took money from a woman whom he purported to represent in a divorce action. When she belatedly learned that the words "pro se" under her signature meant she had represented herself, the woman brought a complaint against Romero to the Attorney General. The Attorney General prosecuted Romero for the unlawful practice of law and petit larceny. In dismissing the indictment, the Court ruled that the Attorney General did not have the authority to prosecute the case. Although Judiciary Law 476-a(1) directly authorizes the Attorney General to bring an action against those he believes are engaged in the unlawful practice of law, based on the language and legislative history of the statute, the Court concluded that the word "action" refers only to civil actions.

Matter of Holtzman v Oliensis (91 NY2d 488)

    After the New York City Comptroller personally guaranteed a loan obtained by her campaign committee to finance her campaign for nomination for election to the United States Senate from a bank seeking a contract with the City, the bank's efforts to collect on the loan were forestalled by the Comptroller's policy of cutting off communication with underwriting firms responding to requests for proposals issued by her office. The Court upheld the determination of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board that the Comptroller had violated the City Charter by using her public role for personal advantage. The Court also held that the provisions of the City Charter at issue were not preempted by the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Matter of Village of Scarsdale v Jorling (91 NY2d 507)

    In a clash over rates charged localities for water from the New York City water supply pitting the New York City Water Board against Westchester County and the Village of Scarsdale, the Court held that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has the power to set the final rates for entitlement and excess water consumption by users outside of New York City, although the Water Board does have the power to fix initial water usage rates.

CONSTITUTIONAL LAW

Stringfellow's of New York v City of New York (91 NY2d 382)

    New York City amended its zoning laws to restrict the proximity of strip clubs, X-rated video stores, and other "adult entertainment" to churches, schools and one another. On appeal, the threshold issue was whether the City's zoning ordinance was directed at controlling the content of the message or at entirely separate societal goals, such as crime control and the preservation of property values. Having long recognized the authority of municipalities to implement zoning laws to address various quality of life issues, the Court ruled that the amendments did not violate constitutional guarantees of free speech. The Court held that the City's effort to control the negative secondary effects of the adult establishments did not violate the standards set down by the Supreme Court of the United States in Renton v Playtime Theatres and by this Court in Matter of Town of Islip v Caviglia.

Matter of New York Assn. of Convenience Stores v Urbach (92 NY2d 204)

    In this dispute over the non-collection of State taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline sold to non-Indians on Indian reservations in this State, the Court rejected the State's threshold argument that convenience store owners losing business to the reservations did not have standing. The Court agreed with the Appellate Division below that the convenience store owners' grievance was essentially an Equal Protection claim based on differential enforcement of the tax laws. However, the Court rejected the Appellate Division's conclusion that the Tax Department's failure to enforce the tax laws against a particular class of transactions, i.e., on-reservation sales to non-Indians, constituted a form of race-based discrimination subject to the demanding strict scrutiny analysis. The Court held the Tax Department's policy of forbearing to collect tax on on-reservation sales should be reviewed under a rational basis standard.

Matter of Tamagni v Tax Appeals Tribunal (91 NY2d 530)

    The Tamagnis lived in New Jersey but were also statutory residents of New York, having spent more than 183 days here. They claimed that New York State's income tax scheme violated the dormant Commerce Clause of the Federal Constitution insofar as the scheme subjected their income from intangible assets to full taxation in both New York and New Jersey. The Court held that the New York tax did not trigger Commerce Clause scrutiny because it was based solely on the taxpayer's status as a New York State resident, without regard to any economic activities conducted here. In the alternative, the Court held that even if Commerce Clause analysis were applicable, the tax was not unconstitutional because it did not discriminate against interstate commerce, and States have traditionally retained broad powers to tax their own residents.

