MANHATTAN (CN) – The Second Circuit revived a class action Tuesday by New Yorkers who say the city used threats of eviction to coerce them into waiving their constitutional rights.
Though New York City cast the suit as barred by Rooker-Feldman, a legal doctrine that forecloses litigants from using the U.S. district courts to contest unsuccessful state court proceedings, Tuesday’s ruling emphasizes that the injuries here were merely ratified, not caused, by state-court judgments.
“The instant case thus does not entail the evil Rooker-Feldman was designed to prevent,” U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for a three-person panel. “Plaintiffs are attempting to remedy an alleged injury caused when, prior to any judicial action, they were coerced to settle, not an injury that flows from a state-court judgment. By allowing an action such as this to go forward, we do not risk turning our federal district courts into quasi-appellate courts sitting in review of state-court decisions.”
Led by Sung Cho, the New Yorker plaintiffs here said that New York City brought eviction proceedings against them under anti-nuisance laws designed to shutter the sites of illegal activities, such as drug dealing or prostitution.
Cho, who owns a laundromat, contends that he was evicted months after the NYPD conducted sting operations and then accused him of selling stolen electronics.
One day before his scheduled eviction hearing, Cho signed a settlement agreement with city officials to allow for future warrantless searches. He claimed it was made clear to him that he had no chance in court, even if he could prove neither he nor his employees had any involvement in the alleged criminal conduct.
Co-plaintiff Jameelah El-Shabazz faced eviction proceedings meanwhile after police used paper cups of crushed eggshells in her apartment to bring drug-possession charges.
El-Shabazz notes that lab tests found no drugs in the egg shells, which are used in religious ceremonies in her traditional African faith called Ifa. Though she won $37,500 in an ensuing complaint for false arrest, for her and her son, El-Shabazz received an eviction notice based on the disproved police affidavit.
In order to avoid costly litigation, she eventually signed a settlement that made her apartment permanently off-limits to her son, Akim, who was arrested with her based on the eggshells.
Along with Cho’s business entity, Nagle Washrite, and co-plaintiff David Diaz, the plaintiffs sought to enjoin city officials from enforcing the settlement agreements, as well as similar agreements to warrantless searches and excluding family members from units or buildings. The lawsuit also sought damages of $10 per each plaintiff.
Challenging dismissal of the case by U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter Jr., the plaintiffs emphasized that their settlement agreements were legally binding before they ever made it to state court to be ratified.
The argument persuaded Judge Lynch and his colleagues Tuesday. Even if the settlement agreements were effective only after being ratified by a state court, according to the 23-page opinion, “plaintiffs are still attacking the agreements themselves and the course of conduct that led to them, rather than the state courts’ rulings.”
Darpana Sheth, an attorney for the challengers with the Institute for Justice, applauded Tuesday’s ruling.
“This city needs to deliver justice to the hundreds of New Yorkers stripped of their constitutional rights,” Sheth said in a statement.
A spokesman for the New York City’s law department did not immediately comment on the ruling, but plaintiff Cho issued a statement.
“New York City is still treating me like a criminal when I did nothing wrong,” Cho said. “I’m hoping that the courts can still make this right.”