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Ahlers v. Grygo

October 27, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John Gleeson, United States District Judge


On May 30, 2002, plaintiff Karl Ahlers brought a pro se action alleging violations of his constitutional rights during his incarceration at the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility ("AKCF") on Staten Island. The suit, as originally filed, was against several defendants, including named and unnamed AKCF officers. On July 22, 2003, on the defendant's motion to dismiss, I ordered all claims dismissed except the retaliation claim against defendant Todd A. Grygo and the claim that "certain defendants" violated Ahlers's Eighth Amendment rights by denying him his eye medication for over 24 hours. In addition, Ahlers was afforded thirty days to file an amended complaint, which he did on August 5, 2003. On January 23, 2009,*fn1

defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. On March 13, 2009, I granted the motion as to all unidentified defendants and as to all claims except Ahlers's retaliation claim against Grygo.

After appointing counsel to represent Ahlers at trial,*fn2 a bench trial was held on that claim on July 23, 2009. Thereafter, the parties submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and returned to court for summations. I now make the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. Findings of Fact

A. The Parties and Ahlers's Dormitory at AKCF Ahlers, a 76-year-old Veteran, was Incarcerated by the New York State

Department of Corrections from 1982 until 2005. From October 1999 until August 2004, he was an inmate at AKCF, a medium security prison.

Grygo is a New York State Department of Corrections Officer. He worked at AKCF beginning in 1995, and was there until November 2004. In 2001 and 2002, Grygo was assigned to Rotating Days Off Relief ("RDO Relief"), which meant that he covered for other officers who were assigned to Units G-1, D-1 (the "Veteran's Dorm"), and B-Control when they had days off.

While at AKCF, Ahlers lived in the Veteran's Dorm. The dormitories at AKCF consist of roughly 50 cubicles. Each cubicle is formed by four-foot high walls and contains a bed and locker. One inmate is assigned to each cubicle, with the exception of ten cubicles, which have bunk beds and house two inmates each. The Veteran's Dorm at AKCF housed veterans, had an American Legion Post, and was kept clean and in good repair. The Veteran's Dorm was considered by the inmates to be preferable to other units in the facility. Ahlers occupied one of the single cubicles in the dorm, not one of the ten doubles.

Ahlers worked as a law clerk in the AKCF law library. Law clerks assist inmates with legal problems and court submissions. Such assistance can include discussing how to proceed in a specific case, directing an inmate to reference materials, letter writing, and typing up legal papers and submissions. Ahlers was known within the facility as someone who would assist other inmates in the law library. In fact, Ahlers avoided much of the harassment and physical violence that sex offenders typically receive from other inmates because of his reputation as a helpful legal assistant to other inmates.

B. The Daniel Smith Lawsuit

Daniel Smith was an inmate at AKCF in 2001 and was housed in the Veteran's Dorm. On November 8, 2001, he filed a complaint in federal court against Grygo, alleging assault and conspiracy to file a false misbehavior report. This was the first time Grygo had ever been sued. He was served with the complaint on January 2, 2002. The incident that gave rise to the Smith lawsuit (which involved a fan falling off the wall beside Grygo's desk and landing on Smith's head) occurred in the Veteran's Dorm, and Ahlers was present. After the incident, Smith approached Ahlers and asked for assistance. Ahlers helped Smith prepare and file a grievance against Grygo in the institution. He later helped Smith prepare his federal complaint.

Some time before March 17, 2002, but after the Smith complaint had been filed and served on Grygo, Grygo said to Ahlers, "Payback's a bitch," and "What goes around [comes] around." Tr. 38-40.*fn3 These statements were threats of retaliation for the assistance Ahlers had provided to Smith.

C. The Towel Incident

On March 17, 2002, less than three months after Grygo was served with Smith's federal complaint, Grygo was assigned to work in the Veteran's Dorm. When he came on duty, he began to remove towels that inmates had left hanging over their cubicle dividers. After removing them, Grygo was throwing the towels into the inmates' cubicles. Though there was a rule prohibiting the hanging of towels on cubicle walls, it was a common practice and the corrections officers, including Grygo, did not enforce the rule rigidly or consistently.

Ahlers saw Grygo removing other inmates' towels from their cubicle walls. As Grygo approached Ahlers's cubicle, Ahlers began to fold one of the two towels he had placed on his cubicle wall to dry. The other towel was still on the wall when Grygo reached Ahlers's cubicle. Grygo said something to Ahlers, but Ahlers, who has impaired hearing and wears a hearing aid, did not hear him. Grygo then took the other towel off the divider and tossed it into Ahlers's cubicle. Ahlers then said to Grygo, in substance, "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't handle my towel that I use on my body with your dirty hands." Tr. 37. He made the statement politely so as to avoid problems ...

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