FEDERAL PREEMPTION

Drattel v Toyota Motor Corp. (92 NY2d 35)

    After a car accident left his wife with permanent brain damage, plaintiff sued Toyota in a products liability action claiming that the car was defectively designed because it did not contain airbags. Resolution of Toyota's appeal regarding the airbags claim turned on whether the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act preempted plaintiff's State lawsuit. The Court held that the Federal statute did not expressly displace the claim; nor did the statute impliedly do so. The Court noted the reliable indicia of Congressional intent to preserve common law causes of action, a lack of Congressional intent to occupy the entire field, and an absence of "conflict" since Federal law did not prevent Toyota from using airbags -- it merely provided the option of installing airbags to meet passive restraint requirements. Thus, the Court permitted plaintiff's airbag-related litigation to proceed in State court.

DEATH PENALTY

Matter of Hynes v Tomei; Matter of Relin v Connell (92 NY2d 613)

    In the Court's first death penalty case since the new statute became effective, the Court declared unconstitutional provisions governing guilty pleas. These provisions allowed a defendant to enter a plea of guilty to first degree murder only when the agreed-upon sentence was life imprisonment without parole or certain other specified terms of imprisonment. In effect, once a District Attorney filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty, only a defendant who pleaded not guilty and went to trial before a jury risked the death penalty. Applying a 1968 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States -- United States v Jackson (390 US 570) -- the Court of Appeals determined that the pleading provisions of the New York statute impermissibly burdened defendants' Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial by needlessly encouraging guilty pleas and jury waivers to avoid death sentences. The Court held that the challenged provisions were severable, however, and the balance of the statute remained intact.

REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

Kass v Kass (91 NY2d 554)

    In this novel case, the Court was called upon to decide the fate of a couple's five cryopreserved pre-zygotes, developed through an in vitro fertilization program. The couple divorced and the wife sought sole custody of the pre-zygotes, for implantation in her. Challenging the wife's bid for custody, the husband asserted that, in accordance with the consent forms which the couple had signed at the hospital, the pre-zygotes were to be donated to research. The Court concluded that constitutional rights in the area of reproductive choice were not implicated in the dispute and that the pre-zygotes were not "persons" for constitutional purposes. Instead, the Court resolved the issue as one of contract, concluding that the consents signed by the parties unequivocally manifested their mutual intention that, under the circumstances presented, the pre-zygotes be donated for research. The case underscores the importance of a couple's agreement at the time of entering an in vitro fertilization program.

EVIDENCE

Cohens v Hess (92 NY2d 511)

    In this personal injury action, the Court addressed whether a guilty plea to a traffic offense, which was later permitted to be withdrawn, was admissible as impeachment material in a subsequent civil action for damages even though it would not be admissible in a criminal trial. The Court concluded that because vacatur of the guilty plea was not based on a violation of due process, but rather was an exercise of City Court's discretion, the plea was admissible to impeach defendant and to demonstrate his negligence in a subsequent civil action. The Court distinguished the use of a withdrawn guilty plea in a civil case -- where a defendant could take the stand to explain the plea to the jury -- and its use in a criminal case -- where the defendant might be tacitly forced to take the stand in violation of his fundamental right not to testify.

CONTRACTS

Matter of Diamond Asphalt Corp. v Sander (92 NY2d 244)

    New York City solicited bids for all aspects of work involved in a public street repaving project, including utility interference work, pursuant to a joint bidding agreement among New York City, Consolidated Edison, New York Telephone and Empire City Subway. The City awarded the contract to the contractor that submitted the lowest aggregate bid, irrespective of the discrete costs associated with the utility interference work. The Court invalidated the joint bidding agreement, holding that private utility interference work does not constitute "public work" for purposes of determining the lowest responsible bidder under General Municipal Law 103(1). On a related issue, the Court held that bypass contractor selection authority (avoiding low bidder requirements), formerly vested in the defunct Board of Estimate by the replaced City Charter, was not transferred solely to the Mayor under revised New York City Charter 313(b)(2).

