IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
August 17, 2012
ELIJAH BARKSDALE, PLAINTIFF,
R.T. FRENYA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: David E. Peebles U.S. Magistrate Judge
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION Plaintiff Elijah Barksdale, a former New York prison inmate who is proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, has commenced this action against the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS") as well as the superintendent and two corrections officers stationed at the prison in which he was confined at the relevant times, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging deprivation of his civil rights. In his complaint, Barksdale contends that defendants violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by failing to protect him from an attack by another inmate, denying him the right to call a witness at a disciplinary hearing arising out of the incident, affirming the findings from the hearing, and subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment by confining him in a special housing unit ("SHU") for a period of 120 days. As relief, plaintiff seeks damages in the amount of $100 per day spent in the SHU and punitive damages of $10,000, awardable against each defendant.
Currently pending before the court is a motion for summary judgment brought by the defendants, seeking dismissal of plaintiff's claims. In support of their motion, defendants assert that 1) Commissioner Fischer is entitled to dismissal of plaintiff's claims against him based upon a lack of personal involvement; 2) Barksdale's claims are subject to dismissal based upon his failure to exhaust his administrative remedies; and 3) plaintiff cannot sustain a due process violation related to his disciplinary hearing because he cannot establish a protected liberty interest in remaining free from the challenged SHU confinement. For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that defendants' motion, which the plaintiff has not opposed, be granted in part, but otherwise denied.
Plaintiff, though no longer incarcerated, was formerly a prison inmate confined under the supervision of the DOCCS; at the times relevant to his claims in this action, plaintiff was designated to the Clinton Correctional Facility ("Clinton"), located in Dannamora, New York. See generally Complaint (Dkt. No. 1).
On September 8, 2009, plaintiff was involved in a physical altercation with another inmate. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 6. While plaintiff was delivering meals to SHU inmates, Corrections Officer ("CO") Frenya was conducting showers for SHU inmates. Id. As a fellow inmate named Aiken "exited the shower and was returning to his cell", he turned around and attacked plaintiff. Id. A direct order was given for the two inmates to cease fighting, but was ignored. Id. When the altercation ended, a weapon was discovered in the area. Id.
As a result of the incident, plaintiff was issued a misbehavior report accusing him of multiple prison rule infractions, including possession of a weapon, refusing a direct order, and fighting. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 6. An assistant, J. Kelsh, was assigned to help plaintiff prepare a defense for the charges against him. Id. Kelsh interviewed two potential witnesses on plaintiff's behalf - inmate Aiken and CO Frenya. During those interviews both agreed to testify at a disciplinary hearing scheduled to address the charges, and Aiken indicated that he would confirm that Barksdale did not possess, display or use a weapon during the incident. Id.
A Tier III disciplinary hearing was held on September 14, 2009 before Corrections Hearing Officer ("CHO") Curtis Drown in connection with the charges against the plaintiff.*fn2 Id. Although CO Frenya was made available as a witness on plaintiff's behalf, inmate Aiken was not produced. Id. Plaintiff did not receive "any written notice or oral statements" stating the reason that inmate Aiken was not presented to testify. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 6. At the close of the hearing, defendant Drown found plaintiff guilty of assaulting an inmate, fighting, weapon possession, and refusing to obey a direct order. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) Exh. A. As a result, a penalty which included 120-days of disciplinary SHU confinement was imposed by the hearing officer. Id.
Plaintiff appealed defendant Drown's decision to Clinton Superintendent Dale Artus, resulting in a decision by Deputy Superintendent LaValley affirming the Tier III hearing determination on the Superintendent's behalf. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 6 and Exh. E. On September 28, 2009, plaintiff appealed LaValley's affirmation to Commissioner Brian Fischer. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 6 and Exh. E. In response, plaintiff received a letter from Norman Bezio, the DOCCS Director of Special Housing and Inmate Disciplinary Program, affirming the hearing on behalf of the Commissioner Fischer.*fn3 Id. at Exh. G.
