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United States District Court, S.D. New York

April 12, 2004.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: MICHAEL MUKASEY, Chief Judge, District


Jeffrey Miner sues pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2000), seeking damages from defendants for violating his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.*fn1 Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is granted.


  The following facts are either undisputed or presented in the light most favorable to plaintiff.

  Plaintiff Jeffrey Miner has been incarcerated in Green Haven Correctional Facility ("Green Haven") since 1997; he becomes eligible for parole in 2011. (Declaration of Valerie Singleton ("Singleton Decl."), Ex. B) The New York State Department of Correctional Services operates a Family Reunion Program ("FRP") at Green Haven. (Singleton Decl., Ex. C; Affidavit of Patrick King ("King Aff.") ¶ 3-4) Inmates who participate in the FRP are allowed to visit with family members for prolonged periods of time — typically overnight or over the course of a weekend — in the privacy of individual trailers. (King Aff. ¶ 4) Inmates who want to participate in the FRP must sign a consent form authorizing the release of their confidential medical conditions to their spouses. (Affidavit of Carl Koenigsmann ("Koenigsmann Aff.") ¶ 5) If an inmate has Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or HIV, Infectious Control Nurse Cathy Metzler prepares educational materials and a form letter, under the signature of Green Haven Medical Director Dr. Carl Koenigsmann, notifying the inmate's spouse of the inmate's communicable disease status. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6; Affidavit of Cathy Metzler "Metzler Aff." ¶ 5) Dr. Koenigsmann is not personally involved in writing the letters or notifying the spouses, but he does sign the letters. (Koenigsmann Aff. ¶ 7; Metzler Aff. ¶ 5)

  Miner was first cleared to participate in the FRP on January 9, 2001. (Metzler Aff. ¶ 7) At that time, Nurse Metzler reviewed Miner's chart and noted that he was Hepatitis C positive. (Id.) Although Miner had consented to release this Hepatitis C information to his wife, his FRP request was deferred so that Nurse Metzler could counsel him about Hepatitis C on January 12, 2001. (Id. ¶ 8) After this discussion, Miner participated in an FRP visit with his wife, who received a notification packet regarding his Hepatitis C status. (Id. ¶ 9) Miner was again approved from FRP visits with his wife on June 4, 2001, and January 3, 2002; both times he consented to the release of his Hepatitis C information. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11) On or about Saturday, January 5, 2002, Miner's wife, Norma Miner Vellon, arrived at Green Haven for an FRP visit with Miner. (Affidavit of John Shetsky ("Shetsky Aff.") ¶ 7) Upon her arrival, Vellon told FRP officer John Shetsky and FRP counselor Patrick King that she needed to leave by 1:00 p.m. the following day in order to attend a Monday court date. (Id.; King Aff. ¶ 10) King handed Vellon a sealed medical envelope from Green Haven's medical department. (King Aff. ¶ 11) Shetsky then searched Vellon's belongings and directed her to walk through a metal detector before driving her to the site of her trailer visit with Miner. (Shetsky Aff. ¶ 10) At that point, Vellon had not yet opened the sealed medical envelope. (Id.)

  The next day, Shetsky returned to the trailer to pick up Vellon. (Id. ¶ 12) Shetsky noticed that Miner was upset, but Vellon did not appear visibly shaken, and Shetsky escorted her to the front gate of the facility. (Id.) Shetsky then returned to Miner's trailer to conduct a strip search and a search of the premises. (Id. ¶ 13) At this time, Miner told Shetsky that Vellon was leaving him, that she had visited him in order to tell him so, and that she had not slept in his bed. (Id. ¶ 13) Shetsky offered to take Miner to a counselor, but Miner declined and returned to his cell. (Id. ¶ 14) On January 7, the following day, Miner appeared to be upset and refused to leave his cell. (Affidavit of Susan Hann ("Hann Aff.") ¶ 6) Sergeant Susan Hann went to Miner's cell and asked him if he was all right. (Id.) Miner explained that Vellon had been given paperwork, which he showed to Hann, that falsely stated that he was HIV positive. (Id.) According to Miner, Vellon knew that he had Hepatitis C but had become very upset upon being told that he was HIV positive and had reacted by terminating the FRP visit early. (Id.)

