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BECKFORD v. IRVIN

April 13, 1999

EASTON BECKFORD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FRANK IRVIN, STEPHEN KRUPPNER, DONALD R. WOLFF AND THE STATE OF NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Heckman, United States Magistrate Judge.

    DECISION & ORDER

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented to have the undersigned conduct all proceedings in this case, including the entry of final judgment (Item 32). A jury trial was held beginning on November 9, 1998, and a verdict was rendered in favor of the plaintiff on November 18, 1998 (See Item 82). Plaintiff was awarded $15,000 in punitive damages from defendant Irvin, $10,000 in punitive damages from defendant Kruppner, and $125,000 in compensatory damages from the State of New York. Pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1), 50(b), 50(c), 59(a), and 59(e), of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, defendants move to dismiss plaintiff's Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") claim, and to set aside the jury verdict (Item 83).

For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is denied. I find that Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act pursuant to a valid exercise of authority under section five of the Fourteenth Amendment. I also find that plaintiff established an Eighth Amendment claim against defendants Irvin and Kruppner, and is entitled to an award of punitive damages. Furthermore, plaintiff will be awarded nominal damages in the amount of $1.00 from both defendant Irvin and defendant Kruppner. Finally, defendants' motion for a new trial and defendants' motion for remittitur is denied.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Easton Beckford, an inmate in the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment, and violations of his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act (Item 40). Plaintiff has been confined to a wheelchair since 1984. All events at issue at trial took place between January 1994 and May 1995, while plaintiff was confined at the Wende Correctional Facility ("Wende").

On January 13, 1994, plaintiff was transferred from the Central New York Psychiatric Center to Wende, and was placed in Wende's Mental Health Observation Unit ("MHU"). Plaintiff was transferred to Wende because it is one of only three facilities with wheelchair accessible medical units. He was not placed in MHU for mental health treatment. He was placed in MHU because the cell was bigger and because his wheelchair fit in the cell. However, as the record demonstrates, once plaintiff arrived at Wende, one of the first things prison officials did was to take away his wheelchair. Within his first month at Wende, plaintiff exhibited behavior that plaintiff's counsel characterized as "peculiar," and "anti-[plaintiff]." For example, on January 31, plaintiff covered his body with feces. On February 2, after being denied his one hour of recreation, plaintiff stabbed himself with a plastic fork.

On February 2, 1994, plaintiff was moved to the Special Housing Unit ("SHU") and remained there until March 7, 1994. Plaintiff did not have access to his wheelchair while housed in SHU. When it was time for plaintiff to shower, plaintiff's cell door was opened so that he could go and use the shower. However, plaintiff was unable to go to the shower without using his wheelchair. According to plaintiff, prison officials designated this as a refusal by plaintiff to take a shower. Plaintiff went without a shower for the entire thirty-two days he was housed in SHU. When it was time for plaintiff's one hour of recreation, plaintiff's cell door was opened so that he could take his recreation. However, plaintiff was unable to leave his cell without the use of his wheelchair. According to plaintiff, prison officials said that plaintiff refused recreation because he did not leave his cell.

Plaintiff was unable to file any grievances while in SHU because he lacked a pencil and paper. Plaintiff said this was because he had not yet received his property after being transferred. However, another SHU inmate, Abdallah Davis, filed grievances on plaintiff's behalf. When Deputy Murray responded to one of those grievances, he indicated that his review of plaintiff's records failed to show the need for a cane or a wheelchair. In addition, Defendant Kruppner, Deputy Superintendent for Administration at Wende, read from a note in plaintiff's mental health records in which the author indicated that plaintiff had not showered in thirty-three days. Corrections officers who responded to a query from the note's author said that the showers in SHU are not wheelchair accessible.

There was some conflicting evidence as to plaintiff's bedsores. A nurse observed plaintiff's bedsores on both February 24 and February 28, 1994. Both times the nurse described the sores as a discoloration. Plaintiff was told that he would need to put in a sick call slip if he wanted to receive treatment for his sores. On March 3, 1994, after filing a March 1, 1994, grievance, plaintiff was seen by a doctor. Because plaintiff had seen a physician, his grievance was denied.