On November 10, 2009, plaintiff commenced a proceeding under Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules in the New York State Supreme Court, challenging the Tier III disciplinary hearing determination. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) Exh. I. In that proceeding the state court found in plaintiff's favor and reversed the disposition of the detention hearing, finding that Barksdale's constitutional rights were violated by the failure of the hearing officer to make any attempt to obtain inmate Aiken's testimony at the hearing. Id. at Exh. J.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff commenced this action on July 8, 2010, and was thereafter granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Dkt. Nos. 1, 4. Plaintiff's complaint names CO Frenya, CHO Drown, Superintendent Artus, and Commissioner Fischer as defendants and, broadly construed, asserts three causes of action. See generally Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) §§ 3, 7. First, plaintiff claims that defendant Frenya failed to protect him by not following proper protocol for conducting showers for SHU inmates. See id. Second, plaintiff asserts that his Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights were violated by defendant Drown, by virtue of his failure to call a requested witness during plaintiff's disciplinary hearing, and that defendants Artus and Fischer are liable for the resulting procedural due process violation by virtue of their having affirmed the disciplinary determination despite claims of due process violations. Id. Third, plaintiff claims that, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment when he was sentenced to 120 days of SHU confinement. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 6.
On December 2, 2011, defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint for lack of personal involvement on the part of defendant Fischer, failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and lack of a protected liberty interest in remaining free from the challenged confinement.*fn4 Dkt. No. 44. Plaintiff has not responded to the motion, despite having requested and secured an extension of time for doing so.
Defendants' motion, which is now ripe for determination, has been referred to me for the issuance of a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Northern District of New York Local Rule 72.3(c). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b).
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment motions are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under that provision, summary judgment is warranted when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 2552 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2509-10 (1986); Security Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc.,391 F.3d 77, 82-83 (2d Cir. 2004). A fact is "material", for purposes of this inquiry, if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S. Ct. at 2510; see also Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 553 (2d Cir. 2005) (citing Anderson). A material fact is genuinely in dispute "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S. Ct. at 2510.
A party moving for summary judgment bears an initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute of material fact to be decided with respect to any essential element of the claim in issue; the failure to meet this burden warrants denial of the motion. Anderson,477 U.S. at 250 n.4, 106 S. Ct. at 2511 n.4; Security Ins., 391 F.3d at 83. In the event this initial burden is met the opposing party must show, through affidavits or otherwise, that there is a material issue of fact for trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S. Ct. at 2553; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S. Ct. at 2511. Though pro se plaintiffs are entitled to special latitude when defending against summary judgment motions, they must establish more than mere "metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 1356 (1986); but see Vital v. Interfaith Med. Ctr.,168 F.3d 615, 620-21 (2d Cir. 1999) (noting obligation of court to consider whether pro se plaintiff understood nature of summary judgment process).
When deciding a summary judgment motion, a court must resolve any ambiguities, and draw all inferences from the facts, in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Jeffreys, 426 F.3d at 553; Wright v. Coughlin, 132 F.3d 133, 137-38 (2d Cir. 1998). The entry of summary judgment is warranted only in the event of a finding that no reasonable trier of fact could rule in favor of the non-moving party. See Building Trades Employers' Educ. Ass'n v. McGowan, 311 F.3d 501, 507-08 (2d Cir. 2002) (citation omitted); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S. Ct. at 2511 (summary judgment is appropriate only when "there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict").
B. Plaintiff's Failure to Oppose Defendants' Motion Before turning to the merits of plaintiff's claims, a threshold issue to be addressed is the legal significance, if any, of his failure to oppose defendants' summary judgment motion. That failure is not without potential consequences.
The court's rules require that a motion seeking the entry of summary judgment must be accompanied by a statement of material facts with respect to which, the moving party contends, there exists no genuine issue. See N.D.N.Y.L.R. 7.1(a)(3). The purpose underlying this rule, which is typical of many local court rules governing summary judgment motion practice, is to assist the court in framing the issues and determining whether there exist any triable issues of fact that would preclude the entry of summary judgment. Anderson v. Dolgencorp of N. Y., Nos. 1:09-cv-360, 1:09-cv-363, 2011 WL 1770301, at *1 n.2 (N.D.N.Y. May 9, 2011) (Sharpe, J.).*fn5 In order to fulfill this salutary purpose, it is essential for the court to have the benefit of both the moving party's statement and an opposition statement addressing the facts set forth in the initial statement.
