UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
March 31, 2009
TYRONE HOUSTON, PLAINTIFF,
GLENN S. GOORD, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge
DECISION and ORDER
Currently before the Court in this pro se prisoner civil rights action are Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 80), and United States Magistrate Judge David E. Peebles's Report-Recommendation recommending that Defendants' motion be granted and Plaintiff's Complaint be dismissed in its entirety (Dkt. No. 85). Plaintiff has timely filed Objections to the Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. No. 86.) For the reasons set forth below, the Report-Recommendation is accepted and adopted in its entirety, Defendants' motion is granted and Plaintiff's Complaint is dismissed.
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
On November 21, 2003, Plaintiff filed this action against twenty-two (22) individuals currently and/or formerly employed by the New York State Department of Correctional Services, at various correctional facilities. Generally, in his Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that his rights under the First and Eighth Amendments were violated when (1) certain Defendants had him transferred in retaliation for grievances that he had filed, (2) certain Defendants issued false misbehavior reports against him in retaliation for grievances that he had filed, and (3) certain Defendants deprived him of the opportunity to engage in outdoor exercise on two separate occasions. (See generally Dkt. No. 1.)*fn1
On September 29, 2006, District Judge Lawrence E. Kahn issued a Memorandum Decision and Order dismissing (1) Plaintiff's claims for equitable relief due to Plaintiff's release from incarceration, which mooted this claim, and (2) Plaintiff's claims against the CORC and all of the individual defendants in their official capacities on Eleventh Amendment grounds. (Dkt. No. 69.)
On January 4, 2008, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all of Plaintiff's claims against them. (Dkt. No. 80.) Generally, Defendants' motion is premised on the following three grounds: (1) certain of Plaintiff's claims are procedurally barred based upon his failure to exhaust available administrative remedies with regard to those claims (2) no reasonable factfinder could conclude that the issuance of misbehavior reports or the transfer to different facilities were caused by Plaintiff's filing of grievances; and (3) no reasonable factfinder could conclude that Plaintiff was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment based on being denied certain exercise opportunities. (Id.) On February 1, 2008, Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to Defendants' motion. (Dkt. No. 82.).
On March 11, 2009, Magistrate Judge Peebles issued a Report-Recommendation recommending that Defendants' motion be granted, because (1) certain of Plaintiff's claims were not properly exhausted, and (2) no reasonable factfinder could rule in Plaintiff's favor on any of his claims. (Dkt. No. 85.) Familiarity with the grounds of the Report-Recommendation is assumed in this Decision and Order. On March 20, 2009, Plaintiff filed his Objections to the Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. No. 86.)
II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Standard of Review on Objection from Report-Recommendation
When specific objections are made to a magistrate judge's report-recommendation, the Court makes a "de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).*fn2 When only general objections are made to a magistrate judge's report-recommendation, the Court reviews the report-recommendation for clear error or manifest injustice. See Brown v. Peters, 95-CV-1641, 1997 WL 599355, at *2-3 (N.D.N.Y. Sept.22, 1997) (Pooler, J.) [collecting cases], aff'd without opinion, 175 F.3d 1007 (2d Cir.1999).*fn3 Similarly, when a party makes no objection to a portion of a report-recommendation, the Court reviews that portion for clear error or manifest injustice. See Batista v. Walker, 94-CV-2826, 1995 WL 453299, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 31, 1995) (Sotomayor, J.) [citations omitted]; Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b), Advisory Committee Notes: 1983 Addition [citations omitted]. After conducing the appropriate review, the Court may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).
B. Standard Governing Motion for Summary Judgment
Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, summary judgment is warranted if "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits 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). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the Court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). In addition, "[the moving party] bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the... [record] which it believes demonstrate[s] the absence of any genuine issue of material fact." Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). However, when the moving party has met this initial responsibility, the nonmoving party must come forward with "specific facts showing a genuine issue [of material fact] for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2).
A dispute of fact is "genuine" if "the [record] evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the novmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. As a result, "[c]onclusory allegations, conjecture and speculation... are insufficient to create a genuine issue of fact." Kerzer v. Kingly Mfg., 156 F.3d 396, 400 (2d Cir. 1998) [citation omitted]; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). As the Supreme Court has famously explained, "[The nonmoving party] must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts" [citations omitted]. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-86 (1986).
As for the materiality requirement, a dispute of fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. "Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id. [citation omitted].
Implied in the above-stated burden-shifting standard is the fact that, where a nonmoving party fails to adequately respond to a motion for summary judgment, a district court has no duty to perform an independent review of the record to find proof of a factual dispute--even if that nonmoving party is proceeding pro se.*fn4 (This is because the Court extends special solicitude to the pro se litigant, in part by ensuring that he or she has received notice of the consequences of failing to properly respond to the motion for summary judgment.)*fn5 As has often been recognized by both the Supreme Court and Second Circuit, even pro se litigants must obey a district court's procedural rules.*fn6 For this reason, this Court has often enforced Local Rule 7.1(a)(3) by deeming facts set forth in a moving party's statement to have been admitted where the nonmoving party has failed to properly respond to that statement*fn7 --even where the nonmoving party was proceeding pro se in a civil rights case.*fn8
After carefully reviewing all of the papers in this action, including Magistrate Judge Peebles's Report-Recommendation and Plaintiff's Objections thereto, the Court rejects each of Plaintiff's Objections, and agrees with each of the conclusions stated in the Report-Recommendation. (See Dkt. Nos 85, 86.) Magistrate Judge Peebles employed the proper legal standards, accurately recited the facts, and reasonably applied the law to those facts. (See Dkt. No. 86.)
