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Judge rejects complete dismissal of junkyard owner’s suit against Potsdam

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POTSDAM — A senior federal court judge has rejected portions of a magistrate judge’s recommendations that a lawsuit brought against the town of Potsdam and others by a junkyard owner be dismissed in its entirety.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew T. Baxter filed his order and recommendation in U.S. District Court, Syracuse, in July recommending that the action brought by James P. Engels, Parishville, be dismissed against all defendants.

Mr. Engels filed suit in June against the town and Potsdam Town Justice Samuel R. Charleson, as well as Parishville Town Justice Frank H. Dunning, Assistant St. Lawrence County District Attorneys Jonathan L. Becker and Joshua A. HaberkornHalm and state Department of Environmental Conservation Officer Jonathan D. Ryan.

Mr. Engels sought $50,000 in damages for what he claimed was mental anguish caused by having to appear in court more than 20 times over about three years to answer charges that in 2007, he stored more than 1,000 waste tires in his yard in violation of DEC regulations.

The case originally was slated to be heard in Parishville Town Court, but Justice Dunning recused himself and it was transferred to Potsdam Town Court.

Mr. Engels claimed in his complaint that Justice Dunning and Justice Charleson are “well acquainted” and that Justice Dunning “made it clear to the Potsdam town court and DEC what he would like for an outcome to this case.”

Mr. Engels alleged that court appearances repeatedly were postponed “due to collusion” between the justice and prosecutors.

In 2009, Mr. Engels admitted violating DEC regulations and was sentenced to a conditional discharge.

However, a subsequent DEC violation was issued, and Mr. Engels returned to court for violating terms of the conditional discharge and was fined $1,278 in December 2009.

In his lawsuit, he claimed the conviction and the fine were “improper.”

In his recommendation, Judge Baxter said the action should be dismissed against Justice Charleson and Justice Dunning because both have judicial immunity for actions relating to the exercise of their judicial functions, while the case against the two assistant district attorneys should be dismissed because they have prosecutorial immunity.

Judge Baxter said, citing a 1994 Supreme Court action, that Mr. Engels cannot seek damages if a decision in his favor then would invalidate his criminal conviction, unless the conviction had been reversed on appeal, expunged by executive order or declared invalid by a state court.

The judge also said that the revocation of Mr. Engels’s conditional discharge and subsequent fine were not a violation of his due process rights.

In a response filed to the recommendation, Mr. Engels mostly repeated claims in his original complaint, but also claimed for the first time that the revocation of his conditional discharge and the ensuing fine were reversed by St. Lawrence County in August 2012 because Town Court had not fully complied with state criminal procedure law.

In a decision issued this week, Senior Judge Norman A. Mordue said that, even though Mr. Engels did not provide a copy of the County Court decision, “the allegation is sufficient to make out a plausible claim” that the revocation and sentence had been reversed on direct appeal, as required under the Supreme Court decision.

He said that, despite Judge Baxter’s reliance on the higher court’s decision in his recommendation, he found that dismissal of Mr. Engels’s suit was not warranted based on the Supreme Court ruling.

Judge Mordue agreed with Judge Baxter that all of the claims against Mr. Charleson, Mr. Becker and Mr. HaberkornHalm be dismissed under the theory of prosecutorial immunity, but declined to dismiss the action against the town, Mr. Ryan or Mr. Dunning.

Judge Mordue stated that based on the reversal of the criminal conviction, the question of whether Mr. Engels has a viable claim against any of the defendants must be determined “at a later stage in this case.”

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