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LeBron v. Swaitek

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


November 2, 2007

ELVIN LEBRON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
D. SWAITEK, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe U.S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Elvin LeBron brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that defendants, ninety-two employees of the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS"), violated his constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. LeBron's amended complaint was referred to Magistrate Judge David R. Homer pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 72.3(c) of the Northern District of New York. Upon the motion of sixty-nine of the defendants, Judge Homer issued a Report-Recommendation and Order recommending dismissal of all claims against the moving defendants. See Report-Recommendation and Order; Dkt. 127.*fn1 Additionally, Judge Homer recommended that the amended complaint be dismissed without prejudice as to the non-moving defendants, for failure to serve. Id. Now pending before the court is LeBron's timely objection to the Report-Recommendation. See Dkt. 130.

Upon careful consideration of the arguments, the record, and the applicable law, the court concludes that five of LeBron's seven claims should be dismissed in their entirety. However, the claim denominated "Claim Four" in LeBron's amended complaint survives, but only to the extent that it states a due process claim against certain defendants, and to the extent that it states a First Amendment retaliation claim against certain defendants. Additionally, the claim denominated "Claim Seven" survives, but only to the extent that it states a First Amendment claim of interference with mail. Thus, for the reasons stated below, the Report-Recommendation is adopted in part and rejected in part.

II. Standard of Review

Before entering final judgment, this court routinely reviews all report-recommendations in cases it has referred to a Magistrate Judge. If a party has objected to specific elements of the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations, this court reviews those findings and recommendations de novo. See Almonte v. N.Y. State Div. of Parole, No. 9:04-CV-484, 2006 WL 149049, *6-7 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 18, 2006). Even in those cases where no party has filed an objection, this court reviews the findings and recommendations of a Magistrate Judge under a clearly erroneous standard. Id.

LeBron has filed several specific objections to Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation. See generally Dkt. 130. First, LeBron objects to Judge Homer's recommendation that Claims One and Two be dismissed as untimely.*fn2 Second, LeBron objects to Judge Homer's determination that LeBron was not subjected to the type of atypical and significant confinement that is required to establish a due process claim. Third, LeBron argues that Judge Homer erroneously concluded that the named defendants lacked the authority to expunge his disciplinary record. Finally, LeBron asserts that Judge Homer failed to consider his First Amendment claims, and that the Report-Recommendation erroneously recommended dismissal of Claim Four in spite of Judge Homer's determination that said claim was not barred by the statute of limitations. In light of LeBron's specific objections, the court has reviewed the foregoing determinations de novo. The court has reviewed the remainder of Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation for clear error.

III. Discussion

A. Equal Protection and Fourth Amendment Claims LeBron asserts seven claims in his amended complaint, each alleging "First Amendment, due process, and equal protection violations." See Dkt. 6 at ¶¶ 38, 84, 112, 200, 251, 291, 352. Judge Homer determined that LeBron's amended complaint is devoid of any allegations that would support an equal protection claim. LeBron has not challenged this determination, and this court agrees with Judge Homer's conclusion. Accordingly, LeBron's equal protection claims are dismissed.

On its face, LeBron's amended complaint asserts no Fourth Amendment claims. However, reading the amended complaint liberally, Judge Homer recognized that LeBron may have alleged a deprivation of his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Even assuming that LeBron had alleged a Fourth Amendment violation, Judge Homer concluded that LeBron had no viable claim on that ground. See Dkt. 127, p. 15, n. 14. LeBron has not objected to this conclusion, and the court is in full agreement with Judge Homer. Accordingly, LeBron's Fourth Amendment claims, if any, are dismissed.

B. Due Process Claims

Judge Homer has recommended that the due process claims asserted in Claims One, Two, Five, Six, and Seven be dismissed in their entirety. The Report-Recommendation may also be construed as recommending dismissal of the due process claim asserted in Claim Four, although it mentions this claim only in passing. See Dkt. 127, p. 12, n. 11.*fn3

Upon de novo review, the court agrees with and adopts Judge Homer's recommendation that the due process claims asserted in Claims One, Two, Five, Six and Seven should be dismissed. With respect to Claim Four, the court concludes that the due process claim asserted therein should survive dismissal only with respect to those defendants whose personal involvement is alleged.

