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Bertha A. Johnson v. New York State Department of Correctional Services and Community

April 6, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court


1. On February 27, 2012, pro se Plaintiff Bertha A. Johnson filed a second amended complaint. After Defendants' failed to respond to her complaint within the time period specified by this Court, Plaintiff filed a motion for default judgment. Presently before this Court is that motion, as well as a letter received from Johnson dated March 5, 2012. Also before this Court is the New York State Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision's ("DOCCS") motion for an order extending the time to file an answer or other responsive motion. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied, and Defendant's motion is granted. Further, this Court will, sua sponte, dismiss various of the named defendants in Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint.

2. On March 5, 2012 Plaintiff submitted a letter to this Court, in which she asks to submit copies of her filed complaints and probable cause decisions, as well as other documents. (Docket No. 37.) After a number of previous complaints, and copious filings, this Court endeavored to have Plaintiff file one last complaint that would incorporate all her previous submissions, and clarify the nature of her claims. (See Text Order, Dec. 19, 2011, Docket No. 30; Text Order, Jan. 26, 2012, Docket No. 31; Text Order, Feb. 6, 2012, Docket No. 34.) After reviewing her letter and her latest complaint, this Court does not believe there is a need for additional documentation. Should it become necessary, either in the course of discovery or in response to opposing counsel's motion, Plaintiff may, at that time, attach the documents she identifies to her response. Plaintiff's request is denied.

3. Also before this Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Default Judgment. (Docket No. 40.) Plaintiff argues that Defendants in this action have failed to respond to her Second Amended Complaint. In Defendant's motion requesting an extension of time to file an answer or other responsive motion, DOCCS represents that it inadvertently failed to respond. In support, DOCCS points to this case's long procedural history, as well as the fact that this case has been at the pleading stage since its commencement, over one year ago. Finally, Defendant's counsel represents that he was on vacation when the complaint was received.

4. This Court is aware of this case's complicated history. Plaintiff has filed a number of complaints, each of which has added defendants or otherwise modified her claims. Indeed, this Court granted Plaintiff's motion to amend on December 19, 2011 specifically because the Defendant could not be certain what her claims were. Accordingly, Defendant's Motion will be granted, and DOCCS will be given the opportunity to respond to Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint. Plaintiff's Motion for Default Judgment will be denied as moot.*fn1

5. Having resolved the pending motions, this Court must still address the fact that, aside from DOCCS, it does not appear that any of the other defendants named in Plaintiff's latest complaint have been served. (Decl. of David J. Sleight, ¶ 12 n. 1, Docket No. 39.) A review of the docket and of Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint reveals that the reason for this is further confusion as to who is a named defendant in this action. Plaintiff having been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis, this Court must resolve that matter, in order to direct the Clerk of the Court, via the U.S. Marshals Service, to serve those defendants with a summons and complaint.

6. Plaintiff's original complaint named as sole Defendant the "NYS Dept. Of Correctional Svs- 'Albion Correctional Facility.'" (Docket No. 1.) A proposed supplemental complaint filed on November 28, 2011, named the "New York State Department of Corrections & Community Services." (Docket No. 24.) An Amended Complaint from January 18, 2012 identified the same Defendant, but added Sergeant Elsenheimer, Lieutenant Wojinski, Cpatain Dale Scalise, Deputy Amoia, and "Diversity Management." (Docket No. 32.) The latest complaint, filed February 27, 2012, named in its caption the New York State Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision, Albion Correctional Facility and the New York State Department of Civil Services as defendant, but then in paragraphs 8 through 20, includes various additional employees as defendants. (Second Am. Comp. ("Comp."), ¶¶ 7-20, Docket No. 36.) It is unclear whether Plaintiff is bringing suit against the 14 named employees, and whether this is in their official or individual capacities.

