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Hamilton v. Smith

September 30, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge


Currently pending before the Court, in this pro se prisoner civil rights action filed by Derrick Hamilton ("Plaintiff") against nine employees of the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("Defendants") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, are the following: (1) Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 51); (2) United States Magistrate Judge David R. Homer's Report-Recommendation recommending that Defendants' motion be granted in part and denied in part (Dkt. No. 60); (3) Plaintiff's Objections to the Report-Recommendation (Dkt. No. 67); and (4) Defendants' Objections to the Report-Recommendation (Dkt. No. 66). For the reasons set forth below, the Report-Recommendation is accepted and adopted as modified, and Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.


On June 28, 2006, Plaintiff filed his Complaint asserting claims against the following seven (7) employees of Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS"): (1) J.T. Smith, the Superintendent of Shawangunk Correctional Facility (hereinafter, "Shawangunk C.F."); (2) J. Maly, a Deputy Superintendent of Security of Shawangunk C.F.; (3) William M. Gonzalez, Deputy Counsel of DOCS; (4) M. Genovese, a medical doctor at Shawangunk C.F.; (5), M. Skies, a registered nurse at Shawangunk C.F.; (6) Donald Selsky, Director of Special Housing of DOCS; and (7) D. Parisi, a mailroom clerk at Shawangunk C.F. (Dkt. No. 1.)

On December 8, 2006, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint, naming two additional Defendants to the action: (1) F. Chiapperino, a corrections counselor at Shawangunk C.F.; and Elaine Davis, a steward at Attica Correctional Facility ("Attica C.F."). (Dkt. No. 17.)

Generally, in his Amended Complaint,Plaintiff alleges that Defendants (1) violated his religious rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), (2) violated his right to medical confidentiality under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ("HIPAA"), and (3) violated his civil rights under the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, including his right to be free from mail tampering, deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, and inadequate prison conditions. (Dkt. No. 17.)

On July 31, 2008, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all claims against them, arguing that (1) Plaintiff failed to establish claims under RLUIPA, HIPAA, and the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, (2) Plaintiff failed to allege personal involvement against several Defendants, and (3) Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. (Dkt. No. 51.)

On October 20, 2008, Plaintiff submitted his response to Defendants' motion, repeating the allegations made in his Amended Complaint. (Dkt. No. 58.)

On January 13, 2009, Magistrate Judge Homer issued a Report-Recommendation that recommended that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be denied as to the following claims: (1) Plaintiff's First Amendment Claim against Defendant Smith regarding the provision of meals which complied with both his health needs and his religious tenets; (2) Plaintiff's First Amendment Claim against Defendants Smith and Maly regarding mail tampering; and (3) Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment Claim against Defendants Maly and Selsky regarding the due process violation that occurred during Plaintiff's disciplinary rehearing where Plaintiff was precluded from calling certain witnesses. Magistrate Judge Homer further recommended that all remaining claims be dismissed and that all claims as to Defendants Gonzalez, Genovese, Skies, Parisi, Chiapperino and Davis be dismissed for lack of personal involvement. (Dkt. No. 60.)*fn1

Familiarity with the grounds of Magistrate Judge Homer's Report-Recommendation is assumed in this Decision and Order.


A. Standard of Review

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

Magistrate Judge Homer correctly recites the legal standard governing a motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 60, at 16-17.) As a result, this standard is incorporated by reference in this Decision and Order.


A. Plaintiff's Claim Regarding His Meals

In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Smith, who is the Superintendent at Shawangunk C.F., failed to provide Plaintiff with meal options that accommodate both his therapeutic dietary needs as well as his religious tenets. (Dkt. No. 17, at 11.) In his Report-Recommendation, Magistrate Judge Homer recommends that this claim proceed to trial because he found that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there was a legitimate penological interest for Shawangunk C.F.'s failure to provide Plaintiff with meals that accommodate both his religious and dietary needs. (Dkt. No. 60.)

In their objections, Defendants make the following four arguments: (1) "[w]hile Plaintiff claims that he requires low-sodium and low-cholesterol food, he presents absolutely no evidence aside from his speculation that the nutritional makeup of the Kosher meal (also known as a "Cold Alternative Diet" or "CAD") exceeds the sodium or cholesterol content plaintiff is recommended"; (2) "in coming to its conclusion, the Report ignored the fact that the CAD is provided to inmates who request it, due to religious reasons, through ministerial services staff and that Defendant Smith lacks control over the diet"; (3) "[w]hile the Report cites to the fact that the meals are provided to Shawangunk by outside providers, it [errs] by first agreeing that the Department of Correctional Services ('DOCS') lacks the ability to provide inmates with meals that are kosher and low in sodium and then incredibly finds Defendant Smith liable for this lack and for not creating an acceptable alternative"; and (4) "since there was no diet meeting Plaintiff's request available and Defendant Smith did not have any personal involvement in preparing or providing special diets, the claims must be dismissed as to Defendant Smith for lack of personal involvement." (Dkt. No. 66.)

As an initial matter, the Court finds the first argument unpersuasive. In his declaration in opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff swears that Defendant Genovese informed him that the CAD was high in sodium, and that he therefore had to change his diet. (Dkt. No. 58, Part 1, at ¶¶ 10-11.)

In addition, the Court finds the fourth argument unpersuasive. According to his declaration, Defendant Smith is the Superintendent at Shawangunk C.F. (Dkt. No. 58, Part 3, at 10.) In this capacity, he is responsible for "all aspects of facility operations." (Id.) Based on this general characterization, the Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendant Smith was responsible for implementing the facility's meal menus. Accordingly, the claims against Defendant Smith should not be dismissed for lack of personal involvement.

The Court analyzes Defendants' remaining two arguments as follows.

1. Defendant's Argument Regarding Plaintiff's Claim Arising Under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause

"The right of prison inmates to exercise their religious beliefs... is not absolute or unbridled, and is subject to valid penological concerns, including those relating to institutional security." Johnson v. Guiffere, 04-CV-0057, 2007 WL 3046703, at *4 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 17, 2007) (Peebles, MJ) (citing O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348 [1987]) (other citation omitted). "A determination of whether the refusal to permit attendance at a religious service, for example, hinges upon the balancing of an inmate's First Amendment free exercise right, against institutional needs of officials tasked with the increasingly daunting task of operating prison facilities; that determination is one of reasonableness, taking into account whether the ...

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