Declaratory Judgment, Not Mandamus, Was Proper Vehicle for Determining Whether a Town Was Obligated to Repair a Bridge
The Second Department determined Supreme Court properly converted a mandamus proceeding to a declaratory judgment proceeding and properly found that the town was obligated, under the Highway Law, to repair an unsafe bridge. However, Supreme Court did not have the power to direct the town to make the repairs “as expeditiously as possible.” The Second Department explained the relevant law:
“The extraordinary remedy of mandamus is available in limited circumstances only to compel the performance of a purely ministerial act which does not involve the exercise of official discretion or judgment, and only when a clear legal right to the relief has been demonstrated” …, whereas declaratory relief “is not an extraordinary remedy,” as it “only provides a declaration of rights between parties” and “cannot be executed upon so as to compel a party to perform an act” … . Here, the appellants correctly concede that the Town is obligated to repair and maintain the Dock Street Bridge, since it is part of a highway by use within the meaning of Highway Law § 189 by virtue of the Town’s maintenance of Dock Street for the requisite statutory time period … . However, as the Supreme Court correctly observed, “[t]he many factors involved in a determination as to when and how bridges should be constructed, reconstructed and repaired militate that such judgments must be left to the [Town], with due regard to fiscal appropriations, and should not be the subject of judicial fiat” … . Thus, the Supreme Court properly converted the proceeding to a declaratory judgment action pursuant to CPLR 103(c) and, thereupon, declared that the Town “is responsible for the maintenance, repair, and/or replacement of the Dock Street Bridge”… .
However, the Supreme Court erred by declaring that the Town “shall take all measures necessary to fulfill its legal obligation to repair or replace the Dock Street Bridge, as expeditiously as possible in consideration of . . . fiscal and other concerns.” It is beyond cavil that ” questions of judgment, discretion, allocation of resources and priorities [are] inappropriate for resolution in the judicial arena'” … . As the Supreme Court recognized, it is within the discretion of the Town to “investigat[e] . . . the most appropriate method of repairing or replacing the bridge, and the potential availability of grants and funding sources other than the [T]own’s tax base” to address its “present financial inability to replace the Dock Street Bridge,” and courts cannot interfere with this function … . Consequently, the Supreme Court’s declaration that the Town must “take all measures necessary to . . . repair or replace the Dock Street Bridge[ ] as expeditiously as possible” was purely advisory and does not create any binding obligation on the Town. Thus, this declaration was improper … . Matter of Hyde Park Landing, Ltd. v Town of Hyde Park, 2015 NY Slip Op 05945, 2nd Dept 7-8-15