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McCann v. Coughlin

decided: January 6, 1983.


Appeal by the defendant, and cross-appeal by the plaintiff, from a judgment entered on an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles L. Brieant, Jr., Judge, holding the defendants liable for $1 nominal damages, and awarding attorney's fees to the plaintiff in a suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Reversed and remanded.

Waterman, Kaufman and Newman, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge:

Courts and public officials have long rejected the doctrine that a prisoner is a "slave of the state" with only those "rights which the law in its humanity accords to him." Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. (21 Gratt) 790, 796 (1871). Although the scope of an inmate's rights is necessarily circumscribed, and at times may be further limited by exigencies such as the need to assure prison security, prisoners are not wholly without rights. "There is no iron curtain between the Constitution and the prisons of this country." Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 555-56, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935, 94 S. Ct. 2963 (1974).

The transition from nineteenth century concepts of prisoners' rights to more enlightened views has led this nation's courts down a lengthy and tortuous path. Justice Frankfurter observed, "It is of the very nature of a free society to advance in its standards of what is deemed reasonable and right." Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25, 27, 93 L. Ed. 1782, 69 S. Ct. 1359 (1949). In this spirit we have attempted to delineate the fine lines between inmates' rights and the legitimate concerns of prison officials. In 1941 the Supreme Court decided that state prison officials could not screen inmates' habeas corpus petitions. Ex parte Hull, 312 U.S. 546, 85 L. Ed. 1034, 61 S. Ct. 640 (1941). Since Hull, courts have recognized the First Amendment rights of prisoners,*fn1 extended the guarantees of due process*fn2 and secured a panoply of protections designed to give meaning to the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.*fn3 The dispute now before us concerns the extent of a convict's rights in prison disciplinary proceedings. It reaches this Court as the latest in a line of cases focusing on prison discipline which we and the lower federal courts in New York State have considered.


Because the underlying circumstances are important to the resolution of this case brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we set out the facts in some detail.

Vincent McCann*fn4 was convicted of robbery in New York State and sentenced to two and one-half years imprisonment. He was incarcerated in the Fishkill Correctional Center in July 1978 after a short period of confinement at another prison. Fishkill, a medium security facility located in Beacon, New York, houses inmates in dormitories and single rooms. McCann lived in a single room.

On August 10, 1979, McCann became embroiled in an altercation with an inmate named Tarrats. McCann claims he was awakened at about 9 p.m. when Tarrats tried to force his way past another inmate named O'Brien into McCann's room. Earlier that day McCann had exchanged radios with another prisoner, and Tarrats believed the radio McCann obtained through this transaction belonged to him. According to McCann, Tarrats lunged at him with a knife, and McCann responded by reaching for a chair, and hitting Tarrats over the head with it. When the fight ended, Tarrats was taken to the medical clinic and McCann was removed from his room by two corrections officers. McCann was locked up at the prison's Special Housing Unit.*fn5 This unit, which is in the center's maximum security wing, is used to confine inmates found guilty of disciplinary violations.

Later that day McCann received a Notice of Report, which is used to inform inmates that they are being charged with violations of prison rules. The notice did not describe the particular infraction with which McCann was charged, but merely identified by code number the rule he was alleged to have broken. McCann, however, had been given a rule book in October 1978, shortly after his admission to Fishkill. This book listed disciplinary violations by code number and detailed each infraction.

A Superintendent's Misbehavior Report was also filled out by one of the guards. This report listed the particular events giving rise to the allegations, and specified the rules which McCann was charged with having violated. McCann was not given a copy of this report.

On Sunday, August 12, McCann was taken back to his cell in the Special Housing Unit after receiving a visit from his wife. He claims that while asleep he fell off the bed and injured his back. He summoned the guard, who called the correctional center medical clinic. Shortly thereafter, nurse Ionie Service came to McCann's cell to examine him. McCann demanded to see a doctor, and refused to cooperate with the nurse. Ms. Service informed McCann that the doctor would not come to his cell, and she asked the guards to restrain him so she could take his blood pressure. The nurse found McCann's blood pressure was normal, and gave him a placebo to placate him. McCann continued to complain about his back throughout that day and the succeeding evening, and repeatedly asked to be examined by a doctor. Every few hours the nurse returned and gave McCann some medication. The doctor never visited him.

The following day, August 13, McCann was scheduled to appear before the center's Adjustment Committee in connection with the fight with Tarrats.*fn6 When an officer came to escort him to the hearing, McCann complained about his back and maintained that he could not walk because of the pain. After checking with Lt. Charest, the Adjustment Committee chairman, the guard insisted that McCann attempt to walk, and helped support him. McCann got up, but as he started out the door of his cell, he collapsed. He asked the guard to summon the doctor. The guard called, but informed McCann that the doctor refused to come to the cell, because "he doesn't make house calls." McCann alleges that Lt. Charest ordered him to be brought to the hearing on a stretcher. The guards attempted to place McCann on a stretcher, but gave up when he cried out in pain. He remained in his cell for approximately two hours until Dr. Bakall arrived and, according to McCann, instructed the guards to ignore his complaints and put him on a stretcher. McCann claims that they pulled him onto the stretcher by his legs despite his cries of pain.

