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Brown v. Johnson

April 3, 2007

TYRELL BROWN, AN INFANT BY HIS AUNT AND GUARDIAN, LETITIA INGRAM, AND LETITIA INGRAM, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN A. JOHNSON, COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, GARY ALMOND, DIRECTOR OF THE OATKA RESIDENTIAL CENTER, GARY WOOD, YOUTH DETENTION COUNSELOR AT THE OATKA RESIDENTIAL CENTER, JOSEPH CARTER, YOUTH DETENTION AIDE AT THE OATKA RESIDENTIAL CENTER, AND JOHN DOE, A YOUTH DIVISION COUNSELOR AT THE OATKA RESIDENTIAL CENTER, ALL INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles J. Siragusa United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

This is an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York State law, in which the infant plaintiff, Tyrell Brown ("Tyrell"), seeks to recover for injuries that he sustained at the hands of adult staff members while a resident at a state-run residential detention facility for juveniles. Now before the Court is a motion for summary judgment by defendants John Johnson ("Johnson"), Gary Almond ("Almond"), and Joseph Carter ("Carter") [#27], and a separate motion for summary judgment by defendant Gary Wood ("Wood") [#34]. For the reasons that follow, the applications are granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

Unless otherwise noted, the following are the undisputed facts of this case, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving plaintiff.*fn1 On April 30, 2003, Tyrell, age 14, was a resident at the Oatka Residential Center ("Oatka") which is operated by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. At that time Johnson was the Commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, Almond was the Director of Oatka, Wood was a Youth Detention Counselor at Oatka, and Carter was a Youth Detention Aide at Oatka. That day, Tyrell was sitting at a table on the lawn at Oatka, drawing a picture on a red sheet of paper, which prominently displayed the letters "B" and "K". A staff member at Oatka observed Tyrell, suspected that the drawing was gang-related, and took the drawing to Wood, who was in his office. Wood, who stood 6'3" tall and weighed over 200 pounds, came out of his office and angrily confronted Tyrell about the drawing. Tyrell, who was 5' 6" tall and weighed 127 pounds, with a "slight build,"*fn2 denied that the drawing was gang-related. Wood then spun Tyrell around, pulled his arms behind his back, and "slammed" Tyrell face forward onto the ground. (Brown Dep. p. 67). Although there were at least three or four other adult staff members in the area, Wood did not call for assistance before restraining Tyrell. (Brown Dep. p. 39). Once on the ground, Wood pushed Tyrell's arms up, until Tyrell heard a cracking sound in his shoulder. While Wood was restraining Tyrell in this manner, defendant Carter, who had observed Wood "slam" Tyrell to the ground (Carter Dep. 26), approached and restrained Tyrell's legs. After a few minutes, Carter and Wood switched places, while maintaining the hold on plaintiff. According to Carter, he assumed the "primary" position of restraining plaintiff's arms and upper body at Wood's direction. (Carter Dep. p. 27). After Carter assumed the primary hold, he continued to push Tyrell's arms up, in the same manner as Wood had done.

Tyrell described the incident more specifically at his deposition as follows: I had a red piece of paper and I was from Brooklyn and started with a capital B and put a capital K and in between the capitals the r-o-o-k-l-y-n, Brooklyn, to put up on my wall. Staff had come and took it and said it was gang related and the staff -- I don't recall the staff name but talk to [sic]

