UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
December 1, 2011
LEROY PEOPLES, PLAINTIFF,
BRIAN FISCHER, LUCIEN LECLAIRE, JR., DOCS OFFICE OF COUNSEL, WILLIAM LEE, PETER A. CRUSCO, ERIC C. ROSENBAUM, RICHARD A. BROWN, LT. L. JARD, SGT. O'CONNOR, C.O. MALARE, C.O. DROWN, NORMAN BEZIO, D. ROCK, LT. WARD, AND KAREN BELLAMY, DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shira A. Scheindlin, U.S.D.J.
OPINION AND ORDER
LeRoy Peoples, a pro se inmate, brings this action pursuant to section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code ("section 1983") against, inter alia, Peter A. Crusco, Executive Assistant District Attorney, Queens County, Eric C. Rosenbaum, Assistant District Attorney, Queens County, and Richard A. Brown, District Attorney, Queens County, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. Crusco, Rosenbaum, and Brown (collectively the "Prosecutor Defendants") now move to dismiss Peoples's Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the following grounds: (1) lack of personal involvement; (2) failure to state a conspiracy claim; and (3) absolute and qualified immunity. For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted and these defendants are dismissed from the lawsuit.
LeRoy Peoples is an inmate formerly incarcerated at the Green Haven Correctional Facility ("Green Haven").*fn1 On October 5, 2009, Sergeant O'Connor ordered Corrections Officer Malare to frisk Peoples and to search his work station.*fn2
Officer Malare then led Peoples to his cell, which Malare searched, seizing certain items*fn3 including U.C.C. forms prohibited by Rule 113.30 of the Standards of Inmate Behavior.*fn4 As punishment for possession of these prohibited materials, corrections officers moved Peoples to the Special Housing Unit, where he lost a tooth in a fist fight with another inmate*fn5 and sustained mental and emotional injuries.*fn6
On October 13, 2009, Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS")
personnel held a hearing in connection with Peoples's misbehavior
report stemming from this incident.*fn7 Peoples
alleges that Corrections Officer Drown "verbally attacked" him off the
record.*fn8 At the close of this hearing, Peoples
received a punishment of three years in the Special Housing Unit, a
three-year loss of packages, phone and commissary privileges, and
seventy-two months of recommended loss of good-time credit.*fn9
In "November/December 2009," Peoples appealed the hearing
disposition to defendant Norman Bezio.*fn10 This
appeal was denied.*fn11
Peoples alleges that the Prosecutor Defendants caused the search of his cell by forwarding a package of letters they received from Peoples to William Lee, the Superintendent of Green Haven.*fn12 According to the Inmate Misbehavior Report, the letters forwarded by the Prosecutor Defendants included evidence that Peoples possessed prohibited U.C.C. materials and other financial forms that "are bogus and without legal basis."*fn13
Peoples alleges that the Prosecutor Defendants violated his constitutional rights by acting in concert with officials at Green Haven to suppress his speech by confiscating his U.C.C. materials.*fn14 The Prosecutor Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint on the following grounds: (1) Peoples has failed to state a plausible claim and (2) the defendants are shielded by absolute and qualified immunity.
III. LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Motion to Dismiss
In deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint"*fn15 and "draw all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff's favor."*fn16 However, the court need not accord "[l]egal conclusions, deductions, or opinions couched as factual allegations . . . a presumption of truthfulness."*fn17
To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the allegations in the
complaint must meet a standard of "plausibility."*fn18
A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual
content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that
the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."*fn19
Plausibility "is not akin to a probability requirement,"
rather plausibility requires "more than a sheer possibility that a
defendant has acted unlawfully."*fn20
When determining the sufficiency of a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), a court is generally required to consider only the allegations in the complaint.*fn21
However, a court is allowed to consider documents outside the pleading if the documents are integral to the pleading or if they are subject to judicial notice.*fn22 A pro se plaintiff is entitled to have his pleadings held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers."*fn23 Accordingly, a pro se plaintiff's papers should be interpreted "to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest."*fn24
B. Section 1983
Section 1983 states, in relevant part: Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . .*fn25
Section 1983 "does not create a federal right or benefit; it simply provides a mechanism for enforcing a right or benefit established elsewhere."*fn26 "The purpose of [section] 1983 is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails."*fn27
1. Direct Involvement
Imposition of liability under section 1983 requires a defendant's direct involvement in the alleged constitutional violation.*fn28 "Thus, [a] supervisory official cannot be liable solely on account of the acts or omissions of his or her subordinates."*fn29 In 1995, the Second Circuit held that the personal involvement of a supervisory defendant may be shown by evidence that: (1) the defendant participated directly in the alleged constitutional violation, (2) the defendant, after being informed of the violation through a report or appeal, failed to remedy the wrong, (3) the defendant created a policy or custom under which unconstitutional practices occurred, or allowed the continuance of such a policy or custom, (4) the defendant was grossly negligent in supervising subordinates who committed the wrongful acts, or (5) the defendant exhibited deliberate indifference to the rights of inmates by failing to act on information indicating that unconstitutional practices were occurring.*fn30 However, in 2009, the Supreme Court held that "[b]ecause vicarious liability is inapplicable to . . . [section] 1983 suits, a plaintiff must [prove] that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution."*fn31 "Accordingly, only the first and third Colon factors have survived the Supreme Court's decision in Iqbal."*fn32
2. Conspiracy Under Section 1983
In order to survive a motion to dismiss a section 1983 conspiracy claim, a plaintiff must allege: "(1) an agreement between [two or more state actors or] a state actor and a private party; (2) to act in concert to inflict an unconstitutional injury; and (3) an overt act done in furtherance of that goal causing damages."*fn33 "Thus, a plaintiff must show that defendants acted in a willful manner, culminating in an agreement, understanding, or meeting of the minds, that violated [his] rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or federal courts."*fn34 "In addition, 'complaints containing only conclusory, vague, or general allegations that the defendants have engaged in a conspiracy to deprive the plaintiff of his constitutional rights are properly dismissed.'"*fn35 While conclusory allegations may be insufficient, "'conspiracies are by their very nature secretive operations,' and may have to be proven by circumstantial, rather than direct, evidence."*fn36
Finally, "[a] violated constitutional right is a natural prerequisite to a claim of conspiracy to violate such right."*fn37 "Without deprivation of a federal constitutional right, 'there can be no civil rights conspiracy to deprive that right.'"*fn38 Thus, to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must allege a constitutional deprivation.