1. Claims One and Two are Barred by the Statute of Limitations

Judge Homer recommended dismissal of Claims One and Two on statute of limitations grounds. In his objections to the Report-Recommendation, LeBron asserts that a prisoner must exhaust his state remedies as well as his administrative remedies before bringing a § 1983 claim. Thus, with respect to Claim Two, he argues that his state action tolled the running of the statute of limitations until January 14, 2002, the date that the results of the subject disciplinary proceedings were administratively reversed. See Dkt. 130, p. 1.*fn4

LeBron's contention that pursuit of state remedies tolls the statute of limitations in a § 1983 action is an incorrect statement of law. See Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 641 (2d Cir. 2007) ("We have held . . . that a plaintiff's pursuit of a state remedy, such as an Article 78 proceeding, does not toll the statute of limitations for filing a claim pursuant to section 1983."). Thus, under the three year statute of limitations applicable to LeBron's § 1983 claims,*fn5 Claims One and Two are time-barred. As Judge Homer noted, the statute of limitations began to run on these claims when LeBron knew his rights were violated. See Singleton v. City of New York, 632 F.2d 185, 191 (2d Cir. 1980). As such, LeBron's first and second causes of action accrued, at the latest, on June 19, 2000 and August 24, 2000, respectively, the dates that his administrative appeals were denied. Therefore, LeBron's objections based on tolling of the statute of limitations are without merit.

Accordingly, defendants' motion to dismiss is granted as to the due process claims asserted in Claims One and Two. Moreover, to the extent that Claims One and Two assert equal protection and First Amendment claims, such claims are dismissed as untimely as well.

2. Claims One, Two, Five, Six and Seven Fail to State a Due Process Claim

In Claims One, Two, Five, Six and Seven, LeBron asserts due process violations arising out of procedurally improper disciplinary hearings. As a threshold matter, in order to establish a due process violation, a prisoner must demonstrate that a liberty interest has been infringed. See Palmer v. Richards, 364 F.3d 60, 64 (2d Cir. 2004). "A prisoner's liberty interest is implicated by prison discipline, such as SHU confinement, only if the discipline 'imposes [an] atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.'" Id. (quoting Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995)).

With respect to Claims One, Two, Five, and Seven, Judge Homer determined that LeBron could not establish, as a matter of law, that the confinement to which he was subjected was "atypical and significant," because in each case LeBron was sentenced to keeplock of 30 days or less. See Dkt. 127, pp. 11-12. The court concurs with Judge Homer's conclusion--which LeBron does not contest--that, absent additional allegations of atypicality, keeplock of 30 days or less is not alone "atypical and significant" confinement. See Smart v. Goord, 441 F. Supp. 2d 631, 640 (S.D.N.Y. 2006); Davidson v. Murray, 371 F. Supp. 2d 361, 368-69 (W.D.N.Y. 2005).*fn6 Therefore, LeBron has not established that a liberty interest has been infringed. Accordingly, the due process claims asserted in Claims One, Two, Five, and Seven are dismissed.

With respect to Claim Six, LeBron has alleged that he was sentenced to 180 days in the special housing unit ("SHU"). The court need not decide whether a sentence of this length is "atypical and significant," because, as Judge Homer noted, LeBron's sentence was administratively reversed before he had served any portion of it. See Dkt. 127, pp. 12-14. LeBron has not contested Judge Homer's finding in this regard. The court agrees with Judge Homer that LeBron suffered no interference with a liberty interest with respect to Claim Six, and, accordingly, the due process claim asserted in Claim Six is dismissed.

3. Claim Four States a Due Process Claim With Respect to Certain Defendants

The court agrees with Judge Homer that Claim Four is not barred by the statute of limitations. See Dkt. 127, pp. 10-11. Since LeBron has alleged a loss of good time credit as a result of the subject disciplinary hearing, LeBron's cause of action did not accrue until October 23, 2002, when the disciplinary hearing was administratively reversed.*fn7 See Jenkins v. Haubert, 179 F.3d 19, 28 (2d Cir. 1999).

Although Claim Four survives dismissal on statute of limitations grounds, it fails to adequately allege the personal involvement of many of the defendants. It is axiomatic that "personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under § 1983." Williams v. Smith, 781 F.2d 319, 323 (2d Cir. 1986) (citation and quotation omitted).*fn8

Under a liberal construction of LeBron's amended complaint, defendants Mehrmann, Faulkner, and McLaughton are the only defendants who are alleged to have conducted or participated in the allegedly procedurally defective disciplinary hearing conducted on or about January 16, 2002. See Dkt. 6, ¶¶ 149-162. Accordingly, LeBron has stated a due process claim with respect to these three defendants.*fn9

