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Blount v. Swiderski

November 14, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eric N. VITALIANO United States District Judge



I. Introduction

Plaintiff Yvonne Blount ("Blount"), a black female,claims that, on January 6, 2000, she was physically assaulted by defendant Peter Swiderski ("Swiderski"), a court officer, at the Nassau County Family Court. She claims, further, that her race was the motivation for Swiderski's assault. Blount brings suit against him here, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging excessive force and unequal treatment based on race, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. She also alleges that, because of her race, defendants Harold Butler ("Butler"), the Family Court's chief clerk, and Dave Janosek ("Janosek"), a supervising court officer, failed to fully and properly investigate the incident. Blount's § 1983 claims against them allege unequal treatment based on race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Lastly, Blount alleges, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, that her former supervisor, defendant Doreen McKenna ("McKenna"), and Swiderski entered into a conspiracy to give false testimony at her workers' compensation hearing, again due to her race, thus depriving her of due process and equal protection.

Defendants Butler and Janosek have moved for summary judgment, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, and defendant McKenna has also moved for summary judgment on Blount's conspiracy claims. For the reasons that follow, both motions are granted and all claims against these defendants are dismissed.

II. The January 6, 2000 Incident

In January 2000, Blount was employed by the Nassau County Department of Social Services as a Child Protective Services ("CPS") caseworker, a position that sometimes required her to testify in Family Court proceedings. (Deposition of Yvonne Blount ("Blount Dep.") at 25-26.) On January 6, 2000, she was scheduled to testify at a child custody proceeding to be held before Judge Lawrence J. Brennan of the Nassau County Family Court. (Id. at 31-32.) At the courthouse that day, she was accompanied by CPS caseworker Sylvia Dymant ("Dymant") and Deputy County Attorney Jack Phelan ("Phelan"). (Id. at 42.) While they waited for their case to be called, Blount, Dymant, and Phelan stood in a private hallway near a private backdoor entrance to the courtroom. (Id. at 122-23.) Although CPS caseworkers were required to wear identification, neither Blount nor Dymant was wearing identification while waiting in the private hallway. (Doreen McKenna, Workers' Compensation Board Testimony, Mar. 8, 2001 ("McKenna WCB"), at 10; Blount Dep. at 44.) Eventually, Court Officer Swiderski, who had previously been inside the courtroom, came to the door and asked that those working on Blount's case enter the courtroom. (Blount Dep. at 124.) Blount has testified that Swiderski came to the point where the door meets the courtroom. (Id.) No party disputes that the door in question opens inward, that is, into the courtroom. (Id.; Deposition of Peter Swiderski ("Swiderski Dep.") at 88.) At this point, accounts diverge.

A. Blount's April 29, 2004 Deposition

Blount was deposed by defense counsel on April 29, 2004, at which time she gave her account of what happened when she was about to enter Judge Brennan's courtroom. She testified that Phelan was the first to enter the courtroom with Dymant following. (Blount Dep. at 42.) Dymant was walking backwards because she was speaking with Blount, who was following behind. (Id. at 43.) Dymant continued walking backwards and had barely cleared the length of the courtroom's open door when, suddenly and without reason, Swiderski stopped Blount by throwing her into the door, spinning her around, and holding her right arm behind her back. (Id. at 46-47, 125.) Swiderski then let go of Blount and "words ensued." (Id. at 48.) While this encounter was unfolding, Dymant, who had been walking backwards just ahead of Blount, said something that Blount could not remember. (Id. at 48, 52, 54.) Blount was also unable to remember the substance of what Swiderski had said after releasing her from the arm-lock. (Id. at 53.) Blount did specifically recall, however, that Swiderski had turned so that his gun was visible and pointed his finger in her face, exclaiming "somebody needs to teach you courtroom conduct. Someone needs to teach you courtesy." (Id.) Blount's next memory was of Judge Brennan banging his gavel and telling her not to take Swiderski's actions personally. (Id. at 57.) Despite these words, Blount remained distraught. She left the courtroom crying and unable to testify. (Id. at 58.)

B. Blount's March 31, 2004 Affidavit

Before her deposition, Blount had submitted an affidavit, dated March 31, 2004, relating the events of January 6, 2000. Blount made clear in the affidavit that "[a]t the point where defendant Swiderski assaulted me, we had not actually entered the courtroom, but were still in the entrance to the courtroom." (Aff. of Yvonne Blount, dated Mar. 31, 2004 ("Blount Aff."), ¶ 10.) The affidavit adds that Blount and Swiderski were in a position where they would not have been visible to anyone in the courtroom. (Id. ¶ 11.) The encounter came to an end when Judge Brennan banged his gavel and called for order, at which point, Blount demanded an explanation of why she had been stopped when her white colleagues, Phelan and Dymant, had been permitted to freely enter the courtroom. (Id. ¶ 12.)