Norcon Power Partners, L.P. v Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. (92 NY2d 458)

    Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation and Norcon Power Partners L.P., an independent power producer, entered into a long-term contract obligating Niagara Mohawk to purchase electricity produced at Norcon's plant. In a Federal lawsuit brought concerning the contract, the District Court ruled in favor of Norcon. In answer to a question certified by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, this Court upheld Niagara Mohawk's legal claim. In this case of first impression, the Court held that a party to a long term commercial contract, like the multi-million dollar contract for the sale of electricity at issue in this case, has the right to demand adequate assurance of future performance where reasonable grounds for insecurity exist. In so holding, the Court extended the doctrine of demand for adequate assurance of future performance, previously applied only to contracts for the sale of goods (UCC 2-609) or in cases of insolvency, to common law contract disputes.

Rooney v Tyson (91 NY2d 685)

    Kevin Rooney trained boxer Mike Tyson from 1982 until Tyson fired him in 1988. Rooney sued Tyson in Federal court claiming that he had an oral contract to be Tyson's trainer for as long as Tyson remains a professional fighter. A Federal district court ruled in Tyson's favor and Rooney appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In answering its certified question, this Court ruled in Rooney's favor. This Court held that an oral contract between a fight trainer and a professional boxer to train the boxer "for as long as the boxer fights professionally" delineates sufficiently ascertainable boundaries to overcome the presumption of at-will employment and to qualify as a contract for a definite term.

TORT LAW

Burgos v Aqueduct Realty Corp.; Gomez v New York City Housing Auth. (92 NY2d 544)

    A recurring issue before New York courts is the burden of proof a tenant must satisfy in order to establish a claim against a landlord for negligent building security when the tenant is injured in a third-party criminal attack. In Burgos, the Court settled the issue: a plaintiff can establish proximate cause if the evidence renders it more likely, or more reasonable, than not that the assailant was an intruder who gained access to the premises through a negligently maintained entrance. This comports with the standard for proximate cause in other negligence cases.

Rust v Reyer (91 NY2d 355)

    This case dealt with the popular phenomenon of "keg parties": is a statute imposing tort liability on persons unlawfully furnishing alcoholic beverages to under-age persons whose intoxication causes injuries applicable to a teenaged defendant who hosted a keg party when her parents were out of town? Defendant allowed local fraternity members to supply kegs of beer at the party and charge a one-time fee for unlimited access to that beer. Arrangements were also made for defendant to receive a portion of the proceeds collected at the party. While at the party, plaintiff was injured when another party-goer struck her in the face, and she sued for damages. Noting that the statute intended to use civil penalties as a deterrent against underage drinking, the Court held that, under these facts, defendant was more than an unknowing bystander or an innocent dupe whose premises were used by other minors seeking to drink. Rather, the Court held that defendant played an indispensable role in a scheme to furnish alcoholic beverages to under-age persons and therefore could be held liable for damages under section 11-100 of the General Obligations Law.

Bethel v New York City Transit Auth. (92 NY2d 348)

    A passenger sued the Transit Authority after he fell down in a bus. The trial court charged the jury, based upon precedent existing for over 100 years, that the bus company "had a duty to use the highest degree of care that human prudence and foresight can suggest in the maintenance of its vehicles and equipment for the safety of its passengers." The Court concluded that this rule of a common carrier's duty of extraordinary care is no longer viable and that a common carrier is subject to the same duty of care as any other potential tortfeasor -- reasonable care under all of the circumstances of the particular case.

PRODUCTS LIABILITY

Liriano v Hobart Corp. (92 NY2d 232)

    This Court had previously held that a manufacturer is shielded from liability in an action claiming a defect in design where a subsequent user has substantially modified a product, making it unreasonably dangerous. As certified to this Court by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, this case presented the question whether a manufacturer must still warn subsequent users not to modify its product where the dangerous modification is reasonably foreseeable. Relying on cases requiring manufacturers to warn of foreseeable misuses of their products, the Court held that manufacturers must warn against foreseeable, dangerous modifications to their products. In this case, a supermarket employee lost a hand while operating a meat grinder from which a safety guard had been removed by the previous user of the machine. The Court held that the manufacturer could be liable for failing to warn that the safety guard should not be removed.