LeBron has also alleged that certain defendants failed to reverse his sentence upon being notified of the due process violations that occurred at his disciplinary hearing. See Dkt. 6, ¶¶ 166-198. The Second Circuit has held that an official has the requisite personal involvement for liability under § 1983 when, inter alia, "the defendant, after being informed of the violation through a report or appeal, failed to remedy the wrong." Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 873 (2d Cir. 1995). A number of district courts have held that the language in Colon should not be construed so broadly as to impose liability on any and all officials to whom a prisoner complains. See, e.g., Johnson v. Wright, 234 F. Supp. 2d 352, 363 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (collecting cases). This makes eminent sense; certain officials, even those in supervisory positions, simply may not have the authority to review and redress a prisoner's complaints. However, personal involvement will be found "where a supervisory official receives and acts on a prisoner's grievance or otherwise reviews and responds to a prisoner's complaint."

Id. LeBron's amended complaint adequately alleges, for purposes of withstanding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), that the following defendants reviewed his appeals, and declined to rectify the alleged constitutional violations: L. Leclaire,*fn10 Sanders, Ricks, Roy, Burke, McNulty, Goord, Selsky, Donelli, Racette, LeFevre, Pasquil, Annucci, Murphy, and McCoy. See Dkt. 6, ¶¶ 166-198. Accordingly, LeBron has stated a due process claim with respect to these defendants.*fn11

LeBron also alleges that certain defendants planted evidence and wrote misbehavior reports prior to the January 16, 2002, disciplinary hearing. See Dkt. 6, ¶¶ 134-147. However, the filing of a misbehavior report--even a false one--"does not, of itself, implicate the guard who filed it in constitutional violations which occur at a subsequent disciplinary hearing." Williams, 781 F.2d at 324. Similarly, the act of planting evidence does not, of itself, violate due process. Due process is implicated only at the point that a prisoner is denied the procedural protections that would enable him to prove that the evidence against him has been fabricated. See Freeman v. Rideout, 808 F.2d 949, 951 (2d Cir. 1986) ("The prison inmate has no constitutionally guaranteed immunity from being falsely or wrongly accused of conduct which may result in the deprivation of a protected liberty interest. The plaintiff, as all other prison inmates, has the right not to be deprived of a protected liberty interest without due process of law."). Accordingly, LeBron fails to state a due process claim with respect to those defendants who are only alleged to have engaged in conduct prior to the disciplinary hearing.

In summary, Claim Four states a due process claim only with respect to the following 18 defendants: Mehrmann, Faulkner, McLaughton, L. LeClaire, Sanders, Ricks, Roy, Burke, McNulty, Goord, Selsky, Donelli, Racette, Lefevre, Pasquil, Annucci, Murphy, and McCoy. Accordingly, with the exception of these 18 defendants, the due process claims asserted in Claim Four are dismissed with prejudice as to all other defendants. Moreover, the due process claims asserted in Claim Four are dismissed without prejudice as to Mehrmann, Faulkner, McLaughton, Sanders, Ricks, Lefevre, and Pasquil, for failure to serve.*fn12

C. First Amendment Claims

In his objections to the Report-Recommendation, LeBron notes that Judge Homer failed to analyze his First Amendment claims.*fn13 This is only partly correct. Judge Homer did address LeBron's claim of denial of access to courts, which is a species of First Amendment claim. See Davis v. Goord, 320 F.3d 346, 351 (2d Cir. 2003); Cancel v. Goord, No. 00-cv-2042, 2001 WL 303713, *3 (S.D.N.Y. March 29, 2001). Nevertheless, to the extent that LeBron's amended complaint may also be read as alleging First Amendment retaliation claims and claims of interference with outgoing mail, the court will address the merits of such claims in the first instance herein.

1. Retaliation Claims

With respect to Claims Four, Five, and Six, LeBron's objections to the Report-Recommendation clarify that he believes that defendants retaliated against him after he had engaged in protected speech. See Dkt. 130, p. 3. To survive dismissal, a plaintiff asserting a First Amendment retaliation claim must advance non-conclusory allegations "(1) that the speech or conduct at issue was protected, (2) that the defendant took adverse action against the plaintiff, and (3) that there was a causal connection between the protected speech and the adverse action." Davis, 320 F.3d at 352 (quoting Dawes v. Walker, 239 F.3d 489, 492 (2d Cir. 2001)). In regards to causation, "the temporal proximity of an allegedly retaliatory misbehavior report to a grievance may serve as circumstantial evidence of retaliation." Gayle v. Gonyea, 313 F.3d 677, 683 (2d Cir. 2002) (citation omitted).

