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Injah Tafari v. David A. Rock

April 18, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge


I. Background

Injah Tafari ("Tafari"), an inmate at Upstate Correctional Facility, filed a pleading in the Northern District of New York captioned "Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus", seeking to "reverse and expunge determinations from four (4) Tier II disciplinary hearings, and one (1) Tier III Superintendent's hearing held at Five Points Correctional Facility on (a) 2/22/07; (b) 4/11/07; (c) 4/19/07; (d) 6/28/07; and (e) 8/29/07, that the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed on September 3rd, 2009*fn1 from an Order of the Appellate Division, Third Department." The petition was transferred to this Court on September 9, 2010. On January 5, 2012, the Court (Skretny, D.J.) issued an order denying Tafari's application to proceed in forma pauperis and directing him to show cause why the petition should not be re-characterized as a civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Dkt. #8. Tafari filed a response, stating in conclusory terms that his pleading in fact was properly characterized as a habeas petition, and again seeking leave to proceed as a poor person. See Dkt. #9.

II. Recharacterization of the Petition

When a litigant makes a constitutional challenge to a determination which affects the overall length of his confinement, the "sole federal remedy is a writ of habeas corpus." Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973). Where a prisoner seeks to challenge the constitutionality of a disciplinary proceeding resulting only in the imposition of sanctions that do not affect the overall length of his confinement, such a challenge is properly brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 499 (§ 1983 action "is a proper remedy for a state prisoner who is making a constitutional challenge to the conditions of his prison life, but not to the fact or length of his custody"); see also, e.g., Jenkins v. Haubert, 179 F.3d 19, 24 (2d Cir. 1999).

With one exception, all of the sanctions that Tafari seeks to have expunged would be proper subjects of a complaint filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. With regard to the last of the challenged disciplinary determinations, Tafari alleges that among the sanctions he received was a four-month recommended loss of good time credits, which can be a proper subject of a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 646 (1997). However, as the Court (Skretny, D.J.) previously found, the loss of four months of good time will not affect the length of Tafari's confinement because he is serving a sentence with a maximum life-term. Prisoners serving such sentences are not eligible to receive good-time credits. See N.Y. Corr. Law § 803(1)(a) ("Every [inmate] . . . except a person serving a sentence with a maximum term of life imprisonment, may receive time allowance against the term or maximum term of his . . . sentence imposed by the court."). Therefore, inasmuch as Tafair is serving a maximum life-term, the deprivation of any good time credits he sustained as the result of the July 2007 disciplinary hearing does not affect the length of his confinement because he is not eligible for a good-time reduction of his sentence. See, e.g., Bressette v. Travis, 240 A.D.2d 828, 828 (3d Dept. 1997). The Court accordingly dismissed as frivolous Tafari's challenge to the component of his disciplinary sentence involving a loss of good time credits. Dkt. #8 at 5. Thus, the only remaining sanctions challenged by Tafari pertain solely to the conditions of his confinement (i.e., loss of headphones privileges, keeplock, SHU).

Tafari, in his response to the Court's order to show cause why his petition should not be recharacterized as a § 1983 complaint, states, without elaboration or explanation, that he "is challenging the validity, and/or length of his confinement, and 'not' the conditions of his confinement." Dkt. #9 at 2. This conclusory assertion is plainly insufficient to establish that his pleading is actually a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Accordingly, Tafari's petition is recharacterized as an action arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

III. In Forma Pauperis Application

As amended by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1915 allows indigent prisoners to enter into a structured payment plan with regard to the filing fees. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b). Section 1915(g) denies this option to "frequent filers", like Tafari, who have repeatedly instituted lawsuits that have been dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or lacking an arguable basis in law or fact. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). Tafari has had at least four federal actions or appeals dismissed for these reasons prior to instituting the present case. See Tafari v. Aidala, No. 1:00-CV-405 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2001) (dismissing complaint with prejudice for failure to state claim, and certifying that any appeal would not be taken in good faith); Tafari v. Aidala, No. 01-0279 (2d Cir. Apr. 5, 2002) (dismissing appeal from Tafari v. Aidala, 1:00-CV-0405 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2001, as frivolous); Tafari v. France, No. 06-1876 (2d Cir. Nov. 2, 2006) (dismissing appeal from Tafari v. France, 1:01-CV-0011 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 10, 2006, as frivolous); Tafari v. Stein, 09-0710-pr(L), 09-2288-pr (Con.) (2d Cir. Nov. 13, 2009) (dismissing appeal from Tafari v. Stein, 1:01-CV-0841 (W.D.N.Y. Feb. 12, 2009), as lacking an arguable basis in law or fact).

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), Tafari's application for in forma pauperis status must be denied unless he can demonstrate that he is in "imminent danger". Tafari has not made such an allegation, and indeed his pleadings contain no suggestion that this is the case. The Court finds that Tafari, An experienced pro se litigator who is well aware of the "three strikes" rule, brought this proceeding as a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition in an attempt to make an "end run" around the rule and obtain poor person status. His application to proceed in forma pauperis is therefore denied.

IV. Dismissal Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P 8(a)

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 ("Rule 8") requires a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2). "The key to Rule 8(a)'s requirements is whether adequate notice is given." Wynder v. McMahon, 360 F.3d 73, 79 (2d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Notice is satisfactory when it "enable[s] [the adverse party] to answer and prepare for trial." Salahuddin v. Cuomo, 861 F.2d 40, 42 (2d Cir. 1988); accord, e.g., Simmons v. Abruzzo, 49 F.3d 83, 86 (2d Cir. 1995) (stating that adequate notice is "that which will enable the adverse party to answer and prepare for trial, allow the application of res judicata, and identify the nature of the case so that it may be assigned the proper form of trial"). To satisfy Rule 8, a complaint must "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). As the Supreme Court has explained, a "complaint [does not] suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotations omitted; second alteration in original). To determine whether a claim is "plausible," a court must "draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.

Although courts must give pro se pleadings a liberal construction, "the basic requirements of Rule 8 apply to self-represented and counseled plaintiffs alike." Wynder, 360 F.3d at 79, n. 11 (citation omitted). Thus, if a pro se complaint does not comply with the requirements of Rule 8, a court may dismiss the complaint "on its own initiative or in response to a motion by the defendant." Salahuddin, 861 F.2d at 42. Dismissal for non-compliance Rule 8 is appropriate when the complaint is "so confused, ambiguous, vague, or otherwise unintelligible that its true substance, if any, is well disguised." Id. (citation omitted); see also Iwachiw v. New York State Dep't of Motor Vehicles, 396 F.3d 525, 527--28 (2d Cir. 2005) (affirming dismissal of a pro se complaint because unintelligible).

When the district court elects to dismiss the complaint, "it normally grants leave to file an amended pleading that conforms to the requirements of Rule 8." Salahuddin, 861 F.2d at 42 (citations omitted). The Second Circuit has observed that "[t]he district court has discretion whether or not to grant leave to amend, and its decision is not subject to review on appeal except for abuse of discretion. . . ." Id. (quotation omitted; footnote omitted in Salahuddin). In exercising this discretion, the district court should bear in mind that under Rule 15(a), leave to amend "'shall be freely given when justice so requires.'" Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a); citations omitted). Nevertheless, the Second Circuit has recognized, the district court has the authority to "dismiss a prolix complaint without leave to amend in extraordinary circumstances, such as where leave to amend ...

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