  Hann then contacted Nurse Metzler, who checked the computer file and discovered that Vellon had received in error a letter stating that Miner was HIV positive. (Id. ¶ 8) At Hann's request, Nurse Metzler met with Miner that day to explain the mistake. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10) Nurse Metzler told Miner that a clerical error had been made and that she would take the necessary steps to correct it. (Metzler Aff. ¶ 12) When Hann spoke to Miner later that afternoon, Miner told her that everything had been taken care of and thanked her for her help. (Hann Aff. ¶ 11) Nurse Metzler spoke to Dr. Koenigsmann about the mistake, and, with Miner's consent, Dr. Koenigsmann sent a letter to Vellon on January 8, 2002, advising her that she had received the HIV letter in error instead of a letter about Hepatitis C. (Metzler Aff. ¶¶ 13-14; Koenigsmann Aff. ¶ 8-10)

  Miner filed this action on January 23, 2002, seeking compensatory and punitive damages for his deep depression over the estrangement of his spouse and children. (See Complaint ("Compl.") ¶ !V-A, V) Five months later, on June 19, 2002, Vellon sued Miner for divorce. (Singleton Decl., Ex. I) The ground alleged for divorce was Miner's confinement in a correctional institution for more than three years. (Id.) On May 8, 2003, Miner requested another FRP visit with Vellon and other family members. (Singleton Decl., Ex. H) In his request, Miner stated: "My wife was given a letter stating that I was a carrier of the virus that causes AIDS which was falsely diagnosed and my wife had filed for divorce, but after finding out the truth of me not being a carrier of the virus and has not finalized that action, we are in the hopes of being approved so that we can amend our marriage and discuss rebuilding our relationship." (Id.) On May 30, 2003, Miner had a FRP trailer visit with Vellon and their son. (King Aff. ¶ 13)

  Defendants moved for summary judgment on June 9, 2003. Summary judgment is appropriate if, after drawing all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Curry v. City of Syracuse, 316 F.3d 324, 329 (2d Cir. 2003).


  Defendants first argue that the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution bars Miner from suing them in federal court. (Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def. Memo." at 17-18) Under the Eleventh Amendment, a state cannot be sued under § 1983, and "this rule applies `to States or governmental entities that are considered "arms of the state' for Eleventh Amendment purposes.'" Komlosi v. New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 64 F.3d 810, 815 (2d Cir. 1995) (quoting Will v. Michigan Dept. of Police, 491 U.S. 58, 70 (1989)). As state agencies, both the New York State Department of Correctional Services and the New York State Department of Health are protected by the Eleventh Amendment. See Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984) ("[I]n the absence of consent a suit in which the State or one of its agencies or departments is named as the defendant is proscribed by the Eleventh Amendment."); Davis v. New York, 316 F.3d 93, 101 (2d Cir. 2002) (finding § 1983 claims against New York State Department of Correctional Services barred under the Eleventh Amendment). Therefore, these two defendants are entitled to a summary judgment because they are immune from suit in this court under the Eleventh Amendment.

  Individual defendants Dr. Koenigsmann and Nurse Metzler also have Eleventh Amendment immunity to the extent that they are being sued in their official capacities because such suits are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Will v. Michigan Dep't. of Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989). However, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar Miner from seeking to impose "individual and personal liability" against Dr. Koenisgmann and Nurse Metzler under § 1983. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 30-31 (1991). Dr. Koenigsmann argues that he entitled to summary judgment insofar as he is being sued in his personal capacity because he was not personally involved in the alleged deprivation of Miner's constitutional rights. (See Def. Memo, at 12-13) Because only those who actually cause a deprivation of rights are liable under § 1983, "personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under § 1983," and the doctrine of respondeat superior cannot be used to establish liability. Blyden v. Mancusi, 186 F.3d 252, 264 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, in this case Dr. Koenigsmann signed the letter that Vellon received and was, in that respect, personally involved in the incident at issue. (See Metzler Aff. ¶ 5) Accordingly, Dr. Koenigsmann is not entitled to summary judgment for want of personal involvement in the alleged violation.


  Miner claims first that the actions of the individual defendants violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." U.S. Const, amend. VIII. A claim of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment must satisfy both subjective and objective elements. Blyden, 186 F.3d at 262. The subjective element is that the defendant must have had the requisite culpability, which is "shown by actions characterized by `wantonness.'" Id. (citing Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298-99 (1991)). The objective element is that the actual injury must be sufficiently serious to warrant Eighth Amendment protection. Id. Generally, the subjective element — wantonness — is satisfied when a prison official acts with deliberate indifference to a prisoner's health or safety. Id. An official so acts when he knows about an excessive risk to the prisoner's health or safety but disregards it. Chance v. Armstrong, 143 F.3d 698, 702 (2d Cir. 1998). However, "this standard requires that only the deliberate infliction of punishment, and not an ordinary lack of due care for prisoner interests or safety, lead to liability." Blyden, 186 F.3d at 262 (citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 841 (1994)).

