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PIZZUTO v. COUNTY OF NASSAU

November 19, 2002

VIRGINIA PIZZUTO, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF HER HUSBAND THOMAS PIZZUTO, AND ON HER OWN BEHALF; TOMMY PIZZUTO, BY HIS MOTHER AND NATURAL GUARDIAN VIRGINIA PIZZUTO; CAROL PIZZUTO; ROSARIO PIZZUTO; JOSEPH PIZZUTO; RUSSELL PIZZUTO; AND ANTHONY PIZZUTO, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
COUNTY OF NASSAU; THE SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT OF NASSAU COUNTY; INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITY, SHERIFF JOSEPH JABLONSKY; UNDER-SHERIFF JEROME DONAHUE; UNDER-SHERIFF PAUL SCHOENBERGER; THE NASSAU COUNTY CORRECTIONAL CENTER; INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS NASSAU COUNTY CORRECTION OFFICERS EDWARD VELAZQUEZ, PATRICK REGNIER, IVANO BAVARO, JOSEPH BERGEN, GARY PINCUS, RICHARD TRINO; ROBERT PETERSON INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITY, JOHN DOES CORRECTION OFFICERS AND NON-UNIFORMED EMPLOYEES OF NASSAU COUNTY, THE SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT OF NASSAU COUNTY, AND/OR THE NASSAU COUNTY CORRECTIONAL CENTER, RICHARD ROES, SUPERVISORY OFFICERS, THE IDENTITY AND NUMBER OF WHOM IS PRESENTLY UNKNOWN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garaufis, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Virginia Pizzuto, Carol Pizzuto, Joseph Pizzuto, Russell Pizzuto, Tommy Pizzuto, Anthony Pizzuto and the estate of Rosario Pizzuto ("Plaintiffs") have brought eighteen claims under federal and state law against the above captioned Defendants. The claims arise out of the murder of Thomas Pizzuto by corrections officers of the Nassau County Correctional Center ("NCCC"). Defendants have moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 to dismiss the following four claims: (1) Plaintiffs Carol Pizzuto and Rosario Pizzuto's claim for the violation of their Fourteenth Amendment right to the companionship and society of their, Thomas Pizzuto; (2) Plaintiffs Carol Pizzuto and Rosario Pizzuto's claim for the wrongful death of Thomas Pizzuto; (3) Plaintiffs' First Amendment claim asserting a denial of access to the courts; and (4) Plaintiffs' claim against individual corrections officers for intentional/reckless infliction of emotional distress.

For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

For purposes of this motion for summary judgment, Plaintiffs' allegations are accepted as true and any reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of Plaintiffs.

Prior to his murder in January 1999, Thomas Pizzuto lived with his wife and son in the ground-floor apartment of his parents' house in Nassau County. (Declaration in Opposition to The Nassau County Defendants' Motion For Summary Judgment, ("Plaintiffs' Decl.") Ex. B at 10.) At that time, Pizzuto was 38 years old and enrolled in drug treatment program that involved the lawful use of methadone.

On January 7, 1999, Pizzuto was sentenced to ninety days in jail on the misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of methadone. (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 16.) Later that day, Pizzuto was incarcerated at the NCCC and assigned to a one-person cell in the NCCC's Observation Tier. Pizzuto's assignment to this unit was based on his status as an inmate receiving methadone treatment. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 18.) During the morning of January 8, Pizzuto repeatedly complained to correction officers that he needed his court-ordered methadone treatment. (¶ 19.) After a heated exchange between Pizzuto and one guard, Defendant corrections officers ordered all Observation Tier inmates to return to their cells. All of the cells except Pizzuto's were then locked. (Id. ¶¶ 21, 22, 23.) Moments later, three corrections officers, at the direction of a supervisor, proceeded to Pizzuto's cell with the intention of using force to control his behavior. While one officer stood guard outside, two others donned rubber surgical gloves and entered Pizzuto's cell. (Id. ¶ 24.) The officers ordered Pizzuto to put his hands down and thereafter beat him for several minutes, repeatedly punching and kicking him about the face, torso, and legs. (Id.) The supervisor later testified that during the beating he heard thuds, banging, crying and moaning from Pizzuto's cell, and felt vibrations from the walls. Once the officers had beaten Pizzuto into submission, they left him lying in his cell with extensive visible injuries, including a swollen and blackened left eye, a swollen left cheek, abrasions to his left cheek, bruises and contusions on his chest, shoulder, torso and back, and a contusion to his leg. In addition, it was later discovered that his spleen was lacerated by the force of the punches or kicks to his torso. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 31.) The officers reported back to their supervisor that no "injury report" or "use of force report" was needed. (Id. ¶ 27.)

