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VALLEN v. S.H.T.A. CARROL

September 20, 2005.

BARRY LEE VALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
S.H.T.A. CARROL; S.H.T.A. GANTZ; S.H.T.A. GONZALES; S.H.T.A. MALFATONE; S.H.T.A. NELSON; S.H.T.A. LEPER; DR. BENEB TING; SENIOR S.H.T.A. JOHN DOE; S.H.T.A. MARCH; S.H.T.A. ADAMS; S.H.T.A. BROWN; S.H.T.A. JONES; and VARIOUS S.H.T.A. JOHN DOES, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: KEVIN CASTEL, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Barry Lee Vallen brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that he was the victim of multiple patient-to-patient assaults and deprivations of property during the time that he resided at the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center ("Mid-Hudson"), a facility operated by an agency of the state of New York. In a Memorandum and Order dated September 2, 2004, I dismissed defendants New York State Office of Mental Health and Mid-Hudson on the basis of the state's constitutionally-based immunity from suit. Vallen v. Mid-Hudson Forensic Office of Mental Health, 2004 WL 1948756 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 2, 2004). I concluded that the Complaint set forth allegations sufficient to state claims against the individual defendants for deliberate indifference to confinement conditions that were seriously and dangerously unsafe. Id. at *3. I held that plaintiff's claim did not arise under the Eighth Amendment because he was not serving a term of imprisonment pursuant to a conviction, but, generously construed, his pro se Complaint could be read as alleging that persons acting under color of state law had deprived him, as an involuntarily detained person, of rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Id.

Discovery in this action is now closed. The defendants have moved for summary judgment dismissing the plaintiff's claims. For the reasons explained below, the defendants' motion is granted.

  Background

  The following facts are taken from plaintiff's pleadings, his sworn deposition testimony or are otherwise not disputed. Where multiple inferences can be drawn from the facts, I have considered only the one most favorable to Mr. Vallen, the non-movant.

  In 1984, the plaintiff was charged with two counts of second-degree murder in connection with the death of his parents. (Vallen Dep. at 169) Plaintiff pleaded not guilty by reason of mental illness or defect and was diagnosed as a paranoid-schizophrenic. (Vallen Dep. at 169-71) A Justice of the New York Supreme Court, Orange County, found that, at that point in time, the plaintiff suffered from a dangerous mental illness and ordered that he be committed to a psychiatric facility. (Vallen Dep. at 170) Subsequently, plaintiff was discharged to outpatient care on two occasions, but in each instance he was later recommitted. (Vallen Dep. at 172-84) From April 18, 1997 through June 14, 2000, plaintiff was an in-patient at Mid-Hudson. (Dickson Aff. ¶ 5)

  In an order dated July 22, 2002, Chief Judge Michael B. Mukasey dismissed plaintiff's deprivation of property claim and ruled that the State of New York provided adequate post-deprivation remedies for the recovery of lost property. (July 22, 2002 Order at 3) He also ruled that the Complaint inadequately detailed the assault claims, and dismissed those claims without prejudice. (July 22, 2002 Order at 2, 4-5) Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint ("AC") dated January 24, 2003. The AC alleges that, during his three years of treatment at Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Facility, the plaintiff was subjected to violence and threats of violence, and that the individual defendants promoted or failed to prevent these incidents. The individual defendants were employed as security hospital treatment assistants ("SHTAs") who were responsible for assisting psychiatric patients in their day-to-day needs and activities. (DeLusso Aff. ¶¶ 2-3)

  Each of the incidents set forth in the AC are discussed below. Generally described, the plaintiff alleges that the defendants either encouraged or failed to intervene in violent attacks that other patients inflicted upon the plaintiff. According to the AC, the defendants were aware that various Mid-Hudson patients had violent histories, and placed these patients in close proximity to the plaintiff. On other occasions, the AC alleges that the defendants displayed pleasure at the attacks on plaintiff that allegedly took place. Plaintiff notes, by way of contrast, that since the year 2000 he has resided at a facility in Rochester, New York, and has never been threatened or assaulted.

  Helpfully, as part of their motion papers, the defendants have organized the allegations set forth in the Complaint into sixteen distinct incidents or clusters of incidents. Solely for the purposes of facilitating evaluation and discussion of the incidents, I will refer to the sixteen incidents by the number and descriptive title employed in the defendants' motion papers. (Appendix to this Memorandum and Order) I do not in any way treat the defendants' submission as having any evidentiary quality to it.