Gebo v Black Clawson Co. (92 NY2d 387)

    In this products liability case, the Court held that defendant, a seller of paper who manufactured a protective guarding system for an embossing machine intended for defendant's own use and not for the sale or transfer to others, was a "casual manufacturer" and could not be liable in strict products liability or for negligent design of the embossing unit to a plaintiff who sustained injuries while using the machine. Moreover, the Court concluded that, as the seller of the modified embossing machine, defendant was also not liable to plaintiff in ordinary negligence because defendant merely engaged in the one-time bulk sale of its paper mill and embossing unit and was not regularly engaged in the commercial sale of such embossing units. The duty of a casual manufacturer is to warn a person of known defects that are not obvious or readily discernible, a duty the Court concluded was discharged in this case.

CIVIL PROCEDURE

Held v Kaufman (91 NY2d 425)

    The Court held that additional grounds for dismissal may be raised in a reply affidavit without violating the rule permitting only a single motion for dismissal under CPLR 3211. The Court also explored the timeliness of a claim for fraud in the inducement, holding that the claim is timely when brought within six years after the alleged fraud if, at the time of the fraud, the underlying claim the claimant was induced to relinquish by reason of the alleged fraud was timely and otherwise viable.

Karasek v LaJoie (92 NY2d 171)

    When plaintiff alleged malpractice in the provision of mental health services by her licensed psychologist, the defendants in the case claimed that plaintiff was time-barred under the Statute of Limitations for medical malpractice claims. The Court concluded that the professional services rendered by the psychologist were not medical in character for the purposes of determining the appropriate limitations period, however, and held that the CPLR 214(6) three-year period for "malpractice, other than medical, dental or podiatric" applied. In reinstating the complaint against the psychologist, the Court noted that while it may be reasonable to infer that the diagnostic and treatment services provided by medically trained psychiatrists are medical in nature, the same cannot be said of services rendered by psychologists and other mental health care professionals.

Whalen v Kawasaki Motors Corp. (92 NY2d 288)

    In this personal injury action, plaintiff settled with several defendants before trial and proceeded to trial against the one remaining non-settling defendant who, along with plaintiff, was found to share responsibility for plaintiff's injuries. The Court construed General Obligations Law 15-108 and CPLR 1411 to hold that plaintiff's recovery should first be reduced by the amount of monies he received in pre-trial settlements, and only then be further reduced in proportion to plaintiff's share of fault in causing his own injuries.

CRIMINAL LAW & PROCEDURE

People v Benevento (91 NY2d 708)

    In this case, the Court reiterated that the standard for determining whether a defendant received effective assistance of counsel is that first enunciated in People v Baldi (54 NY2d 137), namely, "meaningful representation." Under this standard, a reviewing court considers whether counsel's performance deprived the defendant of a fair trial.

People v Stirrup (91 NY2d 434)

    For purposes of calculating the amount of time allowed the People to become ready for trial, the Court ruled that, under CPL 30.30(5)(b), a criminal action is deemed commenced when the defendant physically appears in the courthouse in response to a desk appearance ticket. This is so even where the People have technically not yet commenced the action by filing an accusatory instrument. The Court further held that where the People's unreadiness for trial necessitated an adjournment, and thus caused the "speedy trial clock" to begin running against them, the People can avoid responsibility for the remainder of the adjournment period by issuing a record notice of readiness.

People v Hidalgo (91 NY2d 733)

    Defendant pleaded guilty to first degree attempted assault, without a sentence promise, and was sentenced to one to three years in prison. On appeal, defendant attempted to contest the sentence as harsh and excessive, despite having agreed at the plea colloquy to waive her right to appeal the conviction. This Court held that defendant's unrestricted and generalized waiver was sufficient to bar her sentencing challenge on appeal because defendant was aware that her sentence was left to the sentencing court's discretion. The Court's decisions on waiver of the right to appeal have constituted a significant body of law in recent years.

