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Eisenbud v. Suffolk County and Suffolk County Board of Public Disclosure

decided: March 8, 1988.

FREDERICK EISENBUD, SUSAN BRAITMAN, ROBERT GARFINKLE, STEVEN HOVANI, ROBERT MARGOLIN, MICHAEL MILLER, LEONARD PILZER, JOHN RIBEIRO, IRA SIMON, THEODORE SKLAR, AND MARY WERNER, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
SUFFOLK COUNTY AND SUFFOLK COUNTY BOARD OF PUBLIC DISCLOSURE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from a final judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Jacob Mishler, Judge, summarily dismissing complaint challenging financial disclosure law, Suffolk County Code ch. 61. Affirmed.

Author: Kearse

KEARSE, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs Frederick Eisenbud, et al., attorneys employed by defendant Suffolk County, New York (the "County"), appeal from a final judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Jacob Mishler, Judge, dismissing their complaint brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982) for a declaratory judgment that the County's financial disclosure law, Suffolk County Code ch. 61, as amended through 1986, violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The court found that the disclosure law did not violate plaintiffs' rights to equal protection because it is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. On appeal, plaintiffs contend that the court's use of the rational-basis test was inappropriate and that even under that test their claim should have been upheld. For the reasons below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

The material facts are not in dispute. The law at issue requires County "employees" to file financial disclosure statements revealing, inter alia, the assets, liabilities, and sources of income of themselves and their spouses. As amended in mid-1986, the term "employee" was defined, in pertinent part, to mean

all elected Suffolk County officials, all department heads, chief deputy department heads, all personnel who are in the competitive jurisdictional class, but who have not received permanent competitive status in Suffolk County, or who are in the non-competitive, exempt, unclassified jurisdictional classes and who are graded 16 and above or are ungraded and receiving $25,000.00 or more in annual compensation . . . .

Local Law No. 9-1986, § 2, codified at Suffolk County Code § 61-4 (1986). The effect of this definition was to make the disclosure requirements applicable to appointed County employees who earn $25,000 or more and are exempt from civil service requirements, and inapplicable to employees who, through competitive examination, have received permanent status covered by civil service. A later amendment in 1986 retained the quoted part of the definition, but excepted from it 27 categories of employees who are exempt from civil service requirements but who, in terms of potential conflicts of interest, are deemed not to hold "sensitive" positions. These categories include, e.g., registered nurses, tree trimmers, and tug boat captains.

Plaintiffs are employed by the County as assistant county attorneys or assistant district attorneys. They are exempt from civil service and are paid $25,000 or more per year, and hence are required to file financial disclosure statements. They commenced the present action in November 1986, alleging principally that the (1) disclosure law deprived them of their rights to privacy without due process of law, and (2) that because employees covered by civil service were not similarly required to file disclosure statements, the law deprived plaintiffs of equal protection. Both sides moved for summary judgment.

Prior to a ruling on these motions, plaintiffs wrote the court withdrawing their due process privacy claims because defendant Suffolk County Disclosure Board ("Disclosure Board"), an entity created by the financial disclosure law, had amended its rules to grant substantially all of the due process safeguards sought in this suit. Plaintiffs continued to contend that because the disclosure law was not applicable to "large numbers of other employees occupying similarly 'sensitive positions' or earning equal or greater salaries" (Complaint para. 21), the law was invalid in its entirety on equal protection grounds.

In a Memorandum of Decision and Order dated June 29, 1987 ("Opinion"), the district court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. The court rejected plaintiffs' contention that this Court's decision in Barry v. City of New York, 712 F.2d 1554 (2d Cir.) ("Barry"), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1017, 104 S. Ct. 548, 78 L. Ed. 2d 723 (1983), which involved a similar financial disclosure law, required use of an intermediate standard of scrutiny, stating that though the intermediate standard had been applied to the Barry plaintiffs' claims of privacy, it did not appear to have been applied to their equal protection claims. Rather, the district court concluded that because the Eisenbud "'plaintiffs' equal protection claims d[id] not involve invidious discrimination, suspect classifications, or fundamental rights,'" Opinion at 9 (quoting Duplantier v. United States, 606 F.2d 654, 671 n.37 (5th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1076, 66 L. Ed. 2d 798, 101 S. Ct. 854 (1981)), the law should be upheld if it had a rational basis. The objectives of the law, as stated by the County legislature in the law itself, included ensuring to citizens of the County "a county government that is administered free from any conflicts of interest by employees who affect the integrity of the county government," Suffolk County Code § 61-2.A., "discourag[ing] and detect[ing] corruption and the appearance of corruption," id. § 61-2.D, and "instill[ing] in the public a sense of confidence and integrity and impartiality of its public servants," id. § 61-2.E. The district court found that these were legitimate governmental purposes and that the County legislature could rationally have concluded that the need for disclosure was greater with respect to appointed exempt employees than with respect to those who had achieved permanent civil service status through competitive examination. Accordingly, the court concluded that the disclosure law did not violate plaintiffs' equal protection rights.

Judgment was entered dismissing the complaint. This appeal followed.

II. DISCUSSION

On appeal, plaintiffs argue that their right to privacy is a substantial right protected by the Constitution and that (1) under Barry, the district court should have applied an intermediate standard of review, upholding the statute only if there was a substantial relationship between its purpose and its discriminatory effect, and (2) even under the rational-basis standard employed by the district court, the law should have been held to violate their rights to equal protection. We agree that Barry used an intermediate standard of review, but we conclude that under that standard the County's disclosure law must be upheld.

It is well established that social and economic legislation that does not discriminate on the basis of inherently suspect classifications or implicate "fundamental" personal rights does not violate equal protection rights if it has any rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose. See, e.g., Schweiker v. Wilson, 450 U.S. 221, 230, 67 L. Ed. 2d 186, 101 S. Ct. 1074 (1981); New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297, 303, 49 L. Ed. 2d 511, 96 S. Ct. 2513 (1976) (per curiam). At the other end of the scale, legislation that either disadvantages a "suspect" class or impinges on the exercise of a fundamental personal right has traditionally been subject to strict scrutiny to determine whether it is "precisely tailored to serve a ...


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