Insisting that protected liberty interests be of "real substance," the Sandin Court limited state-created liberties to "freedom from restraint which, while not exceeding the sentence in such an unexpected manner as to give rise to protection by the Due Process Clause of its own force, nonetheless imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Sandin, 115 S. Ct. at 2300.
Because Sandin clearly applies to the instant case -- which stands or falls on whether defendants infringed upon plaintiff's liberty interest protected by due process -- the merits of plaintiff's claims must be evaluated.
A. LIABILITY UNDER 42 U.S.C. § 1983
The purpose of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is "to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights, and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails." Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161, 118 L. Ed. 2d 504, 112 S. Ct. 1827 (1992). Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any person who, acting under the color of state law, infringes on a person's rights secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In this case, defendants act under color of state law in their positions as employees of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (NYSDOCS). The threshold question is whether defendants' actions deprived plaintiff of his "rights, privileges, or immunities" and if so, are defendants entitled to qualified immunity from plaintiff's suit. Siegert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226, 111 S. Ct. 1789, 114 L. Ed. 2d 277 (1991) (prior to resolving the issue of whether a defendant has properly asserted a qualified immunity defense, a court must determine whether the plaintiff has asserted a violation of a constitutional right.)
Plaintiff alleges that defendants violated his rights in several ways. First, he alleges that his due process rights were violated by defendant Mahoney's denial of his right to an assistant to aid him in preparing for his hearing. Second, plaintiff maintains that he was denied his right to proceed before an impartial official. Finally, plaintiff claims that defendant Coughlin violated his rights by affirming the unconstitutional determination made by defendant Mahoney.
B. WHETHER A LIBERTY INTEREST EXISTS IN PLAINTIFF'S CLAIMS
Liberty interests protected by the Due Process Clause may arise from either the Due Process Clause itself or from the laws of the states. Sandin, U.S. , 115 S. Ct. 2293, 2300 (1995). Plaintiff cannot assert a liberty interest as established under the Due Process Clause itself because in a prison context, such interest will generally arise only where a prisoner is to be involuntarily transferred to confinement which is "'qualitatively different' from the punishment characteristically suffered by a person convicted of a crime and results in 'stigmatizing consequences.'" Id. at 2997, fn. 4 (citing to Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 63 L. Ed. 2d 552, 100 S. Ct. 1254 (1980) (involuntarily transfer to psychiatric hospital); Washington v. Harper, 494 U.S. 210, 108 L. Ed. 2d 178, 110 S. Ct. 1028 (1990) (forced consumption of psychotropic medication against prisoner's will)). Thus, plaintiff's alleged liberty interest is protected by due process only to the extent that it arises under the laws of New York State and infringes upon his expected terms of confinement.
The evaluation of due process under state law requires a determination of whether (1) the state statutes or regulations at issue narrowly restrict the power of prison officials to impose the deprivation -- giving the inmate the right to avoid it -- and (2) the liberty in question is one of "real substance". Sandin, 115 S. Ct. at 2298. Because it is undisputed that the state regulations at issue here narrowly restricted defendants' right to impose a disciplinary sentence on the plaintiff,
my inquiry must determine whether the liberty interest alleged to have been violated was one of "real substance," e.g. freedom from state action that will "inevitably affect the duration of [a] sentence," or restraint that imposes "atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life."
Id. at 2300.
The Sandin Court found that 30 days of disciplinary segregation was "within the range of confinement to be normally expected for one serving an indeterminate term of 30 years to life" in a maximum security prison. Thus, Mr. Sandin's disciplinary sentence was held not to be "atypical and significant" Id. at 2301. Where an inmate served a substantial portion of a disciplinary sentence in SHU before a successful appeal, however, the Second Circuit has previously recognized that such sentences might constitute compensable deprivations of a liberty interest. Walker v. Bates, 23 F.3d 652, 658-59 (2d Cir. 1994), cert. denied, U.S. , 132 L. Ed. 2d 852, 115 S. Ct. 2608 (1995). Walker had served 73 days of a 120 day sentence of confinement.
In the instant case, plaintiff served over one year of a two year sentence in SHU before his release. In relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life, I find that plaintiff Lee's confinement for 376 days in SHU imposed an atypical and significant hardship on plaintiff.
Thus, plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a liberty interest, even under the new light of Sandin.
C. THE DUE PROCESS VIOLATION
Where a prisoner establishes a protected liberty interest of real substance, he is entitled to the procedural protections as set forth by the Supreme Court in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935, 94 S. Ct. 2963 (1974). Wolff articulated the minimum procedures necessary to reach a "mutual accommodation between institutional needs and objectives and the provisions of the Constitution." Id.; accord, Sandin v. Conner, U.S. , 132 L. Ed. 2d 418, 115 S. Ct. 2293 (1995). This guarantees a prisoner's right to be given twenty-four hours notice of the charges against him, a written statement of the evidence relied on by the fact-finder in the hearing, and the reasons for the disciplinary action taken by the hearing officer. Wolff at 563-65.
In Wolff, the Supreme Court indicated that in certain circumstances, inmates subject to disciplinary charges have the right to assistance in preparing their defense. When an inmate is placed in restrictive confinement, the Second Circuit has held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires that the prison provide the inmate with assistance in obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses. Eng v. Coughlin, 858 F.2d 889, 897-98 (2d Cir. 1988).
THE ASSISTANCE PRIOR TO THE HEARING
Defendants claim that Sergeant Kelly offered assistance to plaintiff on June 13, 1992, but that plaintiff refused to cooperate. Sergeant Kelly wrote on the assistance sheet that "inmate Lee would prefer to see one of the assistants he chose" and that he "refused to sign" the assistance sheet. Defendants maintain that Sergeant Kelly was assigned so that they could hold plaintiff's hearing expeditiously in that the three assistants selected by plaintiff were not immediately available. See Defendant's Exhibit F ("Note- all three chosen don't work weekends- assistance was attempted on 6/12/92. Inmate Lee was on a visit 6/12 - Fri - 7 day limitation required other assistant be assigned - Hearing Officer J. Mahoney - Lee, R so advised on the tape. JM"). However, plaintiff's six (6) hearing days n10 were conducted over the course of 25 days and there is nothing in the record to suggest that all three of plaintiff's selected assistants were unavailable for the entire time. Plaintiff's Affidavit, P 15; Hearing Transcript 7/8/92, Defendants' Exhibit G.
n10 Plaintiff's disciplinary hearing was conducted as follows:
6/15/92 10:10 - 10:18
6/18/92 8:40 - 8:49
6/22/92 2:29 - 2:45
6/24/92 12:36 - 12:44 and 3:21 - 3:41
7/8/92 3:17 - 3:30
7/9/92 3:11 - 3:27 and 3:57 (disposition
read into record)
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