People v Hues (92 NY2d 413)

    This appeal questioned the propriety of juror note-taking during trial. Recognizing the need to respond to contemporary challenges facing our jury system and the overwhelming authority of Federal and other State courts, and employing "a healthy dose of common sense," the Court held it within the sound discretion of trial courts to allow note-taking by jurors during a trial. If a trial court determines that a particular case warrants note-taking, the court can sua sponte instruct jurors that they are permitted to take notes during the trial. In light of potential perils that note-taking can present during trial, the Court indicated that this discretion must be tempered by cautionary instructions at the commencement of trial and also at the conclusion of trial as part of the court's charge prior to jury deliberations.

People v Kramer (92 NY2d 529)

    The defendants in two gambling-related criminal investigations involving race-fixing at Yonkers Harness Track sought to suppress eavesdropping evidence by challenging the legality of certain underlying pen register and "trap and trace" orders. The Court held that where telephone numbers are captured by a pen register or "trap and trace" device, individuals who are a target of the investigation -- whether named or later disclosed and identified -- have standing to question the legality of the orders in a court proceeding. The Court also clarified its holding in People v Bialostok (80 NY2d 738) as requiring courts to evaluate the ease of technological conversion of audio-capable pen register devices when determining whether the more rigorous legal standard for an eavesdropping warrant is required.

People v Stevens; People v Smith (91 NY2d 270)

    These two defendants had pleaded guilty to sex offenses and were sentenced to prison. When "Megan's Law" was enacted requiring the registration of sex offenders after release from incarceration, the defendants were designated "risk level three" offenders -- the most serious classification. They attempted to appeal the risk level determinations. This Court held that risk level classifications are neither amendments to the original judgment of conviction nor re-sentencings. The Court noted that a defendant's right to appeal is purely statutory, and no appeal is authorized in either "Megan's Law" or the Criminal Procedure Law. Thus, a convicted sex offender has no right to appeal a risk level determination under the procedures followed.

FAMILY LAW

Bast v Rossoff (91 NY2d 723)

    This case presented the issue of child support calculation when parents share custody of their child. Balancing the policy considerations underlying enactment of the Child Support Standards Act ("CSSA") against the practical challenges of applying this statute in shared custody situations, the Court held that the CSSA applies to cases of shared custody. In determining the noncustodial parent's support obligation, a court must first calculate the basic child support obligation pursuant to the three-step statutory formula; a court may then utilize the statute's "paragraph (f)" factors. The Court explicitly rejected use of the "proportional offset formula" for calculating child support in shared custody arrangements.

TAXATION

Matter of FMC Corp. v Unmack (92 NY2d 179)

    In these proceedings, separately commenced by two petitioners pursuant to article 7 of the Real Property Tax Law, the Court examined whether substantial evidence existed to rebut the established presumption of validity of tax assessments. In both appeals, collectively decided in one opinion, the Court held that petitioners proffered different, yet substantial, documentary and testimonial evidence to overcome the presumption of validity. The Court noted that both petitioners presented detailed appraisal reports authored by experienced and licensed real estate appraisers along with other relevant data affecting the value of each site. Petitioners having met their initial burden of tendering substantial evidence, the Court remitted the matter to the Appellate Division to determine whether petitioners demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that their respective properties were overvalued.

EMPLOYMENT RELATIONS

Matter of Roma v Ruffo (92 NY2d 489)

    After receiving an unfavorable determination in a grievance procedure provided in the collective bargaining agreement with their public employer, employees of a public school district commenced an article 78 proceeding challenging the employer's unilateral change of a term and condition of employment expressly covered by their collective bargaining agreement. On appeal, this Court held that the trial court properly exercised jurisdiction because the dispute was essentially contractual in nature, involving a previously bargained-for term of the contract, and therefore the matter was not within the exclusive jurisdiction of the State's Public Employee Relations Board.