Hours after the beating, another supervisor learned of the incident and took the first of many affirmative steps that were part of Defendants' effort to cover up Pizzuto's beating. The supervisor prepared a report falsely claiming that Pizzuto had slipped and fallen in the shower and sent Pizzuto to the Medical Unit. (Id. ¶¶ 33, 34.) The only treatment Pizzuto received, despite his extensive visible injuries, was a bag of ice. (Notice of Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Against Defendants Velazquez, Regnier, Bavaro, Bergen, Pincus and Nassau County, ¶ 26.) Pizzuto was returned to his cell later that evening. (Pl.Compl. ¶ 34.)

The circumstances surrounding the NCCC's alleged cover-up and the family's attempts to contact Thomas Pizzuto from January 8th to January 10th remain murky, as the pleadings contain only general and contradictory allegations. During that two day period, Plaintiffs claim that the NCCC prevented them from contacting Thomas Pizzuto and learning of his beating. (Id. ¶ 35.) However, their pleadings do not describe how they attempted to attain access to Thomas Pizzuto, and their deposition testimony suggests that no such attempts were made. (Plaintiffs' Decl., Ex. A at 24.)

On January 11th, Thomas Pizzuto collapsed in his cell. (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 36.) As preparations were being made to transport him to the Nassau County Medical Center ("NCMC"), Carol Pizzuto (Thomas Pizzuto's mother) arrived at the NCCC to visit her son. Corrections officers denied her access to Thomas Pizzuto, saying that he was seeing a doctor. By this time, Carol Pizzuto became extremely worried. She had already passed the last two days anxiously expecting a call from her son that never came, and news that Thomas Pizzuto was seeing a doctor only served to confirm her sense that something was amiss. (Plaintiffs' Decl., Ex. A at 14.) At her deposition, Carol Pizzuto stated that the officers provided her no other information regarding Thomas Pizzuto's condition. She failed, however, to state whether she inquired into his condition.

While leaving the NCCC, Carol Pizzuto overheard a corrections officer calling for an ambulance. (Plaintiffs' Decl., Ex. E at 3.) Suspecting that the ambulance was for her son, Carol Pizzuto drove to the NCMC and learned from a NCMC nurse that her son had been taken to the emergency room. (Id.) Carol's second son Anthony Pizzuto arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter. With his mother waiting in the car in the hospital parking lot, Anthony Pizzuto went to inquire into his brother's condition. (Id., Ex. E at 4.) However, before he could reach his brother, Anthony Pizzuto was stopped by corrections officers and ordered to leave. (Id.) Anthony Pizzuto protested that he had the right to remain in the emergency room, but finally left after the officers threatened to have him arrested. (Id.) Moments after this encounter, Anthony Pizzuto met a friend who worked as an emergency room nurse. The friend told him that the NCCC claimed Thomas Pizzuto had slipped and fallen in the shower, but that in her opinion, Thomas had been severely beaten. (Id., Ex. D at 15.)

As Anthony Pizzuto left the hospital, three NCCC corrections officers followed him into the parking lot, stepped behind his car, and refused to let him pull out. (Id., Ex. D at 16.) With his mother becoming increasingly upset and fearful for her safety, Anthony Pizzuto stepped out of his car and requested that the officers permit him to leave. (Id.) The officers rebuffed Pizzuto's request and instead aggressively interrogated Anthony Pizzuto, demanding that he reveal how he found out about his brother and what he knew of Thomas Pizzuto's condition. (Id. Ex. D at 17.) The officers finally desisted when Anthony Pizzuto, fearful for his safety, threatened to call 911. (Id.) In sum, Plaintiffs Carol Pizzuto and Anthony Pizzuto claim that NCCC officials kept Anthony Pizzuto from inquiring into Thomas Pizzuto's condition by ordering him to leave the emergency room and intentionally intimidated both Anthony and Carol in the parking lot in retaliation for making these initial inquiries. Plaintiffs claim that these acts, in combination with their suspicion that Thomas had been beaten by NCCC guards and was being held in isolation from his family, led both Anthony and

Carol to a point of extreme anxiety. During the period following Thomas Pizzuto's admission to the NCMC, Plaintiffs claim that the NCCC denied family members information about Thomas' condition and continuously forbade Plaintiffs from contacting him. (Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11.) Plaintiffs do not state whether these denials came as part of a cover-up or were pursuant to procedure. It appears the family was allowed one visit of 20 minutes in the intensive care unit ("ICU") of NCMC on January 11 and another visit of roughly the same duration a day later. (Plaintiffs' Decl., Ex. A at 26.)