  Miner has presented no evidence to suggest that Dr. Koenigsmann or Nurse Metzler acted with deliberate indifference to his health or safety. Even assuming arguendo that their actions could be characterized as punishment, the evidence in the record demonstrates that Vellon received the HIV letter because of a clerical error and not because of any deliberate action or inaction by either defendant. Because Miner has not shown that this error resulted from actions characterized by wantonness or anything more sinister than an ordinary lack of due care, Dr. Koenigsmann and Nurse Metzler are entitled to a summary judgment dismissing Miner's Eighth Amendment claim.


  Miner claims also that the individual defendants' actions violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. "The Equal Protection Clause requires that the government treat all similarly situated people alike." Harlen Assocs. v. Incorporated Vill. of Mineola, 273 F.3d 494, 499 (2d Cir. 2001). A classic equal protection claim involves discrimination against people based on their membership in a particular class, but "the equal protection guarantee also extends to individuals who allege no specific class membership but are nonetheless subjected to invidious discrimination at the hands of government officials." Id. To prevail on this latter "class of one" claim, a plaintiff must show that he was intentionally treated differently from others who were similarly situated and that there was no rational basis for the difference in treatment. Id. (citing Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000) (per curiam)).

  Here, Miner has not alleged that he was treated differently because of his membership in a particular group; instead, he appears to have brought an equal protection claim of the "class of one" variety. (See Compl. ¶ IV) In essence, Miner appears to argue that his equal protection rights were violated because his spouse received an inaccurate medical condition letter while other inmates' spouses did not. However, even though Miner can demonstrate that he received different treatment from other inmates, he has presented no facts to show that Dr. Koenigsmann or Nurse Metzler intentionally treated him differently. Indeed, Miner does not dispute that Vellon received the HIV letter because of a clerical error and not because of any intentional conduct. Accordingly, Dr. Koenigsmann and Nurse Metzler are entitled to a summary judgment dismissing Miner's equal protection claim.


  Although Miner's complaint lists only an Eighth Amendment claim and an equal protection claim, his papers, read broadly, could also be construed as alleging a claim that Dr. Koenigsmann and Nurse Metzler unconstitutionally interfered with his substantive due process right of familial association. See Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255 (1978) ("[F]reedom of personal choice in matters of . . . family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."). In Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984), the Supreme Court explained that the Bill of Rights protects "`certain kinds of highly personal relationships . . . from unjustified interference by the State." Id. at 618. The Court further stated that "[t]he personal affiliations that exemplify these considerations . . . are those that attend the creation and sustenance of a family. . . ." Id. at 619.

  "[T]he substantive component of the Due Process Clause is violated by executive action only when it can properly be characterized as arbitrary, or conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense." County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847 (1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). In this context, "only the most egregious official conduct can be said to be arbitrary in the constitutional sense and therefore unconstitutional." Id. at 846. Because the Constitution does not guarantee due care by state officials, "liability for negligently inflicted harm is categorically beneath the threshold of constitutional due process." Id. at 849. Rather, for a substantive due process claim to succeed, the conduct at issue must rise to the "conscience-shocking level," either because the conduct was intended to injure in some way unjustified by any government interest or because state officials acted with deliberate indifference that was shocking under the circumstances. Id. at 849-50. Miner has failed to produce any evidence to suggest that the actions of either defendant were anything more than negligent; nothing about the clerical error shocks the conscience or suggests that anyone acted with intent to injure Miner or with deliberate indifference. Because "liability for negligently inflicted harm is categorically beneath the threshold of constitutional due process," id. at 849, Miner cannot sustain a substantive due process claim against Dr. Koenigsmann and Nurse Metzler based on a record that reveals their conduct to have been at most negligent. Accordingly, Dr. Koenigsmann and Nurse Metzler are entitled to summary judgment dismissing any substantive due process claim suggested by Miner's complaint.


  Miner argues that summary judgment should be denied in this case because defendants violated their discovery obligations by failing to produce his mental health records. (Memorandum of Law in Support of Plaintiff's Opposition Motion at 1) This appears to be the first time that Miner has raised any complaints about defendants' compliance with discovery, and his allegations of impropriety are vague and unspecific. However, even assuming arguendo that defendants have not produced records relating to Miner's mental health, such records are not relevant to the question of whether Miner's claims can survive summary judgment. In considering defendants' motion, there was no need to consider the depth or severity of Miner's mental anguish over the events in question; instead, the motion was granted based on the Eleventh Amendment and on the individual defendants' lack of culpable state of mind. None of my conclusions would be altered by the contents of Miner's mental health records, which might shed light on Miner's psychological health but would not provide any pertinent information about these dispositive issues. Accordingly, Miner's discovery allegations do not bar entry of summary judgment.

  * * *

  For the reasons stated above, defendants' summary judgment motion is granted as to all claims. Although defendants raised additional arguments in favor of summary judgment, such as qualified immunity and limitations on damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e), I need not, and do not, reach these arguments in granting defendants' motion.

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