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Mitchell v. Igoe

September 25, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David E. Peebles U.S. Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Varrel E. Mitchell, a New York State prison inmate who is proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis ("IFP"), has commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging deprivation of his civil rights. In his complaint, which names as defendants both state corrections employees and affiliates of the Albany County Sheriff, plaintiff alleges that the entire court file stemming from his Albany County conviction for assault, reckless endangerment, and endangering the welfare of a child was conveyed by Albany County officials to state corrections employees, who shared its contents freely with Mitchell's fellow prison inmates, encouraging them to harm the plaintiff based upon the nature of his conviction, yet deprived him of the file for use in connection with a pending appeal from his conviction, thereby interfering with his access to the courts.*fn2 Plaintiff asserts that these actions represent violations of his rights under the First and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and as relief seeks recovery of $50 million dollars in compensatory damages and an additional $25 million dollars in punitive damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

Currently pending before the court in connection with this action are four motions. Both the state agency defendants and defendant Igoe, who is separately represented, have moved for the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's claims on the merits and additionally, in the case of the state defendants, based upon plaintiff's alleged failure to fully exhaust available administrative remedies before commencing suit. Plaintiff has responded to each of those motions by submitting papers in opposition to defendants' motions and in support of cross-motions for the entry of summary judgment in his favor on the claims contained within his complaint.

Having carefully reviewed the record now before the court, I find that while there exists triable issues of fact surrounding the state defendants' procedural defense of failure to exhaust, no reasonable factfinder could conclude that plaintiff's rights were abridged by defendants, and therefore recommend the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint in its entirety on the merits.


Plaintiff is a prison inmate entrusted to the care and custody of the DOCS. See generally, Complaint (Dkt. No. 1). Plaintiff's incarceration stems from a sentence of two consecutive seven-year prison terms imposed on August 14, 2003 in Albany County Court. Id. ¶ 2. While upon being placed into DOCS custody Mitchell was initially designated to the Downstate Correctional Facility ("Downstate"), in or about late September or early October of 2003 he was transferred into the Coxsackie Correctional Facility ("Coxsackie"), where most of the relevant events occurred. Id. ¶¶ 9-12.

According to plaintiff, at the time of sentencing the trial court provided local corrections officials with his "paperwork" and directed that it be conveyed to state authorities. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) ¶ 4. Plaintiff was subsequently transported by defendant Igoe and another transport partner to Downstate, where he and certain materials were transferred into the custody of state officials. Id. ¶ 9. On his arrival at Downstate plaintiff was asked whether he would like to be placed into protective custody, but refused that offer. Id. ¶ 10.

Shortly after his arrival at Downstate, plaintiff was transferred into Coxsackie. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) ¶ 12. At the time of that transfer DOCS officials also forwarded documents to corrections officials at Coxsackie. Id.

Nowhere in his complaint does plaintiff claim to have had access to the materials conveyed by Albany County corrections personnel to those at Downstate, and ultimately to Coxsackie, although he does state that at one point when the top of a box containing the papers was blown off he was able to see that its contents comprised that "same bulky paperwork" that accompanied him at the time he left Albany. Id. Defendants, on the other hand, maintain that upon sentencing, as was customary, Albany County Court officials provided the Albany County Sheriff with an order of commitment and that it was this document, together with other customary, appropriate items as plaintiff's medical records, fingerprints or fingerprint cards, custodial transfer sheet, and any major disciplinary actions from the forwarding facility, that would have accompanied him to Downstate.*fn4 See, e.g., Igoe Aff. (Dkt. No. 45-6) ¶¶ 4-7; Lawrence Aff. (Dkt. No. 45-6, 45-7) ¶¶ 4-6.

Although plaintiff experienced no difficulties at Coxsackie during the first few months there, in January of 2004 he began to suffer harassment from prison officials and fellow inmates. See, e.g., Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) ¶¶ 14-15, 30-32. Plaintiff attributes the harassment to the fact that his court records were shared by corrections officers with other employees and inmates at Coxsackie for the purpose of making them aware of the nature of his conviction. Id. ¶¶ 18-28.

In the months following his transfer into Coxsackie, plaintiff pursued an appeal of his conviction to the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department, initially through assigned counsel, and later acting pro se. See Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) ¶¶ 14,16; see also Plaintiff's Exhibits (Dkt. No. 51-3) Exhs. B, Q and S. To further that endeavor, plaintiff made requests to certain of the defendants at Coxsackie to produce the file received when Mitchell was transferred into the facility, in order to permit its use in connection with the pending appeal. Mitchell Affidavit (Dkt. No. 53) ¶¶25-26. Despite those requests, the file was not produced to plaintiff by prison officials. Id.