In this instance, the defendants have complied with Local Rule 7.1(a)(3), providing a statement setting forth fourteen facts as to which, they contend, there is no genuine triable issue. Plaintiff has failed to respond to that statement. By its express terms, the governing rule provides that "[t]he Court shall deem admitted any facts set forth in the Statement of Material Facts that the opposing party does not specifically controvert." N.D.N.Y.L.R. 7.1(a)(3). Based upon his failure to respond, I recommend that the court invoke this rule and deem the facts set forth in defendants' Local Rule 7.1(a)(3) to have been admitted by Barksdale.*fn6
See Elgamil v. Syracuse Univ., No. 99-cv-611, 2011 WL 1264122, at *1 (Aug. 22, 2000) (McCurn, J.) (listing cases); see also Monehan v. New York City Dep't of Cor. RR., 214 F.3d 275, 292 (2d Cir. 2000) (discussing a district court's discretion to adopt local rules similar to 7.1(a)(3)).
C Personal Involvement
In their motion, defendants assert that plaintiff's due process claim against defendant Fischer should be dismissed based on his lack of personal involvement in the conduct giving rise to plaintiff's constitutional claims. Personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under section 1983. Wright v. Smith, 21 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1994) (citing Moffitt v. Town of Brookfield, 950 F.2d 880, 885 (2d Cir. 1991) and McKinnon v. Patterson, 568 F.2d 930, 934 (2d Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1087, 98 S. Ct. 1282 (1978)). In order to prevail on a section 1983 cause of action against an individual, a plaintiff must show some tangible connection between the constitutional violation alleged and that particular defendant. See Bass v. Jackson, 790 F.2d 260, 263 (2d Cir. 1986).
Defendants assert that Commissioner Fischer is only named as a defendant because of his supervisory position, and therefore cannot be held liable for the violations alleged. It is true that defendant Fischer, as Commissioner of the DOCCS, cannot be liable for damages under section 1983 solely by virtue of being a supervisor; there is no respondeat superior liability under section 1983. Richardson v. Goord, 347 F.3d 431, 435 (2d Cir. 2003); Wright, 21 F.3d at 501. Responsibility on the part of a supervisory official for a civil rights violation can, however, be established in one of several ways, including when that individual 1) has directly participated in the challenged conduct; 2) after learning of the violation through a report or appeal, has failed to remedy the wrong; 3) created or allowed to continue a policy or custom under which unconstitutional practices occurred; 4) was grossly negligent in managing the subordinates who caused the unlawful event; or 5) failed to act on information indicating that unconstitutional acts were occurring. Iqbal v. Hasty, 490 F.3d 143, 152-53 (2d Cir. 2007), rev'd on other grounds sub nom., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009); see also Richardson, 347 F.3d at 435; Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 873 (2d Cir. 1995); Wright, 21 F.3d at 501.*fn7
In his deposition plaintiff testified that the "sole reason" he sued Commissioner Fischer was because Fischer affirmed the disciplinary hearing determination at issue. Rule 7.1(a)(3) Statement (Dkt. No. 44-7) ¶ 8. Within this circuit there is a severe division among the district courts as to whether mere review by a DOCCS official of an appeal from a disciplinary hearing, which an inmate claims to have been infected by due process violations, can lead to personal liability on the part of that individual. See Thomas v. Calero, 824 F. Supp. 2d 488, 508-09 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) ("a number of courts in this Circuit have concluded that merely affirming the hearing officer's determination is not a sufficient basis to impose liability under the second Colon factor. . . . On the other hand, other courts have found that affirming a hearing officer's determination on appeal is sufficient to establish personal involvement under the second Colon factor."). However, "the Second Circuit has, on at least one occasion, allowed a due-process claim to proceed against an upper-level prison official based on the allegation that the official 'affirmed [plaintiff's disciplinary] conviction on administrative appeal.'" Thomas, 824 F. Supp. 2d at 507 (alteration in original) (quoting Williams v. Smith, 781 F.2d 319, 324 (2d Cir. 1986)).
