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ALVARENGA v. VANDERWYDE

United States District Court, E.D. New York


May 12, 2004.

JESUS ALVARENGA, Plaintiff,
v.
DANIEL VANDERWYDE, Shield # 6771, PAUL GIACALONE, Shield # 3054, JOHN KETTLE, Shield # 3722, and STEVEN HERVAN, Shield # 3969, Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREDERIC BLOCK, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Pro se plaintiff Jesus Alvarenga ("Alvarenga") brought this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants subjected him to excessive use of force in violation on his Eighth Amendment rights and seeking unspecified relief. Defendants move for summary judgment on the grounds that the force used on Alvarenga was de minimis and not repugnant to the conscience of mankind, that defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, and that Alvarenga's claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment.*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is granted.

  I.

  The following facts are taken from the parties submissions and supporting documents. On April 18, 2002, Alvarenga was transported by Court Officer Paul Giacalone ("Officer Giacalone") from Rikers Island, where Alvarenga was in custody pursuant to a second degree assault conviction, to Queens Family Court, where he appeared before Judge Stephen Bogacz ("Judge Bogacz") in a neglect proceeding concerning his two sons.*fn2 Judge Bogacz found that Alvarenga had committed neglect and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. At the end of the proceeding, Alvarenga attempted to speak directly to Judge Bogacz, who instructed Alvarenga to talk to his attorney rather than address the Court. Officer Giacalone then attempted to handcuff Alvarenga in preparation for escorting him out of the courtroom and to an upstairs room where he could confer with his attorney.

  According to defendants' submissions, Alvarenga violently resisted being handcuffed, and then began moving quickly towards Judge Bogacz. Officer Giacalone, along with two other court officers present in the courtroom, Daniel Vanderwyde and Steven Hervan, grabbed Alvarenga to prevent him from reaching the judge. Another court officer, John Kettle,*fn3 was passing by the courtroom when he observed the disturbance, and came in to assist the other officers. The officers were able to wrestle Alvarenga to the floor, but he continued to resist. Eventually the officers succeeded in handcuffing Alvarenga and removing him from the courtroom.

  After order had been restored, Judge Bogacz made the following statement on the record:

That when the uniform [sic] court officers assigned to this Part attempted to escort the respondent-father out of the courtroom, the respondent-father — who appeared to this Court to be a rather powerfully built individual, approximately five foot ten inches, to about six feet . . . approximately two hundred pounds, thickly muscled arms, shoulders and chest area. It required three to four court officers to initially restrain the respondent-father from attempting to come towards the bench . . . I wish to commend the officers for the restraint which they applied, given the fact that the father was out of control and uncooperative with the attempts to restrain him and to subdue him. The fact that he was apparently not injured at all in being restrained and subdued, is to the extreme credit of the uniformed court officers who engaged in that activity.
Hearing Transcript, at 9.

  In addition to Judge Bogacz's comments in the immediate wake of the altercation, attorney Floyd Alan Sheeger ("Attorney Sheeger"), who was present in the courtroom at the time of the incident but not involved in Alvarenga's neglect proceeding, submitted a letter to the family court shortly after the incident, as well as a subsequent affidavit in support of the present motion, in both of which he commended the restraint shown by the officers while preventing injury to those present in the courtroom.

  After he was returned to Rikers Island, Alvarenga was examined by Dr. Ramakrishnan Subbureddair ("Dr. Subbureddair"), pursuant to standard procedure after a use of force incident. Dr. Subbureddair concluded that the "minor injuries suffered by plaintiff are consistent with a scuffle and minimum force being used to subdue him." Dr. Subbureddair Affidavit, at 2.

  In response to the defendants' summary judgment papers and Local Rule 56.2 Notice, Alvarenga submitted affidavits from himself, his sister, Maria Gonsalez, and his wife, Maria Chavez. Distilling Alvarenga's lengthy and rambling affidavit to its essence, he alleges that the court officers launched an unprovoked assault on him, and that all statements to the contrary are fabrications. It does not appear from her affidavit that Maria Gonsalez was present at the altercation, but she does state that she subsequently saw bruises on her brother's face and body. Maria Chavez states that she saw the court officers punch Alvarenga and that she too subsequently saw him "all bruised."

  II.

  Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact to be tried and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Once the moving party has carried its burden to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, see Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323, the opposing party "must come forward with `specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-587 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)) (other citations omitted). The submissions of a pro se plaintiff must be read liberally and interpreted "to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." McPherson v. Coombe, 174 F.3d 276, 280 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994)). Nevertheless, even pro se parties may not rely on conclusory allegations, see, e.g., Bennett v. Goord, 343 F.3d 133, 137 (2d Cir. 2003) (requiring "non-conclusory allegations" from pro se plaintiff facing summary judgment motion). "Where no rational jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party because the evidence to support its case is so slight, there is no genuine issue of material fact and a grant of summary judgment is proper." Gallo v. Prudential Residential Services, LTD., 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994).

  Although Alvarenga was in a courtroom rather than a prison when this altercation occurred, and the altercation involved court officers rather than correction officers, these minor distinctions do not serve to remove this case from the general ambit of litigation in which a prisoner is alleging excessive force against his guards. In determining whether the officers applied excessive force, the "core judicial inquiry" is "whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992). A prisoner seeking to establish a constitutional violation under the Eighth Amendment must satisfy both an objective and subjective component. See id., at 9-10. The objective component requires that the alleged violation be "sufficiently serious" by objective standards. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). The subjective component requires that the prisoner show that the prison officials had a "wanton" state of mind when they engaged in the alleged conduct. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9-10. "The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of `cruel and unusual' punishments necessarily excludes from constitutional recognition de minimis uses of physical force, provided that the use of force is not of a sort `repugnant to the conscience of mankind.'" Id. at 9 (quoting Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986)).

  While the parties dispute the underlying facts of the altercation, Alvarenga can not establish that the force used against him was anything other than de minimis, and therefore defendants are entitled to summary judgment. See Warren v. Westchester County Jail, 106 F. Supp.2d 559 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (despite disputed facts concerning underlying altercation, summary judgment awarded to defendant correction officers because extremely slight degree of injury was insufficient to sustain a claim of excessive force). The affidavit of Dr. Subbureddair explicitly states that the minor injuries Alvarenga sustained were consistent with "minimum force," Dr. Subbureddair Affidavit, at 2. The affidavits from Alvarenga's sister and wife stating that they saw bruising on his body do not contradict Dr. Subbureddair's assessment. The record is also singularly devoid of any indication that the force used was of a sort repugnant to the conscience.

  Moreover, even if the level of force here rose above de minimis, Alvarenga can not establish that "the officials acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind." Hudson, 503 U.S. at 8 (quoting Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991)). Mindful of Alvarenga's pro se status, the Court interprets his affidavit as alleging that the officers engaged in an unprovoked attack, and that this demonstrates their wanton and culpable state of mind. However, Alvarenga's unsupported and conclusory claim of an unprovoked attack in open court is implausible as a matter of law. Aside from its inherent implausibility, this unsupported allegation is further contradicted by the contemporaneous remarks made on the record by Judge Bogacz, and by the letter and subsequent affidavit of Attorney Sheeger.

  Because the Court concludes that no rational jury could find that the defendants subjected Alvarenga to excessive force in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights, the Court need not consider defendants' other grounds for summary judgment.

  CONCLUSION

  Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted and the complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

  SO ORDERED.


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