May 22, 2019

Seeking a writ of mandamus to compel a public entity to perform a certain action


For many years, Binghamton City Court [City Court] used docket books maintained in hard copy used by the plaintiff to personally compile lists of adjudicated summary eviction proceedings. However, at some point, City Court discontinued their use of hard copy docket books and began maintaining court records electronically. Beginning in 2015, Plaintiffs made several written requests to City Court for all summary eviction proceedings that had been adjudicated since January 1, 2014.

Plaintiff was advised that City Court did not maintain its records in the specific manner that he was requesting and that he could access the electronically-stored court records by providing a case name or index number. In addition, the Town of Union Court [Town Court] similarly notified Plaintiff that it did not maintain a running list of summary eviction proceedings in a form that he had requested.

Ultimately Plaintiff commenced a CPLR Article 78 proceeding in the nature of mandamus seeking to compel City Court and Town Court to, among other things, "maintain all court records in a written form . . . [l]ike the old docket books" and, since the records were maintained electronically, to provide the requested information "on a disk in a form that could be easily used by the public."

City Court answered Plaintiff's petition and alleged that Plaintiff had failed to state a claim. Town Court submitted an affidavit in opposition to Plaintiff's petition, requesting that the petition be dismissed, indicating that, although under no obligation to do so, it had employed an outside information technology company to create the list sought by Plaintiff. Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the petition and Plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division, citing Matter of County of Chemung v Shah, 28 NY3d 244, affirm the lower court's ruling, explaining that a "writ of mandamus"* is an extraordinary remedy that lies only to compel the performance of "an administrative act positively required to be done by a provision of law." In the words of the Appellate Division, "[s]uch a writ will not be awarded to compel the performance of an act involving the exercise of judgment or discretion or to direct the manner in which a public official carries out his or her legal duty to complete a ministerial act."

Finding that the records demonstrated that both City Court and Town Court were satisfying their duties under Judiciary Law §§255 and 255-b by maintaining an electronic docketing systems that was available for search and examination by members of the public with the assistance of court staff, the Appellate Division ruled that neither City Court nor Town Court were statutorily required to maintain their respective court dockets "in the particular manner requested by Plaintiff or create the list that Plaintiff desires."

Finding that City Court and Town Court cannot be compelled to perform their ministerial duties in the specific manner sought by Plaintiff, the Appellate Division ruled that Supreme Court had properly dismissed the Plaintiff's Article 78 petition.

* A writ of mandamus is one of a number of the ancient “common law” writs and is granted by a court to compel an official to perform acts that such an official is duty-bound to perform. Other such ancients writs include the writ of prohibition, issued by a higher tribunal to a lower tribunal to "prohibit" the adjudication of a matter then pending before the lower tribunal on the grounds that the lower tribunal "lacked jurisdiction"; the writ of "certiorari," compelling a lower court to send its record of a case to the higher tribunal for review by the higher tribunal; and the writ of “quo warranto,” which requires a person or body to show by what warrant, office or franchise, held, claimed, or exercised, with respect to that individual or entity performing a particular act or omission. The Civil Practice Law and Rules sets out the modern equivalents of the surviving ancient writs.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2019/2019_03863.htm




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