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Flagg Brothers, Inc. v. Brooks

    Brief Fact Summary. Respondent Shirley Brooks was evicted from her home, and her possessions were moved to a warehouse owned by Petitioner Flagg Brothers, Inc. After a dispute over fees, and a large amount of fees remained unpaid by Respondent, Petitioner threatened to sell Respondent’s possessions. Respondent then filed suit for damages and for an injunction against selling her possessions.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. An action by a private party does not rise to state action, guaranteeing rights guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, unless the action is compelled by the state. Permission through state law does not rise to the level of being compelled by the state, nor does refusal to act by the state court rise to the level of being compelled by the state.

    Facts. On June 13, 1973 Respondent and her family were evicted from their apartment in Mount Vernon, New York. The City Marshal arranged for Brook’ possessions to be stored by Petitioner in their warehouse. Respondent was informed about the cost of moving and storage, and found this price to be too high. On August 25, 1973, after a series of disputes over the charges, Respondent received a letter from Petitioner demanding she bring her account up to date in ten days or her furniture will be sold. Respondent then initiated this class action under 42 U.S.C. Section: 1983 seeking damages; an injunction against the sale of her belongings and a declaration that such a sale violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court dismissed the complaint, while the Court of Appeals reversed.

    Issue. Whether Flagg Brothers’ action may fairly be attributed to the State of New York?

    Held. No. Flagg Brothers’ action is not attributed to the state itself.
    Only a state or a private person whose action maybe fairly be treated that of the state itself may deprive an individual of an interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. It is important to note that Respondent named no public officials in her action. The City Marshal, who supervised Respondent’s eviction, was dismissed from the case by the consent of all parties earlier in the case.
    Respondent’s contention that Petitioner’s action is properly attributable to the state because the state and has authorized and encouraged it in enacting the law is also misplaced. The state is responsible for the actions of a private party only when the state, by its law, has compelled the action by the private party. The Supreme Court has never held that a state’s mere acquiescence in a private action converts that action into that of the state, and refuses to do so here. Here the State of New York has not compelled the sale of a bailor’s goods, but merely announced the circumstances under which its courts will not interfere with a private sale.
    Respondent’s contention in this case is not how the state acted, but how the state refused to act. The statutory refusal to act is no different from a statute of limitations whereby the state declines to provide a remedy for private deprivations of property after the passage of a period of time.

    Dissent. The derived power of a warehouseman to sell the possessions of the Respondent flows directly from state. The question in this case then is whether a state statute authorizing a private party to deprive a person of his property without his consent must meet the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Since the framework of rules that facilitate commercial transactions is premised on the assumption that the state will control nonconsensual deprivations of property, the state’s control will in turn be subject to the restrictions of the Due Process Clause. Therefore the decision by the Court, creates a dichotomy of governmental legislation and governmental action by allowing the transfer of implementation of policy to private parties to avoid the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. The dissent concludes by saying that the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide this division and responsibility and therefore strongly disagrees with the majority’s holdin
    g.

    Discussion. This case places important limits on the nexus of state action. Here the Court definitively states that a state statute allowing a private party to take an action does not rise to the level of state action because it allows action. For a statute to rise to the level of state action it must compel the action to take place. If the Court, on the other hand, took the stance held by the dissent, many actions by private parties that are merely authorized by state statute would rise to the level of state action and be guaranteed the high level of due process protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.


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