New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
BROWN v. NEW YORK STATE, # 2021-038-560, Claim No. 136520, Motion No. M-97058

Synopsis

Defendant's motion to dismiss the claim for failure to state a cause of action granted. Claim failed to allege the existence of a special relationship between claimant and the DMV giving rise to a special duty with respect to the allegation that the DMV erroneously recorded the VIN number of claimant's vehicle.

Case information

UID: 2021-038-560
Claimant(s): JEFFREY PAUL BROWN
Claimant short name: BROWN
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): NEW YORK STATE
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 136520
Motion number(s): M-97058
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: W. BROOKS DeBOW
Claimant's attorney: JEFFREY PAUL BROWN, Pro se
Defendant's attorney: LETITIA JAMES, Attorney General
of the State of New York
By: Michael T. Krenrich, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: November 8, 2021
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

This claim seeks compensation for expenses incurred by claimant after the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) erroneously identified his vehicle as having been destroyed. Defendant filed this pre-answer motion to dismiss the claim on the ground that it fails to state a valid cause of action against the State. Claimant opposes the motion.

The claim alleges that claimant attempted to sell his vehicle(1) but was unable to do so because the prospective buyers could not obtain title to the vehicle, and that when claimant contacted the DMV to resolve the situation, he "was informed [the] vehicle was identified as destroyed" (Claim No. 136520, Exhibit 1 [Details of Acts or Omissions, unnumbered pg. 2]). The claim alleges that in correspondence dated August 12, 2020, the DMV's Auto Theft and Salvage Unit informed claimant that he would be required to transport his vehicle to a facility in Colonie, New York, on August 31, 2020, to be inspected by a DMV investigator (see id.; see also id., Attachment 1 [DMV Correspondence, dated Aug. 12, 2020]). The claim alleges that claimant "did not attend the original appointment, but [he] did transport the vehicle on May 18, 2021," and that "the inspection confirmed the vehicle had not been destroyed and an error existed in the DMV records" (id., Exhibit 1 [Details of Acts or Omissions, unnumbered pg. 2). The claim alleges that "[t]ransporting the vehicle to the DMV inspection facility was a hardship for [claimant]" because he "was required to transport a vehicle [he] had agreed to sell, so there was a risk of damage [he] did not want to accept" and "the vehicle was no longer registered so [he] needed to rent a tow dolly to move the car" (id.). The claim further alleges that claimant contacted the DMV "via an on-line help desk to request reimbursement for [his] time and expenses" following the inspection, but the request was denied (id.). The claim alleges that claimant "then asked the DMV Legal Counsel's Office for reimbursement and was told [he] would not be reimbursed" (id.).

According to the exhibits appended to the claim, claimant contacted the DMV's online customer service system on May 31, 2021, seeking reimbursement for the rental of a U-Haul "tow-dolly" and the mileage incurred when he transported the vehicle from his home in Middlegrove, New York, to the inspection facility in Colonie, New York (see id., Attachment 3, pp. 2-3). On June 2, 2021, claimant received a response from a DMV employee informing him that the mistake regarding his vehicle likely occurred because a junkyard reported an incorrect VIN and that he would not "be reimbursed for incidental expenses" (id. at pg. 2). After claimant further inquired regarding an address for service of a small claims action, he was directed to the DMV's Legal Bureau (see id. at pp. 1-2). On June 4, 2021, claimant received a letter from Associate Counsel Victoria A. Plotsky informing him that "the DMV is not legally liable to customers for errors relative to the title records of motor vehicles," and that therefore, the "DMV is not legally responsible to reimburse you for costs that you incurred due to any such alleged error" (id., Attachment 4).

Defendant now moves in lieu of answer for an order dismissing the claim for failure to state a cause of action. Defendant argues that the "DMV's mandate to record and report title, registration and insurance information clearly constitutes a governmental function," that "it is well settled that the recording and transmission by the [S]tate of information contained in the DMV records constitutes a ministerial act," and that claimant thus "is required to plead and prove that he was owed a special duty by defendant" (Krenrich Affirmation, 6, 9, 11). Defendant argues that the claim must be dismissed because it fails to "allege the existence of a special relationship," and therefore "[c]laimant cannot establish that the State is liable for negligent performance of a governmental function" (id. at 12).

In opposition to the motion, claimant argues that the cases cited by defendant in its motion to dismiss "do not appear to apply to [his] case directly" (Brown Correspondence, dated Oct. 4, 2021). Claimant then states that defendant's counsel forwarded to him "[DMV] Form MV-35 that was used as a basis for claiming [his] vehicle had been destroyed," which was "submitted to the DMV by Andrew Lynch . . . on April 4, 2020," and asserts that the Form MV-35 was "proven to be inaccurate when [his] vehicle was inspected by a DMV inspection station and verified to be intact" (id.).(2) Claimant further asserts that it is "not clear to [him] that the [Form MV-35] was a clerical error or an intentional attempt to deceive the DMV . . . [and that] the inaccurately completed form caused [him] harm" (id.). Claimant argues that "the just action in this case is to settle [his] claim since [he is] an innocent party to this interaction between the DMV and Mr. Lynch" (id.). Appended to claimant's submission is a copy of the DMV form completed by Lynch on April 4, 2020, which is entitled "Statement of Vehicle Owner Who Does Not Have A Valid Title" and is related to a 2004 Hyundai Santa Fe (id., attachment).