C. Absolute and Qualified Immunity
Government officials performing discretionary functions are generally
granted qualified immunity from suit provided that "'their conduct
does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional
rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'"*fn39
The Second Circuit has held that "[a] right is clearly
established if (1) the law is defined with reasonable clarity, (2) the
Supreme Court or Second Circuit has recognized the right, and (3) a
reasonable defendant [would] have understood from the existing law
that [his] conduct was unlawful."*fn40
In addition, prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity for "prosecutorial actions that are 'intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.'"*fn41 "[A]bsolute immunity may not apply when a prosecutor is not acting as 'an officer of the court,' but is instead engaged in other tasks, say, investigative or administrative tasks."*fn42
The doctrines of absolute and qualified immunity do not apply when a
plaintiff seeks prospective injunctive relief only.*fn43
Prosecutorial immunity does not bar a claim for prospective
injunctive relief,*fn44 so long as a court finds that
"'the complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks
relief properly characterized as prospective.'"*fn45
A. Personal Involvement of the Prosecutor Defendants
The Prosecutor Defendants argue that because they had no personal involvement in the constitutional violations allegedly suffered by Peoples, they cannot be held liable for his alleged injuries.*fn46 Peoples argues that the Prosecutor Defendants were personally involved to the extent that (1) it is their job to "uphold the Constitutions of N.Y.S. and the U.S.," and (2) that the injuries Peoples suffered flowed from his attempted communications with the Prosecutor Defendants.*fn47
However, the injuries alleged by Peoples all stemmed from actions taken by officials at Green Haven that did not involve the Prosecutor Defendants.*fn48
The seizure of Peoples's legal materials was ordered and performed by corrections officers.*fn49 Likewise, corrections officers moved Peoples to the Special Housing Unit because of People's possession of materials prohibited by the Standards of Inmate Behavior promulgated by the Commissioner of DOCS.*fn50 Peoples has not shown that the Prosecutor Defendants had any direct involvement in these incidents.
To the extent that Peoples is arguing that the Prosecutor Defendants created an unconstitutional policy or that they were deliberately indifferent to a constitutional violation, Peoples has not alleged sufficient facts to support this claim. The Prosecutor Defendants work for an agency entirely separate from DOCS and have no authority over DOCS policy or DOCS officials. For these reasons, Peoples has failed to show that the Prosecutor Defendants were directly involved in any of the alleged constitutional violations. Accordingly, the Prosecutor Defendants are dismissed from this lawsuit based on their lack of personal involvement.
Peoples alleges that the Prosecutor Defendants conspired with DOCS officials to suppress his speech and restrict his access to legal materials.*fn51 He alleges that when the Prosecutor Defendants mailed the correspondence they had received from Peoples to Green Haven officials, they included a cover letter that indicated that DOCS officials should unlawfully suppress Peoples's speech.*fn52
While Peoples claims that a conspiracy existed, he has not alleged any facts to support this claim. Peoples's conclusory allegations of conspiracy do not raise a reasonable inference of a meeting of the minds to achieve an unlawful result. Even if a cover letter existed explaining why the Prosecutor Defendants were forwarding the materials, Peoples has failed to set forth any facts showing that this cover letter would contain evidence of a plan to inflict an unconstitutional injury. Thus, Peoples has failed to raise a plausible claim of conspiracy.
C. Qualified Immunity
Peoples argues that the Prosecutor Defendants are not entitled to immunity because their actions "were 'not within the scope of their duty' as prosecutor, as they attempted to get a [sic] 'gage order' so to speak on plaintiff . . . ."*fn53 Peoples argues that neither absolute nor qualified immunity applies because he is seeking injunctive relief against the Prosecutor Defendants.*fn54
The Prosecutor Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity here. Peoples has failed to show that the Prosecutor Defendants violated any clearly established constitutional or statutory rights when they mailed Peoples's communication, which revealed his possession of prohibited materials, to DOCS officials. Regardless of whether the actions taken by the Prosecutor Defendants are administrative, prosecutorial, or investigative, and therefore whether absolute immunity applies, the Prosecutor Defendants are shielded by qualified immunity. Although Peoples argues that he is entitled to injunctive relief and therefore no form of immunity should apply, nothing in the Complaint reveals an ongoing violation of federal law committed by the Prosecutor Defendants are shielded by qualified immunity. Although Peoples argues that he is entitled to injunctive relief and therefore no form of immunity should apply, nothing in the Complaint reveals an ongoing violation of federal law committed by the Prosecutor Defendants. Peoples does not seek any relief that can be considered prospective. Thus, the Prosecutor Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, which shields them from the instant action.
For the foregoing reasons, the Prosecutor Defendants' motion is granted as to all claims and they are hereby dismissed from this lawsuit. The Clerk of the Court is directed to close this motion (Docket No. 21).