In Rodriguez v. Selsky, I followed those cases holding that a supervisory official's affirmance "of a constitutionally defective disciplinary determination at a time when the inmate is still serving his or her disciplinary sentence, and the violation can therefore be abated, falls within the Colon factors articulated in the Second Circuit for informing the supervisory liability analysis." No. 9:07-CV-0432, 2011 WL 1086001, at *6 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 25, 2011) (Peebles, M.J.), report and recommendation adopted, 2011 WL 830639 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 3, 2011) (Kahn, J.) (citing Colon, 58 F. 3d at 873); see also Thomas, 824 F. Supp. 2d at 509 ("Director Bezio's actions fall squarely within the second Colon factor -after he learned, via an appeal, of an alleged violation of plaintiff's rights, he not only failed to remedy the wrong, but allowed it to continue."); but see Tafari v. McCarthy, 714 F. Supp. 2d 317, 383 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) ("the affirming of a disciplinary conviction does not constitute personal involvement in a constitutional violation"). In my view, those cases concluding that a plaintiff's allegations that a supervisory defendant reviewed and upheld an alleged constitutionally suspect disciplinary determination are enough to show his or her personal involvement in the alleged violation appear to be both better reasoned and more consonant with the Second Circuit's position regarding personal involvement. See Black v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 72, 75 (2d Cir. 1996) (criticizing a district court's denial of leave to amend to add Donald Selsky as a defendant in a due process setting and appearing to assume that Selsky's role in reviewing and affirming a disciplinary determination is sufficient to establish his personal involvement).
In this case the question of which line of supervisory personal liability cases should be followed is not outcome-determinative. The record reflects that plaintiff's appeal of his disciplinary sentence to the Commissioner's office was reviewed by Norman Bezio. There is no evidence of defendant Fischer's involvement in the review of that disciplinary determination. In the absence of such evidence, defendant Fischer is entitled to dismissal of plaintiff's claims against him.
D. Exhaustion of Remedies
Defendants next assert that plaintiff's claim against defendant Frenya is procedurally barred based upon his failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 ("PLRA"), Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), which imposes several restrictions on the ability of prisoners to maintain federal civil rights actions, expressly requires that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a); see Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 84, 126 S. Ct. 2378, 2382 (2006); Hargrove v. Riley, No. CV-04-4587, 2007 WL 389003, at *5-6 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 31, 2007). "[T]he PLRA's exhaustion requirement applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong." Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532, 122 S. Ct. 983, 992 (2002) (citation omitted).
If the court finds that an inmate plaintiff failed properly to exhaust available remedies prior to commencing the action, his or her complaint is subject to dismissal. See Pettus v. McCoy, No. 04-CV-0471, 2006 WL 2639369, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 13, 2006) (McAvoy, J.); see also Woodford, 548 U.S. at 94-95, 126 S. Ct. at 2387-88 (holding that the PLRA requires "proper exhaustion" of available remedies). "Proper exhaustion" requires a plaintiff to procedurally exhaust his or her claims "compl[ying] with the system's critical procedural rules." Woodford, 548 U.S. at 95, 126 S. Ct. at 2388; see also Macias v. Zenk, 495 F. 3d 37, 43 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Woodford).*fn8
In a series of decisions rendered since the enactment of the PLRA, the Second Circuit has crafted a three-part test for determining whether dismissal of an inmate plaintiff's complaint is warranted for failure to satisfy the PLRA's exhaustion requirement.*fn9 Macias, 495 F. 3d at 41; see Hemphill v. New York, 380 F. 3d 680, 686 (2d Cir. 2004). Under the prescribed catechism, a court must first determine whether adminsitrative remedies were available to the plaintiff at the relevant times. Macias, 495 F.3d at 41; Hemphill, 380 F.3d at 686. If such a remedy existed and was available, the court must next examine whether the defendants have forfeited the affirmative defense of non-exhaustion by failing to properly raise or preserve it or whether through their own actions in preventing the exhaustion of plaintiff's remedies, they should be estopped from asserting failure to exhaust as a defense.*fn10 Macias, 495 F.3d at 41; Hemphill, 380 F.3d at 686. In the event the proffered defense survives these first two levels of scrutiny, the court lastly must examine whether special circumstances nonetheless exist and "have been plausibly alleged" to justify the plaintiff's failure to comply with the applicable administrative procedural requirements.*fn11 Macias, 495 F.3d at 41; Hemphill, 380 F.3d at 686.