On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (7), the "claim is liberally construed and all facts asserted therein, as well as its submissions in opposition to defendant's motion, are accepted as true," and "the dispositive inquiry is whether it has a cause of action and not whether one has been stated, i.e., whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory" (IMS Engrs.-Architects, P.C. v State of New York, 51 AD3d 1355, 1356 [3d Dept 2008], lv denied 11 NY3d 706 [2008] [internal quotation marks omitted]). "The allegations of the pleading cannot be vague and conclusory, but must contain sufficiently particularized allegations from which a cognizable cause of action reasonably could be found" (V. Groppa Pools, Inc. v Massello, 106 AD3d 722, 723 [2d Dept 2013] [internal citation omitted]; see Matter of Abele v Dimitriadis, 53 AD3d 969, 970 [3d Dept 2008], lv denied 12 NY3d 706 [2009] [" 'More is needed to state a claim . . . than factual allegations which are conclusory, vague or inherently incredible,' or outright contradicted by documentary evidence"], quoting Matter of Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v State of New York, 300 AD2d 949, 952 [3d Dept 2002]). It is well settled that "[t]he test of the sufficiency of a [claim] is whether it gives sufficient notice of the transactions, occurrences, or series of transactions or occurrences intended to be proved and whether the requisite elements of any cause of action known to our law can be discerned from its averments" (Pace v Perk, 81 AD2d 444, 449 [2d Dept 1981]).

Here, the claim can be fairly read as alleging that defendant's agents were negligent in recording that claimant's vehicle had been destroyed. Negligence claims against governmental entities are subject to the threshold analysis of whether the defendant was engaged in a proprietary function or was acting in a governmental capacity with respect to the acts or omissions alleged in the claim (see Applewhite v Accuhealth, Inc., 21 NY3d 420, 425 [2013]). It is well established that "[a] government entity performs a purely proprietary role when its 'activities essentially substitute for or supplement traditionally private enterprises,' " but "will be deemed to have been engaged in a governmental function when its acts are 'undertaken for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to the general police powers' " (id., quoting Sebastian v State of New York, 93 NY2d 790, 793 [1999]). As defendant correctly argues, DMV's motor vehicle record-keeping activity is performed as part of its governmental function (see Ford Motor Credit Co. v State of New York, 133 AD2d 980, 981 [3d Dept 1987]; Cobblah v State of New York, UID No. 2010-040-071 [Ct Cl, McCarthy, J., Dec. 16, 2010]). The Court of Appeals has held that "[g]overnment action, if discretionary, may not be a basis for liability, while ministerial actions may be, but only if they violate a special duty owed to the [claimant], apart from any duty to the public in general" (McLean v City of New York, 12 NY3d 194, 203 [2009]; see Valdez v City of New York, 18 NY3d 69, 76-77 [2011]). A special duty is " 'a duty to exercise reasonable care toward the [claimant]' " and "is 'born of a special relationship between the [claimant] and the governmental entity,' " which can be formed in one of three ways:

" '(1) when [a governmental agency] violates a statutory duty enacted for the benefit of a particular class of persons; (2) when it voluntarily assumes a duty that generates justifiable reliance by the person who benefits from the duty; or (3) when the [governmental agency] assumes positive direction and control in the face of a known, blatant and dangerous safety violation.' "

(McLean, 12 NY3d at 199, quoting Pelaez v Seide, 2 NY3d 186, 198-200 [2004]). Thus, a claim alleging the negligent performance of a ministerial governmental function must allege the existence of a special relationship between the defendant and claimant giving rise to a special duty (see Szydlowski v Town of Bethlehem, 162 AD3d 1188, 1189 [3d Dept 2018])

Based on the foregoing, it is clear that in order to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, and assuming that the claim alleges the negligent performance of a ministerial governmental action, the claim must allege a special relationship between claimant and the DMV giving rise to a special duty. However, assuming that the allegations in the claim are true and affording the claim the liberal construction that is owed on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, the Court concludes that the claim, its attachments, and claimant's letter submission are devoid of any allegations or evidence of the existence of a special relationship between claimant and the DMV that would give rise to a special duty, and thus the claim must be dismissed (see Szydlowski, 162 AD3d at 1191).

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED, that defendant's motion number M-97058 is hereby GRANTED, and claim number 136520 is hereby DISMISSED.

November 8, 2021

Saratoga Springs, New York

W. BROOKS DeBOW

Judge of the Court of Claims

Papers considered:

1. Claim No. 136520, filed June 25, 2021;

2. Notice of Motion to Dismiss, dated August 3, 2021;

3. Affirmation of Michael T. Krenrich, AAG, in Support of Defendant's Pre-Answer Motion to Dismiss, dated August 3, 2021, with Exhibit A;

4. Correspondence of Jeffrey P. Brown, dated October 4, 2021, with attachment.


1. The claim does not allege the date when claimant attempted to sell his vehicle or the date upon which he learned that the DMV records reflected that his vehicle had been destroyed.

2. Claimant's opposition to the instant motion was submitted in the form of an unsworn letter to the Court rather than a sworn affidavit, and thus it lacks evidentiary value.