ENTITLEMENT PROGRAMS

Matter of Murphy v Office of Voc. and Educ. Serv. (92 NY2d 477)

    Plaintiff, disabled after a work-related accident, received financial assistance to complete her undergraduate education through the New York State Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID), which administers funding to qualified individuals with disabilities pursuant to the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Plaintiff then sought financial assistance to attend law school, despite the fact that her application for undergraduate assistance had acknowledged her ability to find law-related work in a law firm after college. Plaintiff had also agreed to save her own money toward her law school education. Tracing the legislative history of the pertinent provisions of the Rehabilitation Act, this Court held that the purpose of the Act was to empower individuals with disabilities and provide them the opportunity for meaningful and gainful employment, not to fund each individual's quest for maximum employment. The Court held that VESID was not required to fund plaintiff's law school education.

Seittelman v Sabol (91 NY2d 618)

    The Court declared invalid a State regulation limiting Medicaid reimbursements for expenses incurred by eligible individuals during the three months preceding a Medicaid application for services rendered by Medicaid-enrolled providers. In addition to holding Medicaid applicants eligible for retroactive reimbursement if they were eligible for Medicaid during that three-month period, the Court determined that Medicaid applicants would be reimbursed at the Medicaid rate or fee in effect at the time the care or service was rendered, and not for all out-of-pocket expenses.

INSURANCE

McCarthy v Aetna Life Ins. Co. (92 NY2d 436)

    The Court was called upon to determine whether a decedent- insured effected a change in designation of a beneficiary of his life insurance policy without complying with the requirements stated in the policy. The Court held that a testamentary disposition leaving any insurance benefits to the insured's father was, by itself, an insufficient manifestation of the insured's intent to change the designation of his former wife on the insurance policy. Thus, absent evidence establishing that the insured attempted to comply with the policy's procedures and requirements to change the beneficiary, or evidence demonstrating that the insured was physically or mentally incapable of complying with the policy, the Court was bound by the designation of the beneficiary in the insurance policy.

TRUSTS AND ESTATES

Matter of Bieley (91 NY2d 520)

    On this appeal, the Court clarified the doctrine of gift by implication, noting that this case presented one of those rare and exceptional circumstances where common sense and justice compelled application of the doctrine to redress an obvious omission. Focusing on the overriding objective in construction proceedings to carry out the testator's purpose, the Court concluded that a clause which provided that the residuary estate be placed in trust for the testatrix's mother, if her mother survived her, and then upon her mother's death to two named beneficiaries, should be given effect so that the residuary estate passed to the named beneficiaries, even though the testatrix's mother did not survive her.

PROPERTY RIGHTS

Lewis v Young (92 NY2d 443])

    In this dispute between neighbors, the Court was asked to determine whether a landowner, without consent, could relocate a driveway long used by the easement holder. New York courts had not previously addressed that particular question, but had decided cases involving other unconsented-to alterations of easements. After considering those precedents and their underlying policy considerations, the Court concluded that, in the absence of a demonstrated intent to provide otherwise, a landowner, consonant with the beneficial use and development of its property, can move a driveway without the easement holder's consent. The landowner, however, must bear the expense of the relocation; the change must not frustrate the parties' intent or object in creating the right-of-way; it must not increase the burden on the easement holder; and it must not significantly lessen the utility of the right-of-way.

Adirondack League Club v Sierra Club (92 NY2d 591)

    In this case, the Court held that recreational use is properly part of the analysis when determining whether a river or waterway is navigable-in-fact. If a river is navigable-in-fact, the public retains an easement over which it can travel. Plaintiff had sued defendants in trespass after they canoed down the 12 miles of the South Branch of the Moose River that course through property owned by plaintiff. Defendants, joined by the State of New York as intervenor, claimed that the South Branch was navigable-in-fact and that they were only making use of the public easement. In light of modern necessities and usage, the Court agreed with defendants that recreational use, and not just the ability to carry goods to market, fits within the traditional analysis whether a waterway had practical utility for trade or travel. In addition, the Court held that occasional obstacles do not destroy a river's navigability and, as incidental to the navigational right, those traveling on the river can make use of the banks or bed -- that is, portage -- where necessary to circumvent those obstacles.