Joseph Gerken, an attorney formerly employed with Prisoners' Legal Services ("PLS") in Buffalo, New York, testified about visiting plaintiff at Wende on February 24, 1994, and observing plaintiff's bedsores. Mr. Gerken made this visit in response to a letter from plaintiff complaining about bedsores. While not a health professional, Mr. Gerken testified as to his previous work experience as an orderly, and his familiarity with seeing bedsores on patients he worked with. He testified that he saw open and oozing sores on plaintiff's body. While leaving the facility, Mr. Gerken testified that he informed defendant Wolff, Deputy Superintendent for Security at Wende, about his observations, and followed this up with a letter to defendant Irvin.

On March 7, 1994, plaintiff was transferred to Great Meadow Correctional Facility. When he returned to Wende, plaintiff was sent directly to MHU. Plaintiff was allowed to use a wheelchair upon his return from Great Meadow. Plaintiff was also sent to several medical specialists who recommended that plaintiff receive physical therapy. One physical therapist suggested that plaintiff would probably be able to walk if he was fitted with a leg brace and assistive devices. Plaintiff was not given physical therapy or a leg brace.

Defendant Irvin testified that Amnesty International took an interest in plaintiff's condition, and that letters were received from as far away as Switzerland and Australia. However, defendants' exhibit 23 showed that defendant Irvin informed officials in Albany that plaintiff was observed walking and that he has been taking showers regularly. At trial, defendants did not offer any testimony about plaintiff walking in his cell.

In June 1994, plaintiff was transferred to Shawangunk Correctional Facility. In Shawangunk, plaintiff was placed in a wheelchair-accessible SHU. Plaintiff was returned to Wende in September 1994 so that he could obtain medical treatment at the Erie County Medical Center. Once again, plaintiff was housed in the MHU. Plaintiff was returned to Shawangunk on October 5, 1994. On October 30, 1994, plaintiff was sent back to Wende, and was once again housed in the MHU. Plaintiff's medical record showed that he was taking Dilantin and Phenobarbital for his seizures. He was also taking Naproxen, Mellaril, Elavil, and Prozac. However, when plaintiff was returned to Wende he was not provided with all of his medications. Plaintiff was only given Dilantin, Phenobarbital, and Naproxen.

Dr. Capote, an employee at Wende, testified about evaluating plaintiff's psychiatric condition. While Dr. Capote found plaintiff to be competent, he testified that he never really looked at plaintiff's medical records and that he really did not know much about plaintiff. Plaintiff was not Dr. Capote's patient.

On November 14, 1994, plaintiff was committed to the custody of James Stone, Commissioner of Mental Hygiene, by Duchess County Court Judge George D. Marlow. Plaintiff received a copy of the commitment order from Dr. Green, head of Wende's MHU. Commissioner Stone never took custody of plaintiff. Plaintiff's medical record indicates that his mental health started to deteriorate around this time. Plaintiff threatened staff and threatened to throw feces. On December 17, plaintiff followed through with his threat and threw feces from his cell. Prison officials removed plaintiff's wheelchair as punishment and erected a plexiglass shield in front of his cell. Plaintiff did not begin receiving all of his medications until early January, 1995.

Plaintiff also complained about the difficulty he had bathing and getting a drink of water while in his cell. Both sides agreed that the toilet and sink are attached, and that the drinking fountain is on top of the sink. Because of his wheelchair, plaintiff was unable to reach the sink or fountain in his cell unless he used a cup. However, plaintiff was not allowed to keep a cup in his cell because it violated prison rules. He was occasionally denied meals for keeping a cup from his meal tray in his cell. Plaintiff testified that when he did have use of a cup, he would use it to draw water from his toilet in an effort to bathe and cleanse his bedsores.

The jury also watched a videotape of plaintiff being extracted from his cell on April 12, 1995, in an effort to remove his wheelchair. Prior to the cell extraction, another MHU inmate, Leon Wright, set a fire in his cell. Plaintiff banged on his cell bars with part of the wheelchair, complaining that smoke obstructed his breathing and requested to be removed from the cell. According to Lieutenant Cooks, plaintiff was asked to give up his wheelchair because he was banging it against the cell doors. Dr. Capote testified that during this incident he went to talk to plaintiff because he heard plaintiff had suicidal ideation. According to Dr. Capote, there was no mention of the wheelchair in his conversation with plaintiff. Shortly after meeting with Dr. Capote, correctional officers entered plaintiff's cell, removed plaintiff's wheelchair, removed plaintiff from his cell, placed shackles on his hands and feet, and forcibly moved plaintiff to a shower (See Pl.Ex. 9). Plaintiff was left lying face down and shackled on a shower floor, with the water intermittently being turned on and off, for approximately twenty minutes.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff commenced this action by filing a pro se complaint on April 23, 1996 (Item 1). On May 24, 1996, plaintiff moved for appointment of counsel (Item 4). Plaintiff's motion was granted, and counsel was appointed on January 14, 1997 (Item 31). With the court's approval, an amended complaint was filed on September 5, 1997 (Item 40).