  Summary Judgment Standard

  Summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). It is the initial burden of a movant on a summary judgment motion to come forward with evidence on each material element of his claim or defense, demonstrating that he or she is entitled to relief. A fact is material if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law . . ." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The evidence on each material element must be sufficient to entitle the movant to relief in its favor as a matter of law. Vermont Teddy Bear Co., Inc. v. 1-800 Beargram Co., 373 F.3d 241, 244 (2d Cir. 2004).

  When the moving party has met this initial burden and has asserted facts to demonstrate that the non-moving party's claim cannot be sustained, the opposing party must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial," and cannot rest on "mere allegations or denials" of the facts asserted by the movant. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). In raising a triable issue of fact, the nonmovant carries only "a limited burden of production," but nevertheless "must `demonstrate more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts,' and come forward with `specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Powell v. Nat'l Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, 364 F.3d 79, 84 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Aslanidis v. United States Lines, Inc., 7 F.3d 1067, 1072 (2d Cir. 1993)).

  An issue of fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Caution is particularly warranted when considering a summary judgment motion in a discrimination action, since direct evidence of discriminatory intent is rare, and often must be inferred. Forsyth v. Fed'n Empl. & Guidance Serv., 409 F.3d 565, 569 (2d Cir. 2005). The Court must "view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor, and may grant summary judgment only when no reasonable trier of fact could find in favor of the nonmoving party." Allen v. Coughlin, 64 F.3d 77, 79 (2d Cir. 1995) (quotations and citations omitted); accord Matsushita Electric Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must scrutinize the record, and grant or deny summary judgment as the record warrants. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In the absence of any disputed material fact, summary judgment is appropriate. Id.

  The defendants have served the pro se plaintiff with the notice explaining the manner in which a party may oppose summary judgment, as required by Local Rule 56.2. I am mindful of the latitude afforded to a pro se party opposing a summary judgment motion. See Forsyth, 409 F.3d at 570 ("special solicitude" owed to pro se litigants opposing summary judgment); Shabtai v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 2003 WL 21983025, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 20, 2003) (obligation to construe leniently pro se opposition papers on a summary judgment motion). However, a party's pro se status does not alter the obligation placed upon the party opposing summary judgment to come forward with evidence demonstrating that there is a genuine dispute regarding material fact. Miller v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 2004 WL 1907310, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2004).

  Discussion

  1. Statute of Limitations Defense

  The applicable limitations period for Section 1983 actions is found in the state statute of limitations for personal injury actions. Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 249-50 (1989). "Accordingly . . . New York's three-year statute of limitations for unspecified personal injury actions, New York Civil Practice Law and Rules § 214(5), governs section 1983 actions in New York." Ormiston v. Nelson, 117 F.3d 69, 71 (2d Cir. 1997). The statute of limitations begins to accrue "`when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of his action.'" Id. (quoting Singleton v. City of New York, 632 F.2d 185, 191 (2d Cir. 1980)).

  This action was filed in the pro se office on December 10, 2001, although the Complaint was not formally accepted for filing until July 22, 2002. The timeliness of the Complaint for statute of limitations purposes is measured from the delivery to the pro se office on December 10, 2001. See Ortiz v. Cornetta, 867 F.2d 146 (2d Cir. 1999); Toliver v. Sullivan County, 841 F.2d 41 (2d Cir. 1988). It is undisputed that some of the events alleged in the AC occurred more than three years prior to such delivery, i.e. prior to December 10, 1998.

  Here, plaintiff argues that he is entitled to tolling under New York law by reasons of insanity. Once the defendant demonstrates that the claim facially falls within the limitations period, the plaintiff, not the defendant, bears the burden of proof on tolling. See Doe v. Holy See (State of Vatican City), 17 A.D.3d 793, 794 (3d Dep't 2005); Assad v. City of New York, 238 A.D.2d 456, 457 (2d Dep't 1997).

  CPLR 208 provides for tolling when "a person entitled to commence an action [was] under a disability because of infancy or insanity at the time the cause of action accrues. . . ." While the words of the statute, taken at face value, might appear to be broad enough to apply to any person suffering from a debilitating mental illness, the New York Court of Appeals has interpreted the statute more narrowly. McCarthy v. Volkswagen of Am., 55 N.Y.2d 543 (1982). The McCarthy Court reviewed the legislative history of the provision and concluded that the legislature intended that CPLR 208 be "narrowly interpreted". Id. at 548. In the words of the Court: "we believe that the Legislature meant to extend the toll for insanity to only those individuals who are unable to protect their legal rights because of an over-all inability to function in society." Id. at 548-549. New York courts have consistently applied the McCarthy standard to claims of tolling by reason of insanity. See, e.g., Eberhard v. Elmira City School Dist., 6 A.D.3d 971, 973 (3d Dep't 2004) (McCarthy standard not satisfied by claim of post-traumatic stress syndrome); Burgos v. City of New York, 294 A.D.2d 177, 178 (1st Dep't 2002) ("The doctor's affirmation . . . was vague and conclusory in asserting that plaintiff's `dementia and psychotic disorder [are] due to multiple medical conditions [that] have existed for many years and are permanent,' and thus insufficient to raise an issue of fact" on CPLR 208 tolling under the McCarthy standard).

