Rosenbaum & Rosenbaum, P.C. | November 30, 2021 | New York Laws
By winning a recent appeal, Rosenbaum & Rosenbaum was instrumental in creating a major shift in the law as it relates to suing government agencies in New York. Thanks to the advocacy of our New York City personal injury lawyers, it’s easier for victims to hold government agencies in the city accountable for negligence and wrongdoing.
Plaintiffs are no longer required to name an individual when submitting a “notice-of-claim” prior to naming a government agency as a defendant in a lawsuit in New York.
The plaintiff in the case had filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department (NYPD). The complaint had been dismissed under the old law because it didn’t name specific police officers. The appeal reversed that decision and allowed the complaint to proceed.
The Appellate Decision
In a unanimous decision by a five-justice panel, New York’s Appellate Division, First Department overturned its own precedent that had been the law for more than 15 years. The First Department handles appeals of cases originating in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Precedent is the concept in the justice system that requires courts to follow prior court decisions. Once a court rules on an issue, the court must follow the reasoning or rule made in that decision for parties that come before the court in the future with similar facts and circumstances.
At issue in this appeal was New York’s General Municipal Law § 50-e(2). Under New York law, a plaintiff is required to file a pre-suit notice under General Municipal Law § 50-e before initiating a lawsuit against public entities, such as a municipality.
By its rulings in prior cases, the First Department interpreted § 50-e to require plaintiffs to name individual defendants in the pre-suit notice. It was not sufficient to name the government entity as a whole. However, the language of the statute does not contain such a requirement.
In the recent opinion written by First Department Justice Saliann Scarpulla, the court found that its prior decisions were wrong because they imposed a requirement not found in the statute’s plain language.
Background of the Case
Plaintiff Reginald Wiggins brought the underlying case against the City of New York. Wiggins was arrested in 2008 at the age of 16 in connection with a shooting. Before Wiggins was even arrested, witnesses had identified another individual as a suspect who was later prosecuted for the shooting. After his arrest, no witnesses identified Wiggins in a lineup.
Nevertheless, Wiggins spent more than six years in jail at Riker’s Island awaiting trial. He spent three of those years in solitary confinement. In 2014, Wiggins pled guilty to manslaughter and received a 12-year sentence.
In 2018, the New York Court of Appeals overturned Wiggins’s conviction based on the violation of his constitutional right to a speedy trial. After he was released, he intended to sue the City of New York for various wrongs in connection with his arrest and imprisonment.
Lawsuit Against the City of New York
When Wiggins filed his pre-suit notice required by § 50-e, he named the City of New York as the defendant. He did not name individual police officers in his notice.
When Wiggins ultimately filed his lawsuit, he named the City of New York as a defendant, as well as named and unnamed members of the NYPD. His complaint contained various allegations related to police misconduct and malicious prosecution.
The City moved to dismiss the complaint against the NYPD defendants on the grounds that the pre-suit notice was improper because it didn’t name individual police officers. Following precedent that required individual defendants to be named in the notice, the court dismissed the case for failure to comply with General Municipal Law § 50-e.
Rosenbaum & Rosenbaum represented Wiggins in his appeal of the decision dismissing his case, challenging the long-standing but inequitable precedent.
Why This Case Matters
The prior precedent inserted a requirement into the law that wasn’t in the language of the statute. Had the legislature intended for plaintiffs to name each defendant individually, it would have put that requirement in the statute.
When the court made up its own rule in prior decisions, it imposed an additional requirement for plaintiffs seeking justice against wrongful acts of the government. Removing this requirement by overturning that precedent restored the law to its original intent and removed a barrier to justice.
Furthermore, there was no requirement to name individual defendants in the Second, Third, and Fourth Departments. This meant that New Yorkers would receive different decisions from courts depending on where in the state they lived. It’s unfair to get a different result based on where you live in the state.
Long-standing law is difficult to change. Precedent exists for a reason. Usually, it helps maintain equity and consistency in the law. However, when courts have gotten it wrong somewhere along the way, prior rulings should be challenged in order to restore the public’s access to justice.