At the clinic Dr. Bakall examined McCann. He attempted to manipulate his legs to determine if anything was wrong, and when he did this, McCann kicked him. McCann stated in his complaint that the doctor was pulling his leg and causing him pain. McCann claims he tried to free his leg from the doctor's grasp, and accidentally struck him. The district court rejected this version of the facts and credited Dr. Bakall's testimony. After McCann was examined further and X-rays were taken, the doctor found nothing medically wrong. McCann was returned to the special housing unit in a wheelchair.

Later that day, McCann received a second Notice of Report in connection with the assault on Dr. Bakall. This notice, like the first one, did not specify the infractions with which McCann was charged, but only indicated by code number the rules he allegedly violated. It also stated that a Superintendent's Misbehavior Report was being filed. This latter report, listed the alleged misconduct in some detail, but McCann was not provided with a copy.

As a consequence of his collapse, McCann never attended the scheduled Adjustment Committee hearing on August 13. Two reports, however, were filed by Lt. Charest which seem to indicate that McCann did attend the hearing. In the appropriate space, Charest wrote in one report that McCann explained his involvement in the fight with Tarrats by stating, "its my age." The other report contained a space where McCann should have signed. Lt. Charest wrote there, "inmate passed out, could not sign."

On August 14 McCann finally appeared before the Adjustment Committee. At the district court trial, which we shall soon discuss, McCann testified that as soon as he arrived at the Adjustment Committee hearing, he was told by Lt. Charest that he was being sentenced to seven days keeplock in the Special Housing Unit. McCann stated that he asked to be allowed to present his version of the events, but was interrupted and told the Committee would move ahead and consider the second alleged violation, the one concerning McCann's assault on Dr. Bakall. McCann also testified at trial that he was acting in self-defense when he hit Tarrats, and he indicated that a fellow inmate, O'Brien, would have corroborated this claim. McCann did not ask to call O'Brien as a witness, because he believed the Committee would not permit it. He testified that he did not know he had a right to call witnesses, and thought it would be futile to make a request.

When the Committee considered the second charge against McCann, he was allowed to explain his side of the story. He stated that the doctor was hurting him by moving his leg, and he accidentally kicked the doctor as he tried to pull his leg away. The Adjustment Committee listened to this testimony and adjourned without reaching a decision.

The following day, August 15, McCann was again summoned before the Adjustment Committee. The Committee members did not ask him for any further information concerning the incident with Dr. Bakall, but informed him that he was being sentenced to an additional seven days keeplock with loss of privileges for that violation. At neither hearing was McCann given any reasons for the Committee's decision, nor did he receive a statement of the evidence relied upon.


On November 1, 1979 McCann filed a pro se complaint in the Southern District of New York pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. He sought monetary damages, an injunction and declaratory relief. The defendants named in the complaint were T. Coughlin III, the Commissioner of Corrections; T. Reid, the superintendent of the Fishkill Correctional Center; Lt. Charest, chairman of the Adjustment Committee at Fishkill; and Drs. Huang and Bakall, both physicians at Fishkill.

McCann's complaint alleged that his Eighth Amendment right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment had been violated because the defendants caused him excessive and unnecessary suffering through their indifference to his medical needs. Specifically, he asserted that the prison physicians refused to come to his assistance when he fell from his bed on August 12, and that they treated him improperly on August 13. His claim under the Fourteenth Amendment was premised on his allegation that the Adjustment Committee violated his due process rights and imposed excessive sanctions for the two disciplinary violations.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b) (6). Judge Pierce referred the motion to Magistrate Tyler, who recommended that the claim of disproportionate punishment be dismissed, but found sufficient allegations to sustain the other claims. Judge Pierce adopted the magistrate's recommendations, and later requested the distinguished firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore ("Cravath") to represent McCann. Cravath agreed to represent McCann as a pro bono client.

The case was eventually tried before Judge Brieant in April 1982. McCann testified in his own behalf. Partial transcripts of a number of depositions were also introduced. The defendants called six witnesses, Lt. Charest, Ms. Service, Dr. Bakall, former Adjustment Committee member Dooley and two Fishkill correctional officers. After the close of the defendants' case Judge Brieant dictated his findings of fact and conclusions of law. He rejected McCann's Eighth Amendment claim, finding that McCann received appropriate medical care. The doctors were not indifferent to McCann's medical needs, the court found, and they "treated him fairly and correctly under all the circumstances." The judge also found that McCann acted in a manner inconsistent with that of a person genuinely injured, and described him as "obstreperous" and a "wise guy."

Judge Brieant determined that McCann's due process rights had been violated because of the procedures employed by the Adjustment Committee. He found that McCann was not given sufficient notice of the charges raised against him, and was not provided with a written explanation of the Committee's decision. The court concluded, however, that although the notice given McCann was inadequate, he was aware of the nature of the charges against him, and he could have used the rule book in his possession to apprise himself of the particular violations with which he was charged.

The district judge rejected McCann's assertion that his rights were infringed because he was not allowed to call witnesses or present a defense concerning the Tarrats incident at the August 14 hearing. Judge Brieant concluded that McCann either waived his right to call a witness and present a defense, or alternatively, that there was no defense available to him. The court also declined to find that the Adjustment Committee reports indicating that McCann had appeared on August 13, when in fact he did not appear, were fraudulently prepared. The judge viewed the misstatements in the reports "as something in the nature of a clerical error."

Judge Brieant also rejected the good faith defense raised by the defendants, holding that they had either actual or constructive notice of court decisions concerning the due process rights of inmates at disciplinary proceedings. Moreover, Commissioner Coughlin or his predecessor had been parties in several proceedings in which this court ...

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