  The standard articulated in McCarthy has two components. First, the party must be "unable to protect [his] legal rights" and, second, the reason he is unable to protect his legal rights is "because of an over-all inability to function in society". I assume for the purposes of this motion that, during the period for which plaintiff seeks tolling, he had "an over-all inability to function in society." In this regard, plaintiff has had several "retention hearings" that have resulted in findings that Vallen should remain in an institutional setting. (Vallen Decl. ¶ 1) However, I still must consider whether plaintiff has raised a triable issue of fact as to his ability to protect his legal rights during the period for which he seeks tolling.

  As part of their summary judgment burden, the defendants have come forward with evidence of Vallen's direct, personal and vigorous pursuit of his legal rights in judicial proceedings instituted during the period for which he claims tolling. In November 1998, plaintiff commenced an action in the Court of Claims of the State of New York alleging that the state had been negligent in permitting seven inmate assaults on him over the course of one and one-half years. (Peeples Aff., Ex. C) He was then familiar with the necessity of timely filing a claim, as evidenced by his handwritten complaint dated November 16, 1998, which recites as follows: "This claim is filed within 3 years after the claim accrued, as required by law." (Peeples Aff., Ex. C)*fn1 Vallen v. State of New York, Claim No. 100141 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. Sept. 1, 1999). He filed a second Court of Claims action in or around July 1999 alleging that the state had been negligent by permitting a patient identified as C.J. to initiate a physical attack.*fn2 (Peeples Aff. Ex. D) Vallen v. State of New York, Claim No. 100803 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. Apr. 17, 2001). Plaintiff filed a third Court of Claims action in July 1999, alleging that the state was negligent in permitting the theft of his personal property; in that action, he set forth a detailed list of each item of lost property and its value, including a "suit for court" ($279) and a pair of ostrich leather western boots ($350) (Peeples Aff. Ex. E) Vallen v. State of New York, Claim No. 100804 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. Apr. 17, 2001). Also in July 1999, he filed a Section 1983 action in this District alleging that his constitutional rights had been violated. (Peeples Aff. Ex. I) Vallen v. Connelly, 99 Civ. 9947 (SAS).*fn3 In March 2000, plaintiff filed a fourth suit in the Court of Claims alleging that falsified claims had been levied against him. (Peeples Aff. Ex. F) Vallen v. State of New York, Claim No. 102160 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. Sept. 1, 2000). In toto, between November 1998 and March 2000, Vallen, proceeding pro se, filed five separate lawsuits in two different fora in an effort to enforce and protect his legal rights. In two of the pleadings, he affirmatively expressed an understanding of the applicable statute of limitations. The 1999 federal court action evinces an awareness of a federal remedy and the procedural means to invoke it. Cf. Cerami v. City of Rochester Sch. Dist., 82 N.Y.2d 809, 813 (1993) (considering, inter alia, the numerous law-suits filed by the party claiming toll in rejecting such a claim).

  In response to the defendants' evidence submitted on their summary judgment motion, plaintiff has been unable to raise a triable issue of fact as to his ability to protect his legal rights during the period for which he claims tolling. The plaintiff has had a full opportunity to conduct discovery. In his papers in opposition to summary judgment, he has exhibited an understanding of the requirements of Rule 56, which were explained to him in the Local Rule 56.2 Notice. Yet, nowhere does he address his ability or inability to protect his rights during the time he has been in a mental health facility. Indeed, rather than rebut the defendants' evidence, plaintiff notes that, during the period for which he seeks tolling, he "pressed charges and the patient C.J. was convicted and sent to Orange County jail." (Pro Se Affidavit in support to deny [sic] summary judgment) The closest he comes to responding to the defendant's argument is the assertion that he lost some or all of his lawsuits on the basis of "simple technicalities", thereby demonstrating that he was unable to protect his rights. (Pro Se Mot. to Den. Summ. J. at 1) But it does not follow that because other claims he asserted were dismissed on various grounds that, therefore, he was unable ...


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