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Mark E. Cannon v. C.O. E. Wood

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


January 23, 2012

MARK E. CANNON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
C.O. E. WOOD, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; SAINT MARY, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; RELF, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; WINSTON, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; D. PRICE, CORRECTIONAL OFFICER, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; M. EDDY, SERGEANT, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; NURSE HOLMES, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; AND BULIS, HEARING OFFICER, UPSTATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, DEFENDANTS.

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

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court, in this pro se prisoner civil rights action filed by Mark E. Cannon ("Plaintiff") against the eight above-captioned employees of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Services ("Defendants"), are (1) Defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and (2) United States Magistrate Judge Randolph F. Treece's Report-Recommendation recommending that Defendants' motion be granted in part and denied in part. (Dkt. Nos. 22, 31.) No objections have been filed and the deadline by which to do so has expired. For the reasons set forth below, the Report-Recommendation is accepted and adopted in its entirety; and Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiff's Complaint

Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this action on November 4, 2010. (Dkt. No. 1.) Generally, construed with the utmost of liberality, Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that, between approximately February 2010 and May 2010, at Upstate Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, the following Defendants committed the following constitutional violations against him: (1) Defendants Saint Mary and Winston denied him access to the barbershop for several months in retaliation for filing a grievance in violation of the First Amendment; (2) Defendants Relf and Wood used excessive force against him during a cell transport in violation of the Eighth Amendment, while Defendant Eddy witnessed that force and failed to protect him in violation of the Eighth Amendment; (3) Defendant Holmes did not physically examine Plaintiff after the alleged assault in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and (4) Plaintiff was confined to a "Drug Watch" unit for seven days, was issued a false misbehavior report in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and was allegedly denied due process rights by Defendant Bulis during the disciplinary hearing in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. (See generally Dkt. No. 1 [Plf.'s Compl.].) Familiarity with the factual allegations supporting these claims in Plaintiff's Complaint is assumed in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for review by the parties. (Id.)

B. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

On March 8, 2011, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for failure to state a claim seeking dismissal of all of Plaintiff's claims. (Dkt. No. 22.) Generally, in support of their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue as follows: (1) Plaintiff's claims for monetary damages are barred by the Eleventh Amendment; (2) Plaintiff fails to state a constitutional claim against Defendants Winston and Saint Mary; (3) Plaintiff fails to allege facts plausibly suggesting the personal involvement of Defendant Price in any of the alleged constitutional violations; (4) Plaintiff's allegations of wrongdoing are conclusory and insufficient to state a constitutional claim; and (5) Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. (See generally Dkt. No. 22, Parts I-V [Defs.' Memo. of Law].) On April 18, 2011, Plaintiff filed a response to Defendants' motion. (Dkt. No. 23.) On April 19, 2011, Defendants filed a reply to Plaintiff's response. (Dkt. No. 24.)

C. Magistrate Judge Treece's Report-Recommendation

On August 12, 2011, Magistrate Judge Treece issued a Report-Recommendation recommending that Defendants' motion be granted in part and denied in part. (Dkt. No.31.) Familiarity with the grounds of Magistrate Judge Treece's Report-Recommendation is assumed in this Decision and Order, which (again) is intended primarily for review by the parties. Plaintiff did not submit an objection to the Report-Recommendation.

II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Standard of Review

When a specific objection is made to a portion of a magistrate judge's report-recommendation, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation to a de novo review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). To be "specific," the objection must, with particularity, "identify [1] the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations, or report to which it has an objection and [2] the basis for the objection." N.D.N.Y. L.R. 72.1(c).*fn1 When performing such a de novo review, "[t]he judge may . . . receive further evidence. . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). However, a district court will ordinarily refuse to consider evidentiary material that could have been, but was not, presented to the magistrate judge in the first instance.*fn2

When only a general objection is made to a portion of a magistrate judge's report-recommendation, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation to only a clear error review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2),(3); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b), Advisory Committee Notes: 1983 Addition.*fn3 Similarly, when an objection merely reiterates the same arguments made by the objecting party in its original papers submitted to the magistrate judge, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation challenged by those arguments to only a clear error review.*fn4 Finally, when no objection is made to a portion of a report-recommendation, the Court subjects that portion of the report-recommendation to only a clear error review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b), Advisory Committee Notes: 1983 Addition. When performing such a "clear error" review, "the court need only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation." Id.*fn5

After conducting 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 a Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

It has long been understood that a dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), can be based on one or both of two grounds: (1) a challenge to the "sufficiency of the pleading" under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); or (2) a challenge to the legal cognizability of the claim. Jackson v. Onondaga Cnty., 549 F. Supp.2d 204, 211, nn. 15-16 (N.D.N.Y. 2008) (McAvoy, J., adopting Report-Recommendation on de novo review).

Because such dismissals are often based on the first ground, a few words regarding that ground are appropriate. Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that a pleading contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) [emphasis added]. In the Court's view, this tension between permitting a "short and plain statement" and requiring that the statement "show[]" an entitlement to relief is often at the heart of misunderstandings that occur regarding the pleading standard established by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).