Mr. Woods and Mr. Woods -- it was like two minutes but he came out. He came out. He called me. I placed my hands behind my back, walked up to him. He said, "What is this." I said "This is where I'm from. Brooklyn" and he said it's gang related. BK stands for Blood Killer. I told him it wasn't gang related. He said "Why are you lying" and placed his hand on my shoulder and I said "I'm not lying." And he looked to the side like a quick glance type and then he grabbed me, turn me around quick and locked his arms with my arms and picked me up and slammed me on the floor and as I was on the floor he started pushing my arms up and I was crying because it was hurting. It hurt. I heard a crack in my shoulder and said "My arm." I was kind of choked because of the pressure he was doing on me. . . . I was crying and stuff and I said "my arm, my arm" and "Get up off me" so then as he got up off me Mr. Carter, he came on me and was doing the same thing, pushing my arm. And I'm crying "My arm, get off me." (Brown Dep. pp. 18-19; see also, Id. at 60-61: "He [Wood] . . . set his hands up like that (indicates) and set my shoulder up and smashed me on the floor and started pushing it up."; 71: "[H]e was going up and down with it and stuff like that. Then he OD'd. He over did it and I heard a crack in my shoulder and I really started crying."). Tyrell additionally indicated that Wood was talking to him while he was restrained on the ground, saying, "Like, 'Why you fucking lying to me." I'm crying, trying to tell him I'm not lying. He got all this weight on me and I can't talk. I'm crying." (Id. at 72).

Tyrell indicates that Wood essentially utilized the same restraint technique that other adults had used on him at Oatka:

[Pretend] I'm the staff. Say a resident in front of me and I got his arm. My hands would be inside like the back of his arms and back. My hands be flat like that (indicates) and sometimes they do place their (indicates) and the other side, they beat you up regardless. I'm telling the truth. They pick you up and slam you on the floor and push your arms up and make you cry. (Id. at 65). As for Carter, Tyrell indicates that Carter "cranked" his arms in the same manner that Wood had done: "I'm still on the ground. I was still crying. Mr. Woods was standing up and Mr. Carter was dong the same thing, cranking me." (Id. at 73; see also, Id. at 82: "I was getting cranked."). Tyrell further stated:

Q: How did Mr. Carter apply the lock on you?

A: Pressure.

Q: Did he put a lock?

A: Like when Mr. Woods had my hands like Mr. Carter came up and grabbed my arms. Like I say, you can't do nothing once they got you like that.

Q: What did you mean he was doing the same thing?

A: Put your arm up and make you cry. (Id. at 74). As a result of the use of force, Tyrell sustained a fractured shoulder.

Wood contends that he used force on Tyrell because Tyrell made a threatening gesture with his hands. However, as indicated above, Tyrell stated that he had his hands behind his back during the incident.*fn3 Wood also maintains that he brought Tyrell to the ground more violently than he had intended to because he slipped and fell. Carter, though, did not "recall" seeing Wood slip as he took Tyrell to the ground. (Carter Dep. p. 48). Instead, according to Carter, Wood "sort of got in [Tyrell's] face," and "before you know it sort of like slammed the kid over on the ground and he started the restraint." (Carter Dep. p. 26). It is undisputed that Wood did not call for assistance from Carter or other staff before using force on Tyrell.

As for the manner in which Wood restrained Tyrell, it is undisputed that Wood was trained in the use of the proper physical restraint technique and himself trained others in the technique. (Wood Dep. 56). Nevertheless, at his deposition, Wood indicated that he did not recall the criteria for using the type of restraint that he placed on Tyrell. (Wood Dep. 68). Moreover, Carter indicated that Wood's "take down" of Tyrell was "unusual" because Wood "sort of slammed [Tyrell] to the ground." (Carter Dep. 54).

The use of force at Oatka was governed by policy "PPM 3247.13 Use of Physical Force," promulgated by the New York State Division for Youth. (Pl. Appendix Ex. H). The policy states that physical force is to be used only in situations where "there is no reasonable alternative," and then, staff are to "employ only the minimum amount of force necessary to bring the resident/situation under control." (Emphasis in original). Significantly, the policy indicates that "[p]hysical force shall not be used as punishment." The policy additionally states, in relevant part:

F. CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH THE USE OF PHYSICAL FORCE MAY BE NECESSARY

1. To protect one's self.

2. To protect others . . . .

3. To protect the resident from ...


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