7. In evaluating Plaintiff's complaint, this Court must accept as true all of the factual allegations and must draw all inferences in her favor. See Larkin v. Savage, 318 F.3d 138, 139 (2d Cir. 2003) (per curium); King v. Simpson, 189 F.3d 284, 287 (2d Cir. 1999). "Specific facts are not necessary," and the plaintiff "need only 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93, 127 S. Ct. 2197, 2200, 167 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1964, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Boykin v. Keycorp, 521 F.3d 202, 213 (2d Cir. 2008) (discussing pleading standard in pro se cases after Twombly). "A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed . . . and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

8. Plaintiff, having been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis, is subject to the requirements of 28 U.S.C. 1915. See Brojer v. Kuriakose, No. 11-CV-3156, 2011 WL 3043778, *2 (E.D.N.Y. July 20, 2011) (citing Burns v. Goodwill Indus. of Greater N.Y., No. 01-CV-11311, 2002 WL 1431704, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. July 2, 2002)) (noting that § 1915(e), as amended by Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, applies to both prisoner and non-prisoner in forma pauperis actions). Pursuant to §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A(a), this Court must conduct an initial screening of the complaint. While "a court is obliged to construe [pro se] pleadings liberally, particularly when they allege civil rights violations," McEachin v. McGuinnis, 357 F.3d 197, 200 (2d Cir. 2004), even pleadings submitted pro se must meet the notice requirements of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Wynder v. McMahon, 360 F.3d 73 (2d Cir. 2004). As noted, specific facts are not necessary, but a complaint is nevertheless subject to dismissal "unless its factual allegations, if credited, make the claim 'plausible.'" See Oliveras v. Wilkins, No. 06 CV 3578(DAB), 2010 WL 423107, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 5, 2010) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009)). Further, § 1915(e)(2)(B) provides that the court shall dismiss a case in which in forma pauperis status has been granted if, at any time, the Court determines that the action (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. § 1915 "provide[s] an efficient means by which a court can screen for and dismiss legally insufficient claims." Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Shakur v. Selsky, 391 F.3d 106, 112 (2d Cir. 2004)).

9. Even construing Plaintiff's complaint liberally in light of her pro se status, see Tapia-Ortiz v. Doe, 171 F.3d 150, 152 (2d Cir. 1999) (per curium), this Court concludes that it does not state a claim upon which it can be granted, as to the vast majority of the newly added Defendants (the "individual named defendants"). Plaintiff's latest complaint adds 14 individuals as individual named defendants, to the original defendant, DOCCS.*fn2

Her complaint contains nine causes of action.*fn3

10. Out of these nine causes of action, four explicitly arise under Title VII.*fn4

Another alleges only a claim for "retaliatory hostile work environment (harassment)."*fn5 The Complaint is not clear about what statute this cause of action arises under, however, because Plaintiff's supporting facts allege discriminatory action, this Court interprets it as also arising under Title VII. See McWhite v. N.Y.C. Housing Auth., No. 05 CV 0991(NG)(LB), 2008 WL 1699446, at *16 n. 7 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 10, 2008) (interpreting complaint to raise Title VII hostile work environment claim where plaintiff stated in her complaint that she was harassed and in her EEOC charge alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment); Memiservich v. St. Elizabeth's Med. Ctr., 443 F. Supp. 2d 276, 287 (N.D.N.Y. 2006) (accepting parties' interpretation of plaintiff's hostile work environment claim as falling under Title VII). Further bolstering this interpretation is the fact that "New York does not recognize an independent cause of action for 'harassment.'" Emmons v. City Univ. of N.Y., 715 F. Supp. 2d 394, 424 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing Jacobs v. 200 E. 36th Owners Corp., 281 A.D.2d 281, 281, 722 N.Y.S.2d 137, 137 (1st Dep't 2001)).

Each of these claims, as to the fourteen individual named defendants, faces dismissal. Title VII makes it unlawful to "fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or to otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). However, it is well-settled that Title VII does not impose liability on individual defendants. See Wrighten v. Glowski, 232 F.3d 119, 120 (2d Cir. 2000). Accordingly, this Court will dismiss Plaintiff's Title VII causes of action, sua sponte, as to the individual defendants. See, e.g., Hooda v. Brookhaven Nat'l Lab.,659 F. Supp. 2d 383, 390 (E.D.N.Y. 2009) (dismissing, sua sponte, Title VII claims against individual defendants); Richardson v. Sec. Unit Emps. Council ...

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