Plaintiff does not contest the availability of a mechanism for seeking internal administrative relief with respect to complaints regarding prison conditions at Clinton. New York prison inmates are subject to an Inmate Grievance program ("IGP") established by the DOCCS and recognized as an "available" remedy for purposes of the PLRA. See Mingues v. Nelson, No. 96 CV 5396, 2004 WL 324898, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 20, 2004) (citing Mojias v. Johnson, 351 F.3d 606 (2d Cir. 2003) and Snider v. Melindez, 199 F.3d 108, 112-13 (2d Cir. 1999)). The IGP consists of a three-step review process. First, a written grievance is submitted to the Inmate Grievance Review Committee ("IGRC") within twenty-one days of the incident.*fn12 7 N.Y.C.R.R. § 701.5(a). The IGRC, which is comprised of inmates and facility employees, then issues a determination regarding the grievance. Id. at §§ 701.4(b), 701.5(b). If an appeal is filed, the superintendent of the facility next reviews the IGRC's determination and issues a decision. Id. at § 701.5(c). The third level of the process affords the inmate the right to appeal the superintendent's ruling to the Central Office Review Committee ("CORC"), which makes the final administrative decision. Id. at § 701.5(d). Ordinarily, absent the finding of a basis to excuse non-compliance with this prescribed process, only upon exhaustion of these three levels of review may a prisoner seek relief pursuant to section 1983 in a federal court. Reyes v. Punzal, 206 F. Supp. 2d 431, 432 (W.D.N.Y. 2002) (citing, inter alia, Sulton v. Greiner, No. 00 Civ. 0727, 2000 WL 1809284, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 11, 2000)).
1. Failure to Protect Claim
The record now before the court firmly establishes that plaintiff failed to file any grievances regarding his failure to protect claim against defendant Frenya. Bellamy Aff. (Dkt. No. 44-4); see also Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 4. In his inmate civil rights complaint, which is given under penalty of perjury, Barksdale states that he did not present facts relating to his complaint through the grievance program, nor did he complain to prison authorities about the facts alleged, noting as a reason the fact that the incident in issue allegedly occurred at Clinton, and that he was incarcerated in the Upstate Correctional Facility at the time the complaint was filed. See Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 4. While it is true that in his subsequent deposition in this action plaintiff claims to have filed several grievances that were "intercepted" and "ripped", and vaguely describes grievances related to the assault, misconduct, and disciplinary hearing, the plaintiff's complaint and accompanying submissions show the filing of three grievances alleging misconduct on the part of hearing officer Drown, with no response received to any of the three, but no grievances relating to his claim that defendant Frenya failed to protect him. See Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) Exh. D. Based upon the foregoing, and in particular the admission in plaintiff's complaint concerning the lack of any grievances, I recommend a finding that no genuine issue of material fact exists concerning exhaustion with regard to plaintiff's failure to protect the cause of action against defendant Frenya, and that it be dismissed on this procedural ground. Baker v. Krieger, 287 F. Supp. 2d 207, 209 (W.D.N.Y. 2003); Hernandez v. Nash, No. 9:00CV1564FJSGLS, 2003 WL 22143709, at * 4 (N.D.N.Y. Sep. 10, 2003).
2. Due Process Claim
Plaintiff's due process claims stand on different footing. As an exception to the requirement of exhaustion through resort to the IGP, "under certain circumstances, an inmate may exhaust his administrative remedies by raising his claim during a related disciplinary proceeding."*fn13
Murray v. Palmer, No. 9:03-CV-1010, 2010 WL 1235591, at *3 (Mar. 31, 2010) (Suddaby, D.J.) (emphasis omitted) (citing Giano, 380 F.3d at 678-79; Johnson, 380 F.3d at 697). An appeal from a disciplinary hearing that presents the precise procedural infirmities raised in the section 1983 action, for example, may be sufficient to exhaust administrative remedies. LaBounty v. Johnson, 253 F. Supp. 2d 496, 502 n.5 (W.D.N.Y. 2003) (citing and quoting Flanagan v. Maly, 99 Civ. 12336, 2002 WL 122921, *2 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 29, 2002)). In Flanagan, for example, the court declined to dismiss the plaintiff's due process claim for failure to exhaust, reasoning that [t]o require Flanagan to file an administrative grievance in these circumstances would be absurd, and Congress cannot have intended such a requirement. When an inmate challenges the procedure at a disciplinary hearing that resulted in punishment, he exhausts his administrative remedies by presenting his objections in the administrative appeals process, not by filing a separate grievance instead of or in addition to his ordinary appeal. Pursuit of the appellate process that the state provides fulfills all the purposes of the exhaustion requirement of § 1997a(e), by giving the state an opportunity to correct any errors and avoiding premature federal litigation. Once the alleged deprivation of rights has been approved at the highest level of the state correctional department to which an appeal is authorized, resort to additional internal grievance mechanisms would be pointless.