Plaintiff maintains that while at Coxsackie defendants continued to harass him, and to encourage inmates to cause him harm as a result of the nature of his conviction. See, e.g., Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) ¶¶ 18-28. Plaintiff also maintains that defendants, and in particular defendant Glidden, interfered or attempted to interfere with his ability to pursue his appeal by terminating his position working in the law library. Id. ¶ 31.


On February 10, 2006 plaintiff filed his complaint in this action, accompanied by an IFP application and inmate authorization form, and was granted IFP status shortly thereafter. Dkt. Nos. 1-4. Named as defendants in plaintiff's complaint were Albany County Court Judge Thomas Breslin; Mr. Igoe, an Albany County Sheriff's Deputy; John Doe, defendant identified as "Thin Man (Albany County Sheriff Deputy)"; Gary H. Filion, the former superintendent at Coxsackie; Kim Gerber, a school principal at the facility; A. Green, an inmate records coordinator; Todd Wilhelm, a senior counselor; Neal Crystal and Mr. Ryan, two corrections counselors; the Rev. Lewis, the Protestant chaplin at Coxsackie; Corrections Officers Daniel Glidden, Mr. Hans, Mr. McIntyre, Mr. Conklin, Mr. Jaconis, Mr. Kane, and Ms. Farqar; Thomas Delsantis, a transitional services coordinator; Eliot Spitzer, the former New York State Attorney General; Anthony Annucci, Esq., Deputy Commissioner and Counsel for the DOCS; Brian Malone, the former DOCS Inspector General; Kenneth McLaughlin, former director of operations for the DOCS Inspector General; and Albany County District Attorney David Soares. Plaintiff's complaint sets forth eleven delineated causes of action which, while not specifically referencing the constitutional provisions allegedly violated, appear to assert claims sounding in failure to protect plaintiff from harm and interference with his access to the courts.

Following joinder of issue and the completion of discovery, both the state defendants and defendant Igoe moved for the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint.*fn5 Dkt. Nos. 44-45, 47. In their motion, the state defendants argue that plaintiff's claims are procedurally barred, based upon his failure to exhaust available administrative remedies, and in any event lack merit. Dkt. No. 44. Defendant Igoe's motion papers assert only the lack of merit of plaintiff's claims as a basis for his motion. Dkt. No. 45. Plaintiff has responded in opposition to defendants' motions and in support of cross-motions for summary judgment against both sets of defendants, Dkt. Nos. 51, 52, 53, and defendant Igoe has since submitted a brief reply. Dkt. No. 54.

The parties' motions, which are now ripe for determination, have been referred to me for the issuance of a report and recommendation, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Northern District of New York Local Rule 72.3(c). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b).

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment motions are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under that provision, the entry of summary judgment is warranted when "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 movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2509-10 (1986); Security Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 82-83 (2d Cir. 2004). A fact is "material", for purposes of this inquiry, if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510; see also Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 553 (2d Cir. 2005) (citing Anderson). A material fact is genuinely in dispute "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510.

A moving party seeking the entry of summary judgment bears an initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute of material fact to be decided with respect to any essential element of the claim in issue; the failure to meet this burden warrants denial of the motion. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 n.4, 106 S.Ct. at 2511 n.4; Security Ins., 391 F.3d at 83. In the event this initial burden is met, the opposing party must show, through affidavits or otherwise, that there is a material issue of fact for trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. at 2553; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S.Ct. at 2511. Though pro se plaintiffs are entitled to special latitude when defending against summary judgment motions, they must establish more than mere "metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356 (1986); but see Vital v. Interfaith Med. Ctr., 168 F.3d 615, 620-21 (2d Cir. 1999) (noting obligation of court to consider whether pro se plaintiff understood nature of summary judgment process).

When deciding a summary judgment motion, a court must resolve any ambiguities, and draw all inferences from the facts, in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Jeffreys, 426 F.3d at 553; Wright v. Coughlin, 132 F.3d 133, 137-38 (2d Cir. 1998). The entry of summary judgment is warranted only in the event of a finding that no reasonable trier of fact could rule in favor of the non-moving party. See Building Trades Employers' Educ. Ass'n v. McGowan, 311 F.3d 501, 507-08 (2d Cir. 2002) (citation omitted); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S.Ct. at 2511 (summary judgment is appropriate only when "there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict").

B. Failure To Exhaust

In defense of plaintiff's claims, the state defendants have asserted plaintiff's failure to exhaust available administrative remedies before commencing this action.*fn6 See State Defendants' Answer (Dkt. No. 33) ΒΆ 10. Those defendants now move for the entry of summary judgment ...

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