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Onwuazombe v. Dodrill

April 16, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Denise Cote, District Judge


Pro se plaintiff Charles Onwuazombe, an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution at Otisville ("Otisville"), brings suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the defendant correctional officers violated his constitutional rights by disciplining him for an offense he did not commit, precluding the exculpatory testimony of a witness at his disciplinary hearing, and excessively punishing him by terminating his employment in the prison. Defendants have moved to dismiss Onwuazombe's complaint, arguing principally that a federal prisoner has no protectable interest in his prison employment and that consequently such inmates have no procedural due process rights in connection with their removal from that employment. Because defendants are correct, their motion to dismiss is granted.


The following facts are drawn from the complaint and are assumed to be true, as they must be on a motion to dismiss. Onwuazombe has been incarcerated in federal prison since 1993. In 2000, he was transferred to Otisville and, a year later, he began to work in the prison for UNICOR Industries, a corporation that provides voluntary work opportunities for federal prison inmates. See 28 C.F.R. § 345.10.

On February 6, 2006, defendant Phillip Robertson, a correctional officer, searched the cell that Onwuazombe shared with inmate Mordechai Samet. The cell contained, among other things, four unmarked lockers used by the two inmates to store their personal property. Robertson searched the lockers and found two "stingers," electrical devices repurposed by prisoners to heat hot water or cook food in their cells. Stingers are contraband under BOP Regulation 305, which prohibits inmates from possessing anything "not authorized for retention, or receipt by the inmate, and not issued to him through the regular channels."

Robertson promptly wrote an incident report charging Onwuazombe with violation of Regulation 305. On February 7, Onwuazombe was served with a copy of the incident report and advised of his rights. The following day, Samet informed Onwuazombe that the stingers belong to him, and that they had been found in Samet's locker. Samet also told Onwuazombe that he was willing to testify to these facts at a disciplinary hearing. Also on February 8, defendant Michael Rowley, the UNICOR factory manager, sent an email to correctional counselor David Quaadman recommending that if Onwuazombe were to be found guilty of the charge against him, his employment with UNICOR should be terminated.

Onwuazombe's unit disciplinary committee hearing was held on February 9, with Onwuazombe present. Defendants John Gushue, a correctional counselor, and Gerard Tomaino, Onwuazombe's unit manager, comprised the committee. Onwuazombe sought to call Samet as a witness, but his request was "summarily denied" by Gushue and Tomaino. Onwuazombe was found guilty of the charge against him, and his employment with UNICOR was terminated.

Three days after the hearing, Onwuazombe informed defendant Robertson, in Samet's presence, of the latter man's admission that the stingers belonged to him, and that they had been found in his own locker. Samet confirmed this account to Robertson. Robertson undertook some "further investigation" and determined that Samet's account was true. Robertson then informed Tomaino that he had made an error, and that Onwuazombe was in fact innocent of the charge against him. Tomaino took no action to rescind the disciplinary committee's guilty verdict or to restore Onwuazombe's UNICOR employment. Robertson also informed Rowley, the UNICOR factory manager, that he believed Onwuazombe was innocent of the charges against him and that his employment with UNICOR should be reinstated. Rowley told Robertson to submit a memorandum to that effect, but Robertson failed to do so. Onwuazombe contacted defendant Craig Apker, warden of FCI Otisville,*fn1 to inform him about Samet's admission. When Apker asked Tomaino why he had not expunged Onwuazombe's disciplinary record in light of Samet's admission, Tomaino replied that he hadn't received a memo from Robertson memorializing his account of the conversation with Onwuazombe and Samet and his own subsequent investigation.

The parties agree that Onwuazombe has exhausted the prison grievance procedures insofar as he attacks the fairness of the February 9 hearing and the appropriateness of terminating his employment as a sanction for his infraction. On February 15, Onwuazombe initiated the administrative review procedure, pursuant to BOP guidelines, to appeal the verdict and punishment meted out by the disciplinary committee. In his appeal to Warden Apker, Onwuazombe complained that he was denied a fair hearing because he was prohibited from calling Samet as a witness, the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict, and discharge from his UNICOR job was an excessive penalty in light of his prior prison behavior and the fact that he remitted to his needy family the money he earned through his job. Warden Apker denied Onwuazombe's appeal. He explained that BOP rules do not require the disciplinary committee to consider requests for witnesses during their proceedings. He further found no evidence that Robertson had "reinvestigated" the incident or found any evidence exculpating Onwuazombe. Finally, he deemed termination of Onwuazombe's UNICOR employment to be an appropriate and permissible sanction.

Onwuazombe appealed Warden Apker's decision to the BOP's Northeast Regional Office, reiterating the arguments made to Warden Apker. Defendant Scott Dodrill, Director of the Northeast Regional Office, rejected his appeal, relying on much the same grounds as Warden Apker. Dodrill further noted that, under BOP policy, inmates are responsible "for all items in your cell and assigned areas," suggesting that Samet's testimony that the stingers were found in his locker, rather than Onwuazombe's, would not exculpate Onwuazombe. Onwuazombe appealed his claims for the final time to the National Inmate Appeals Administrator ("NIAA"). Observing that there was "specific evidence" in support of the guilty verdict, and that BOP regulations did not require the disciplinary committee to allow Onwuazombe to call witnesses on his behalf, the NIAA rejected his appeal and affirmed the sanction imposed.

The instant lawsuit was commenced on November 24, 2006, with the filing of Onwuazombe's complaint. Defendants moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, on August 1, 2007. Onwuazombe filed an amended complaint on September 30, and on February 20, 2008, defendants moved to dismiss Onwuazombe's amended complaint.*fn2

The amended complaint alleges three causes of action. First, Onwuazombe claims that the BOP guidelines governing the conduct of disciplinary hearings are unconstitutionally vague, and that by enforcing the guidelines, each of the defendants violated his Fifth Amendment rights to due process by failing to provide him with advance notice that he would not be permitted to call a witness at his disciplinary hearing, and by precluding him from calling a witness. Second, he claims that defendant Rowley violated his Fifth Amendment rights by sending the email recommending that his UNICOR employment be terminated. Third, he claims that defendants Tomaino, Apker, Rowley, and Robertson violated his Fifth Amendment rights when they did not act on their knowledge of exculpatory evidence tending to prove his innocence of the infraction charged. All defendants are sued in both their individual and official capacities. Onwuazombe seeks, inter alia, a declaration that his rights were infringed, vacatur of the guilty verdict reached after his disciplinary hearing, reinstatement of his UNICOR employment, back pay, and punitive damages.

Defendants have moved to dismiss, principally on the ground that Onwuazombe failed to state a constitutional violation. In the alternative, they argue that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Onwuazombe's ยง 1983 claims against defendants in their official ...

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