On the one hand, the Supreme Court has long characterized the "short and plain" pleading standard under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) as "simplified" and "liberal." Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.20 (citing Supreme Court case). On the other hand, the Supreme Court has held that, by requiring the above-described "showing," the pleading standard under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires that the pleading contain a statement that "give[s] the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.17 (citing Supreme Court cases) (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court has explained that such fair notice has the important purpose of "enabl[ing] the adverse party to answer and prepare for trial" and "facilitat[ing] a proper decision on the merits" by the court. Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.18 (citing Supreme Court cases); Rusyniak v. Gensini, 629 F. Supp.2d 203, 213 & n.32 (N.D.N.Y. 2009) (Suddaby, J.) (citing Second Circuit cases). For this reason, as one commentator has correctly observed, the "liberal" notice pleading standard "has its limits." 2 Moore's Federal Practice § 12.34[1][b] at 12-61 (3d ed. 2003). For example, numerous Supreme Court and Second Circuit decisions exist holding that a pleading has failed to meet the "liberal" notice pleading standard. Rusyniak, 629 F. Supp.2d at 213, n.22 (citing Supreme Court and Second Circuit cases); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937');">129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949-52 (2009).

Most notably, in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the Supreme Court reversed an appellate decision holding that a complaint had stated an actionable antitrust claim under 15 U.S.C. § 1. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955 (2007). In doing so, the Court "retire[d]" the famous statement by the Court in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Twombly, 127 S. Ct. at 1968-69. Rather than turn on the conceivability of an actionable claim, the Court clarified, the "fair notice" standard turns on the plausibility of an actionable claim. Id. at 1965-74. The Court explained that, while this does not mean that a pleading need "set out in detail the facts upon which [the claim is based]," it does mean that the pleading must contain at least "some factual allegation[s]." Id. at 1965. More specifically, the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level [to a plausible level]," assuming (of course) that all the allegations in the complaint are true. Id.

As for the nature of what is "plausible," the Supreme Court explained that "[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "[D]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. . . . [W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged--but it has not show[n]--that the pleader is entitled to relief." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]. However, while the plausibility standard "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully," id., it "does not impose a probability requirement." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

Because of this requirement of factual allegations plausibly suggesting an entitlement to relief, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in the complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by merely conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. Similarly, a pleading that only "tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement" will not suffice. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (internal citations and alterations omitted). Rule 8 "demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id. (citations omitted).

This pleading standard applies even to pro se litigants. While the special leniency afforded to pro se civil rights litigants somewhat loosens the procedural rules governing the form of pleadings (as the Second Circuit has observed), it does not completely relieve a pro se plaintiff of the duty to satisfy the pleading standards set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 8, 10 and 12.*fn6

Rather, as both the Supreme Court and Second Circuit have repeatedly recognized, the requirements set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 8, 10 and 12 are procedural rules that even pro se civil rights plaintiffs must follow.*fn7 Stated more simply, when a plaintiff is proceeding pro se, "all normal rules of pleading are not absolutely suspended." Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 214, n.28 [citations omitted].*fn8

III. ANALYSIS

Because Plaintiff did not submit an objection the Report-Recommendation, the Court reviews the Report-Recommendation only for clear error, as described above in Section II.A of this Decision and Order. After carefully reviewing all of the papers in this action, the Court concludes that Magistrate Judge Treece's thorough Report-Recommendation is correct in all respects. (Dkt. No. 31, at II [Report-Recommendation].) Magistrate Judge Treece employed the proper standards, accurately construed Plaintiff's claim, and reasonably applied the law to those claims. (Id.) As a result, the Court adopts the Report-Recommendation in its entirety for the reasons stated therein.*fn9 The Court would add only three points.

First, Magistrate Judge Treece's thorough and correct Report-Recommendation would survive even a de novo review.

Second, the Court agrees with Magistrate Judge Treece that Defendants should not be precluded from including the defense of qualified immunity in their Answer and raising it again at a more appropriate time when there is a complete record by which the reasonableness of Defendants' acts can be assessed.

Third, because the pleading defects on Plaintiff's Complaint are substantive rather than merely formal, the Court sees no need to sua sponte grant Plaintiff leave to amend those claims before it dismisses them.*fn10

ACCORDINGLY, it is

ORDERED that Magistrate Judge Treece's Report-Recommendation (Dkt. No. 31) is ACCEPTED and ADOPTED in its entirety; and it is further

ORDERED that Defendants' motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 22) is GRANTED with respect to the following claims, which are DISMISSED:

(a) All causes of action asserted against Defendants in their official capacities;

(b) Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment conditions-of-confinement claims against Defendants Winston and Saint Mary;

(c) Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claims against Defendants Wood, Relf, and Eddy;

(d) Plaintiff's claims regarding the "illegal" search, imposition of diet loaf, and drug watch confinement;

(e) all of Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Price, Bulis, and Holmes. The clerk is directed to terminate this case as to Defendants Price, Bulis and Holmes; and it is further

ORDERED that Defendants' motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 22) is DENIED with respect to the following claims, which SURVIVE Defendants' motion:

(a) Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim against Defendants Winston and Saint Mary; and

(b) Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims of excessive force and failure to protect against Defendants Wood, Relf, and Eddy; and it is further

ORDERED that Pro Bono Counsel be appointed for the Plaintiff for purposes of trial only; any appeal shall remain the responsibility of the plaintiff alone unless a motion for appointment of counsel for an appeal is granted; and it is further

ORDERED that upon assignment of Pro Bono Counsel, a final pretrial conference with counsel will be scheduled in this action, at which time the Court will schedule a jury trial for Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claims against Defendants Winston and Saint Mary and Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims of excessive force and failure to protect against Defendants Wood, Relf and Eddy. Counsel are directed to appear at the final pretrial conference with settlement authority from the parties.


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