Plaintiff set forth eight causes of action in his amended complaint. Prior to trial, the parties stipulated to the discontinuance of claims against several parties (Item 74). The fourth cause of action was dismissed on November 12. On November 13, the seventh cause of action was dismissed, and the eighth cause of action was dismissed against all defendants except the State of New York. The remaining defendants were the State of New York, Superintendent Frank Irvin, Steven Kruppner, Deputy Superintendent for Administration, and Donald R. Wolff, Deputy Superintendent for Security.

Two claims were ultimately presented to the jury. First, plaintiff complained that defendants Irvin, Wolff and Kruppner were deliberately indifferent to plaintiff's serious medical needs, in violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, by failing to train and supervise their subordinates, and by failing to respond adequately to plaintiff's complaints. Second, plaintiff complained that defendant State of New York violated plaintiff's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131, et seq., by denying him access to programs and services available to non-disabled inmates, by subjecting him to discrimination by virtue of his disability, by failing to provide him with his wheelchair for sustained periods of time, and by failing to provide him with a wheelchair accessible environment.

The trial took place from November 9, 1998, through November 18, 1998. On November 18, 1998, the jury returned a verdict in the amount $150,000 for the plaintiff (See Item 77, 80). The jury found an Eighth Amendment violation against defendants Irvin and Kruppner, but not against defendant Donald Wolff (Item 77, at 1). Without awarding compensatory or nominal damages, the jury awarded plaintiff punitive damages against defendant Irvin in the amount of $15,000, and $10,000 in punitive damages against defendant Kruppner (Item 77, at 3-4). On the ADA claim, the jury awarded plaintiff $125,000 in compensatory damages against the State of New York (Item 77, at 4-5).

Judgement was entered in favor of the plaintiff on November 30, 1998 (Item 82). On December 9, 1998, defendants filed a motion seeking the following relief: (1) dismissal of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; (2) granting judgment as a matter of law on the ground that there is insufficient proof to support the jury's findings; (3) setting aside the jury verdict rendered against the defendants in the amount of $0.00 in compensatory damages, $0.00 in nominal damages, and (cumulatively) $25,000 in punitive damages against defendants Irvin and Kruppner; (4) setting aside the jury verdict against defendant State of New York; and, (5) in the alternative, granting remittitur relative to the amount of damages found by the jury (Item 83).

DISCUSSION

I. Sovereign Immunity and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Defendants argue that the ADA does not abrogate a state's sovereign immunity because it was not enacted pursuant to a valid exercise of congressional authority under section five of the Fourteenth Amendment (Item 84, at 3). In support of this argument, defendants recognize that Congress possessed the power to enact the ADA, but argue that it lacked the authority to abrogate a state's sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment (Item 84, at 8).

The ADA, "[l]ike the other antidiscrimination statutes, . . . is an exercise of Congress' power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment." Crawford v. Indiana Dept. of Corrections, 115 F.3d 481, 487 (7th Cir. 1997); Muller v. Costello, 997 F. Supp. 299, 304 (N.D.N.Y. 1998); see also Cooper v. New York State Office of Mental Health, 162 F.3d 770, 777 (2d Cir. 1998) (holding ADEA enacted pursuant to section five of the Fourteenth Amendment), petition for cert. filed, 67 USLW 3614 (1999).

A two-part test is used to determine whether Congress effectively abrogated the States' sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. First, it is necessary to determine "whether Congress has unequivocally expressed its intent to abrogate the immunity." Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 55, 116 S.Ct. 1114, 134 L.Ed.2d 252 (1996) (quoting Green v. Mansour, 474 U.S. 64, 68, 106 S.Ct. 423, 88 L.Ed.2d 371 (1985)) (internal ...


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