C. Blount's March 16, 2000 Letter

Just over three months after the incident, on March 16, 2000, Blount wrote a letter, which gives yet another account of the events of January 6, 2000. According to her letter, Blount was assaulted by Swiderski as she "walked into the courtroom." (Letter of Yvonne Blount, dated Mar. 16, 2000, at 1.) Just prior to the incident, Blount wrote, she had been talking with Dymant, whom she was walking "directly" behind. (Id.) The alleged physical altercation, as told in this version, was limited to Swiderski roughly grabbing Blount's right arm, at which point she pulled away. (Id.) Swiderski yelled at Blount and the two had "many exchanges" of words before being cut off by Judge Brennan, who told Blount not to take the incident personally because the officer was only trying to protect the court. (Id.) Blount then yelled that Swiderski's actions had nothing to do with safety because she, a person of color, was the only entrant who had been stopped. (Id. at 2.) The officer then yelled again that Blount needed to adhere to the courtroom code of conduct. (Id.) In response, Judge Brennan allegedly cleared the courtroom. (Id.)

D. Swiderski's May 17, 2001 Testimony

Before the Workers' Compensation Board Blount never returned to work, claiming an allegedly severe psychological condition precipitated by the incident. She sought workers' compensation benefits instead. At a hearing before the workers' compensation board, Swiderski testified to an account of events vastly different from any of those put forth by Blount. He testified that Jack Phelan, Sylvia Dymant, and a law guardian were already in the courtroom conferencing with Judge Brennan when Blount entered. (Peter Swiderski, Workers' Compensation Board Testimony, May 17, 2001 ("Swiderski WCB"), at 4, 9-10.) Swiderski explained that the private backdoor entrance through which Blount entered was located in the back of the courtroom next to benches that faced Judge Brennan's bench. (Id. at 12.) The conference was, by Swiderski's account, a closed one that was not open to the general public. (Id. at 14.) In response to seeing Blount enter the courtroom, Swiderski asked her to identify herself, but she ignored the request and walked to a seat in the courtroom's rear. (Id.) Swiderski followed Blount and repeated his request, but Blount again refused, stating that she did not have to explain who she was. (Id.) In response to further requests for identification, Blount yelled that Swiderski had not asked the white individuals, Phelan and Dymant, to do the same. (Id.) At this point, Judge Brennan inquired of Swiderski, who explained that Blount would not identify herself. (Id. at 8.) Another individual in the courtroom -- either Phelan or Dymant -- interjected that Blount was a caseworker assigned to the case. (Id.) Blount then complained to Judge Brennan that she was being treated unfairly because Swiderski had not also asked her white colleagues to identify themselves when they entered the courtroom. (Id.) In response, Judge Brennan asked Blount to wait outside the courtroom until the Court was ready to hear her testimony. (Id. at 9.) Blount left the courtroom as instructed, calling Swiderski a cracker on her way out. (Id.) Swiderski denied ever having physical contact with Blount. (Id. at 6.)

E. Swiderski's May 5, 2004 Deposition

Swiderski was deposed by Blount's counsel on May 5, 2004. He testified that prior to January 6, 2000, he had never seen Blount. (Swiderski Dep. at 81.) He was, however, familiar with Phelan and Dymant because of their prior courtroom appearances. (Swiderski Dep. at 86-87.) Swiderski denied having any physical contact with Blount. (Swiderski Dep. at 81.)*fn1

III. The Investigation

A. Blount's Complaint

After leaving Judge Brennan's courtroom on January 6, 2000, Blount asked several individuals where she could file a complaint and was directed to the Office of the Nassau County Family Court Chief Clerk, defendant Harold Butler. (Blount Dep. at 58) As chief clerk, Butler supervised the court's non-judicial staff. (Deposition of Harold Butler ("Butler Dep.") at 10-11.) When she arrived at his office, Blount explained to Butler that she had been involved in an incident with a court officer and wanted to file a complaint of racial discrimination and excessive force. (Blount Dep. at 59-62.) Butler, who is also black, responded by providing a complaint form and informing Blount of her right to file a complaint. (Id. at 62.) While Blount was writing her complaint, Butler left the office and shortly thereafter returned with defendant Dave Janosek, who at the time was employed as a court officer lieutenant by the New York State Office of Court Administration ("OCA"). (Id. at 64; Janosek Dep. at 8.) At the Nassau County Family Court, Janosek was responsible for overall building security and supervision of court officers. (Janosek Dep. at 9.) Blount has testified that when Janosek entered the office, he sat opposite her, laid back, put his feet up on the table with arms behind his head. (Blount Dep. at 64-65.) At this point, Blount was crying and she explained to Butler and Janosek that she had earlier been attempting to enter a courtroom when a court officer had blocked her passage, put her up against a wall, and twisted her arm behind her back. (Janosek Dep. at 43-44.) Blount stated her belief that she had been singled out on the basis of race because her white co-workers were allowed to enter the courtroom without question. (Blount Aff. ¶ 17.) Blount told the investigating officers that potential eyewitnesses to the incident were Judge Brennan, Jack Phelan, and Cynthia Dymant. (Blount Dep. at 68.) She was unsure whether any other individuals might have witnessed the incident. (Id.) When Blount finished writing out a complaint on the form provided by Butler, she requested a copy. (Id. at 66.) However, Janosek responded that he would not sign the complaint form until he had investigated the complaint. (Id.) Butler agreed, telling Blount that she would receive a copy "when everything is completed." (Id.) Blount then left the office. (Id.)