In particular, Magistrate Judge Peebles correctly determined that Plaintiff failed to exhaust some of his claims, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, in that he failed to file grievances, and/or pursue these claims to completion, before bringing the claims to federal court.*fn9 Magistrate Judge Peebles also correctly determined that the only evidence that the misbehavior reports filed against Plaintiff were retaliatory is the fact that they were filed in close proximity to Plaintiff's grievances. However, this inference alone is not enough for Plaintiff to defeat summary judgment, in light of the fact that (1) he was found guilty of at least some of the charges lodged in seven of the nine misbehavior reports with which he takes issue, (2) these reports were issued by nine different corrections officers in four different prisons, and (3) all but one of the officers submitted an affidavit expressly denying retaliatory motivation.*fn10 In addition, regarding Plaintiff's claim that his numerous transfers to various prison facilities was done in retaliation for filing grievances, as Magistrate Judge Peebles explained, (1) Plaintiff has offered no evidence that he was transferred in retaliation for filing grievances, and (2) Plaintiff has a history of claiming retaliation for numerous adverse actions taken against him. As a result, these retaliation claims are dismissed.
Furthermore, as explained in Magistrate Judge Peebles' Report-Recommendation, Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims are without merit because (1) the harm that he allegedly suffered as a result of being denied the opportunity to exercise outdoors for less than two weeks is de minimis, and (2) being forced to exercise in an area that is eight-feet-five inches by six-feet-nine inches in size, while confined in a SHU facility, is not a constitutional violation. See, e.g., Cody v. Jones, 895 F. Supp. 431, 441 (N.D.N.Y. 1995) (McCurn, J.) (applying Sandin and concluding that no liberty interest was triggered through the failure of the prison to regularly accord plaintiff one hour of daily outdoor exercise for a period of several months); Anderson v. Coughlin, 757 F.2d 33, 34-35 (2d Cir. 1985) ("[T]hough courts have played a helpful role in assisting prisoners and prison officials to negotiate mutually acceptable terms for the provision of exercise opportunities, as has occurred in this case, they have not found in the Eighth Amendment a broad license to require prison officials to meet all of the recreational standards that have been recommended by penologists.").*fn11
In his Objections to the Report-Recommendation, Plaintiff argues, inter alia, that his failures to fully exhaust his available administrative remedies with regard to certain of his claims was due to his being transferred to different facilities shortly after filing grievances, and that his efforts to inform Defendant Goord and Wardens of this issue "are sufficient to invoke the limited exceptions to the grievance requirement." (Dkt. No. 86.) In addition, Plaintiff appears to argue that the Report-Recommendation should not be adopted because of its failure to appreciate that the "personal involvement on [the] part of all Defendants [regarding his retaliation claims]" constitutes sufficient evidence of a conflict, thereby warranting denial of summary judgment.
(Dkt. No. 86.)*fn12
With regard to Plaintiff's exhaustion claim, as an initial matter, the Court is not persuaded by Plaintiff's argument that his letters to Defendants Goord and Wardens created an exception to the exhaustion requirement.*fn13 This is because (1) administrative remedies were available to Plaintiff, who is extremely experienced in the inmate litigation process,*fn14 (2)
Defendants have not waived the exhaustion defense, and (3) special circumstances do not exist which would excuse Plaintiff from complying with the procedural requirements.*fn15 However, even if the Court were persuaded that Plaintiff's letters created an exception to the exhaustion requirement, such a finding would not help Plaintiff withstand summary judgment on the claims at issue. This is because, while Magistrate Judge Peebles found that some of Plaintiff's retaliatory transfer claims were unexhausted, Magistrate Judge Peebles also found that all of Plaintiff's retaliatory transfer claims were unsupported by sufficient record evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the transfers were caused by Plaintiff's filing of grievances (as opposed to being caused by legitimate, penological considerations).
Finally, with regard to Plaintiff's claim that a "conflict" existed (or exists) in this case, the Court rejects that argument. Plaintiff has not offered any evidence of such a conflict. The fact that District Judge Gary L. Sharpe issued a ruling in Houston v. Leclaire, 01-CV-0067, Decision and Order (N.D.N.Y. filed July 22, 2004) (Sharpe, J.) (denying, in part, defendants' motion for summary judgment requesting dismissal of Plaintiff's retaliation claim arising from the filing of false misbehavior reports against him, and the destruction of his legal materials, in 1999) in no way collaterally estops or otherwise precludes the Court from dismissing Plaintiff's claims in this current action due to a lack of supporting record evidence.*fn16 As a result, and for the reasons stated by Magistrate Judge Peebles in his Report-Recommendation, Plaintiff's retaliation claims with regard to the misbehavior reports are dismissed.
For all of these reasons, the Court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment. ACCORDINGLY, it is ORDERED that Magistrate Judge Peebles's Report-Recommendation (Dkt. No. 85) is ACCEPTED and ADOPTED in its entirety; and it is further
ORDERED that Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 80) is GRANTED; and it is further
ORDERED that Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) is DISMISSED in its entirety.