During the first ICU visit, Plaintiffs claim that a NCCC corrections officer hovered over Thomas Pizzuto and his family in order to intimidate Thomas from disclosing the details of his beating. (Id., Ex. A at 20, 21, 22, 23.) Plaintiffs note that the guard's close watch over Thomas Pizzuto was unnecessary as Thomas was incapacitated due to his injuries and handcuffed to the bed. (Id., Ex. A at 22.) They further state that Thomas Pizzuto clearly did feel intimidated by the guard's presence and consequently felt constrained from revealing too much about his beating in prison. (Id., Ex. A at 21, 22.) The one moment — approximately one minute, when the guard did walk away, Thomas Pizzuto uttered to his parents that the guards had used a chain and that he could still taste the chain in his mouth. (Id., Ex. A at 21-23.) He also pointed to a mark on his chest where the guards had hit him. (Id.)

On January 13, Thomas Pizzuto died of the injuries he had sustained at the hands of NCCC corrections officers. (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 11.) The County Deputy Medical Examiner attributed the death to a ruptured spleen and declared his death a homicide. (Id.) When word of Thomas Pizzuto's death reached the NCCC, corrections officials stepped up their effort to cover up the cause of his death. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 12.) Corrections officers and supervisors submitted accident reports that falsely claimed that Pizzuto had acknowledged that his injuries were sustained when he slipped and fell in the shower. They further instructed their co-workers to lie about the circumstances surrounding Pizzuto's murder and suppressed the results of an investigation that recommended disciplinary sanctions against an officer who had taken part in the beating. (Id. ¶¶ 10, 11, 12.) According to Plaintiffs' complaint, the officer was subsequently rewarded with favorable assignments. (Id. ¶ 13.)

Plaintiffs also allege that the upper levels of the NCCC management participated in this conspiracy by pursuing a "policy, custom and practice of suppressing confessions and admissions of criminal conduct committed by corrections officers, and protecting officers who engage in excessive force from receiving meaningful sanctions." (Id. ¶ 14.)

At their depositions, Plaintiffs alleged that the defendant corrections officers intensified their harassment of the Pizzuto family once criminal proceedings began against five corrections officers for Pizzuto's murder. On the day the first officer entered his guilty plea, the family arrived in the parking lot of the Federal Courthouse to find 200-250 hostile corrections officers waiting for them. (Plaintiffs' Decl., Ex. D at 24.) They were forced to walk through a gauntlet of corrections officers, and while doing so, were pushed, shoved, insulted, and threatened with bodily harm. (Id.; Plaintiffs' Decl., Ex. C at 28.) In particular, uniformed and un-uniformed corrections officers threatened the family with clenched fists, with some yelling, "when you get in fucking jail, this is what you are going to get," (Id., Ex. D at 25), and "you could be next." (Id., Ex. C at 27.) The corrections officers also screamed at Carol Pizzuto and her wheelchair bound husband, calling them "bitch", "whore", "cunt", "mother fuckers," (Id., Ex. D at 25). Officers further attempted to block access to the court by crowding in front of the doors, and continued intimidating the family once the court proceedings began. (Id., Ex. E at 5.) The intimidating nature of the guards' conduct during proceedings grew so outrageous that the presiding judge on several occasions dressed down the officers and threatened to clear the court room. (Id., Ex. D at 25.) Once the guilty plea was taken, the correction officers became even more unruly, with roving bands of officers pushing the few police on hand, punching reporters and further harassing the family. (Id.)

Family members reported fearing for their lives, and suffering depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, weight loss and other manifestations of emotional distress as a result of this experience. (Id., Ex. A, B, C, D, E.) At subsequent criminal proceedings, the conduct of the corrections ...


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