B. Butler and Janosek Investigate

Upon Blount's departure from the clerk's office, Butler and Janosek immediately walked to Judge Brennan's courtroom. (Janosek Dep. at 107.) There, they questioned Judge Brennan, the court clerk, court reporter, and others who were present in the courtroom. (Butler Dep. at 53, 117-18; Janosek Dep. at 108.) Only later would Butler and Janosek locate and question Jack Phelan. (Janosek Dep. at 108.) Cynthia Dymant, the closest eyewitness to the incident, was never questioned as part of the investigation. (Id.) Critically, none of those interviewed corroborated Blount's account of events.

i. Judge Brennan

In response to questioning, Judge Brennan told Butler and Janosek that he had observed an incident in his courtroom. (Butler Dep. at 59.) Judge Brennan had seen Swiderski bringing the parties into the courtroom when there was a commotion at the door, which caused him to look up and inquire. (Id.; Janosek Dep. at 74.) Judge Brennan concluded, based on his observations, that Swiderski had not acted inappropriately. (Butler Dep. at 60.) In response to questioning, Judge Brennan indicated that there were no signs of "abuse." (Id.) Judge Brennan further stated that the incident had nothing to do with Blount's race. (Janosek Dep. at 110.) Butler met a second time with Judge Brennan and, at this second meeting, Judge Brennan confirmed his initial account. (Butler Dep. at 61-63.)

ii. James Carpenter (Court Clerk)

In response to questioning, James Carpenter, the court clerk, told Butler and Janosek that he had heard a commotion or raised voices at the courtroom door when Blount was about to enter. (Id. at 55; Janosek Dep. at 67.) Carpenter observed that Blount was insisting upon entering, but Swiderski "would not let her in until she identified herself, and that was it." (Butler Dep. at 55.) At the time of the incident, he remembered Blount being just inside the courtroom.

(Id. at 55.) He observed no physical contact. (Janosek Dep. at 68.) Butler met a second time with Carpenter. At this second meeting, Carpenter confirmed his initial account. (Butler Dep. at 53.)

iii. Deputy County Attorney Jack Phelan

Butler spoke with Jack Phelan about Blount's complaint; however, at his deposition, Butler could not recall the specifics of this conversation. (Id. at 63.) Janosek recalled a conversation with Phelan, during which Phelan stated that from his vantage point in Judge Brennan's courtroom -- about 15 feet away and with his back to the incident's location -- he did not observe a physical confrontation between Blount and Swiderski. (Janosek Dep. at 81-82.) Phelan also testified at Blount's workers' compensation hearing.*fn2

At that hearing, Phelan recalled that he had entered the courtroom on January 6, 2000 and was already speaking to Judge Brennan for a few seconds when he became aware of a situation in the back of the courtroom. (Jack Phelan, Workers' Compensation Board Testimony, Mar. 7, 2001, at 4). Although he was just five feet from the spot of the incident, Phelan heard no screaming or yelling and did not observe a physical altercation. (Id. at 4, 6.) Phelan further testified that Judge Brennan never banged his gavel or yelled "order in the court." (Id. at 6.) All Phelan could remember was turning back to view the scene at some point after the incident when he observed Blount sitting on one of the courtroom's rear benches looking upset. (Id. at 5.)

iv. The Court Reporter

Butler interviewed the court reporter who was present in Judge Brennan's courtroom at the time of the incident. (Butler Dep. at 56-57.) At this deposition, Butler recalled the court reporter stating, in substance, that from his vantage point in the courtroom, he could observe Blount and Swiderski, but that he "didn't see anything happen." (Id.) Janosek also spoke with the court reporter, who recalled the incident ensuing when Blount entered the ...

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