In Claim Four, LeBron alleges that his complaints of harassment and his filing of a "facility claim" led to multiple acts of retaliation, including random searches of his cell, the planting of contraband in his cell, and the fabrication of misbehavior reports. See Dkt. 6, ¶¶ 115-141. With respect to the first prong of a retaliation claim, LeBron's complaints of harassment constituted protected speech. See Graham v. Henderson, 89 F.3d 75, 80 (2d Cir. 1996). As to the second prong, LeBron has alleged that the defendants took adverse action against him, in the form of retaliatory misbehavior reports and the retaliatory planting of evidence. See Gill v. Pidlypchak, 389 F.3d 379, 384 (2d Cir. 2004); Rodriguez v. McClenning, 399 F. Supp. 2d 228, 239-240 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).*fn14 Finally, LeBron has sufficiently alleged the causation element of a First Amendment retaliation claim by showing a temporal proximity between his protected speech and the adverse actions taken against him. See Dkt. 6, ¶¶ 132-147.

Thus, Claim Four states a claim for First Amendment retaliation. Accordingly, the defendants' motion to dismiss the First Amendment retaliation claim asserted in Claim Four is denied with respect to all defendants, with the exception of defendants Woodroof, Olson, M. LeClaire, and Bushie. The First Amendment retaliation claim asserted in Claim Four is dismissed with respect to defendants Woodroof, Olson, M. LeClaire, and Bushie, because LeBron has not alleged that these defendants participated in any prohibited retaliatory conduct.*fn15

Turning now to Claims Five and Six, LeBron has failed to state a retaliation claim. There are, quite simply, no allegations of retaliation in Claim Five. LeBron asserts that he was issued a misbehavior report, see Dkt. 6, ¶ 217, but nowhere in the amended complaint does he state that this misbehavior report was issued in retaliation for his exercise of First Amendment rights.*fn16 The same is true of Claim Six; the claim does not allege, even in conclusory terms, that any retaliatory conduct occurred.

2. Access to Courts Claims

Construing LeBron's amended complaint broadly, Judge Homer interpreted Claims Three and Five as alleging a denial of access to courts. Judge Homer recommended that these claims be dismissed. LeBron has not objected to this recommendation. The court agrees with Judge Homer's conclusion that Claims Three and Five do not state a claim for denial of access to courts, because LeBron has failed to allege any actual injury. See Monsky v. Moraghan, 127 F.3d 243, 247 (2d Cir. 1997) ("In order to establish a violation of a right of access to courts, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a defendant caused 'actual injury,' i.e., took or was responsible for actions that 'hindered [a plaintiff's] efforts to pursue a legal claim.'") (citing Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 349-51 (1996)) (internal citations omitted). Accordingly, to the extent that Claims Three and Five allege a denial of access to courts, these claims are dismissed.*fn17

Moreover, to the extent that Claim Six may be read as alleging a denial of access to courts, this claim is dismissed as well, for the same reasons.

3. Interference With Mail Claim

In Claim Seven, LeBron alleges that two of his outgoing letters were confiscated. See Dkt. 6, ¶¶ 296, 299. LeBron does not assert that the confiscation of the two letters interfered with his access to the courts, and, indeed, does not even allege that the letters constituted legal mail. Thus, he has not stated a claim for denial of access to courts. Accordingly, to the extent that Claim Seven may be read as asserting a claim of denial of access to courts, such claim is dismissed.

However, apart from the right of access to courts, "a prisoner's right to the free flow of incoming and outgoing mail is protected by the First Amendment." Davis, 320 F.3d at 351; see Moore v. Gardner, 199 F. Supp. 2d 17, 33 (W.D.N.Y. 2002) ("Although prisoners' First Amendment mail claims are often intertwined with claims for denial of court access, they may exist separately."). Thus, the court will address whether LeBron has stated a claim for the violation of his First Amendment rights arising out of the confiscation of two pieces of outgoing mail.

In short, for purposes of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, he has. The Second Circuit has held that restrictions on a prisoner's mail are justified only if they further the substantial governmental interests of security, order, and rehabilitation. Davis, 320 F.3d at 351 (citation omitted). Moreover, "courts have consistently afforded greater protection . . . to outgoing mail than to incoming mail." Id. (citations omitted). This is because "[t]he implications of outgoing correspondence for prison security are of a categorically lesser magnitude than the implications of incoming materials." Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 413 (1989).

It may be the case that the confiscation of LeBron's outgoing mail was justified by legitimate governmental interests. However, the defendants have not proffered any reasons for the confiscation,*fn18 and thus, it would be inappropriate to dismiss LeBron's claim at this time. See Purcell v. Coughlin, 790 F.2d 263, 265 (2d Cir. 1986) (reversing the district court's dismissal of claims relating to interference with plaintiff's outgoing and incoming mail, and noting that even two instances of mail interference may be sufficient to suggest a continuing activity); Knight v. Keane, 247 F. Supp. 2d 379, 384 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (affirming magistrate judge's determination that dismissal was inappropriate where the record evidence was insufficient to establish that inspection of plaintiff's mail was based on good cause). Accordingly, Claim Seven survives to the extent that it alleges a violation of LeBron's First Amendment right to send mail.*fn19

D. Injunctive Relief

Judge Homer recommended that LeBron's request for injunctive relief be denied because LeBron has sued the defendants in their individual capacities only. LeBron has objected to this recommendation, arguing that "it is a given that the named defendants are in a position to expunge the disciplinary determinations made against plaintiff." Dkt. 130, p. 3. Notwithstanding LeBron's unsupported assertion to the contrary, the court agrees with Judge Homer that the injunctive relief LeBron seeks is unavailable because the defendants have been sued in their individual capacities. See Ziemba v. Armstrong, No. 3:02-cv-2216, 2004 WL 1737447, *2 (D. Conn. July 30, 2004) ("Injunctive relief may only be recovered from parties in their official capacities.") (citations omitted). Accordingly, LeBron's claims for injunctive relief are dismissed.

IV. Conclusion

Having considered LeBron's objections and reviewed Judge Homer's findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court adopts Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation to the extent that it recommends dismissal of all of LeBron's equal protection and Fourth Amendment claims, as well as the due process claims asserted in Claims One, Two, Three, Five, Six, and Seven. The court rejects the Report-Recommendation to the extent that it recommends the complete dismissal of the due process claim asserted in Claim Four. The due process claim asserted in Claim Four is dismissed as to all defendants except L. LeClaire, Roy, Burke, McNulty, Goord, Selsky, Donelli, Racette, Annucci, Murphy, and McCoy.

As to the First Amendment claims, the court adopts Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation to the extent that it recommends dismissal of the denial of access to courts claims asserted in Claims Three and Five. Additionally, all First Amendment claims asserted in Claims One, Two, Three, Five, and Six are dismissed. The First Amendment retaliation claim asserted in Claim Four survives as to all defendants except Woodroof, Olson, M. LeClaire, and Bushie. The First Amendment claim of interference with mail asserted in Claim Seven survives as to all defendants.

Finally, the court adopts the Report-Recommendation to the extent that it recommends dismissal of LeBron's requests for injunctive relief.

WHEREFORE, for the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that Judge Homer's September 25, 2006 Report-Recommendation (Dkt. No. 127) is accepted in part and rejected in part; and it is further

ORDERED that Claims One, Two, Three, Five, and Six are dismissed in their entirety; and it is further

ORDERED that the equal protection claims asserted in Claims Four and Seven are dismissed; and it is further

ORDERED that the Fourth Amendment claims asserted in Claims Four and Seven, if any, are dismissed; and it is further

ORDERED that the due process claim asserted in Claim Seven is dismissed; and it is further

ORDERED that the due process claim asserted in Claim Four is dismissed as to all defendants except L. LeClaire, Roy, Burke, McNulty, Goord, Selsky, Donelli, Racette, Annucci, Murphy, and McCoy, and that such dismissal is without prejudice as to Mehrmann, Faulkner, McLaughton, Sanders, Ricks, LeFevre, and Pasquil, but is with prejudice as to all other defendants; and it is further

ORDERED that the defendants' motion to dismiss the First Amendment retaliation claim asserted in Claim Four is DENIED as to all defendants except that the motion to dismiss the First Amendment retaliation claim asserted in Claim Four is GRANTED as to defendants Woodroof, Olson, M. LeClaire, and Bushie; and it is further

ORDERED that the denial of access to courts claim asserted in Claim Seven is dismissed as to all defendants; and it is further

ORDERED that the defendants' motion to dismiss the First Amendment claim of interference with outgoing mail asserted in Claim Seven is DENIED; and it is further

ORDERED that the defendants' motion to dismiss LeBron's claims for injunctive relief is GRANTED; and it is further

ORDERED that the Clerk of the Court provide copies of this Order to the parties by mail.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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