Flanagan, 2002 WL 122921, at * 2.
The Second Circuit has explicitly upheld the reasoning of the court in Flanagan on at least two separate occasions. In Ortiz v. McBride, the Second Circuit "expressly agreed with the parties that Ortiz exhausted his administrative remedies with respect to his due process claim by successfully appealing the hearing which resulted in his confinement." Davis v. Barrett, 576 F.3d 129,132-33 (2d Cir. 2009) (citing Ortiz v. McBride, 380 F.3d 649, 653 (2d Cir. 2004)). In Davis v. Barrett, the Court held that the inmate-plaintiff's "successful appeal of his administrative hearing constitutes exhaustion under the PLRA for purposes of rendering his due process claim ripe for adjudication in federal court." Davis, 576 F.3d at 132. Citing to its previous decision in Ortiz, the court indicated "that a prisoner may exhaust his administrative remedies for segregated confinement by appealing the adverse hearing determination." Id. (citing Ortiz, 380 F.3d at 653-54).
In my view, the plaintiff should enjoy the benefit of this exception based upon his pursuit of a challenge to the disciplinary determination, ultimately resulting in the determination being overturned by the state court after plaintiff served his 120 days of disciplinary confinement. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) § 6. Accordingly, I recommend that the motion to dismiss plaintiff's due process claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies be denied.
E. Merits of Plaintiff's Due Process Claim
Plaintiff claims his Due Process rights were violated because a requested witness was not called to testify at his disciplinary hearing, and as a result he was sentenced to 120 days of disciplinary SHU confinement. To successfully state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for denial of due process arising out of a disciplinary hearing, a plaintiff must show that he or she both 1) possessed an actual liberty interest, and 2) was deprived of that interest without being afforded sufficient process. See Tellier v. Fields, 260 F.3d 69, 79-80 (2d Cir. 2000) (citations omitted); Hynes, 143 F.3d at 658; Bedoya v. Coughlin, 91 F.3d 349, 351-52 (2d Cir. 1996). In their motion, defendants assert that plaintiff's disciplinary confinement was of insufficient duration to qualify as a liberty interest deprivation of constitutional significance.
In Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 115 S. Ct. 2293 (1995), the United
States Supreme Court determined that to establish the deprivation of a
liberty interest, a prison inmate must sufficiently demonstrate that
(1) the State actually created a protected liberty interest in being
free from segregation order imposed and that (2) the segregation would
impose an "atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation
to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Id. at 483-84, 115 S. Ct.
at 2300; Tellier, 280 F.3d at 80; Hynes, 143 F.3d at 658. Atypicality
in a Sandin inquiry is normally a question of law.*fn14
Colon v. Howard, 215 F.3d 227, 230-31 (2d Cir.
Sealey v. Giltner, 197 F.3d 578, 585 (2d Cir. 1999). When determining whether a plaintiff possesses a liberty interest, the court must examine the specific circumstances of confinement, including analysis of both the length and conditions of confinement. See Sealey, 197 F.3d at 586; Arce v. Walker, 139 F.3d 329, 335-36 (2d Cir. 1998); Brooks v. DiFasi, 112 F.3d 46, 48-49 (2d Cir. 1997). In cases involving shorter periods of segregated confinement where the plaintiff has not alleged any unusual conditions, however, a detailed explanation of this analysis is not necessary.*fn15 Hynes, 143 F.3d at 658; Arce, 139 F.3d at 336.
Although the Second Circuit has "not established a bright-line rule as to how lengthy a SHU confinement will be considered atypical and significant", Sims v. Artuz, 230 F.3d 14, 23 (2d Cir. 2000), that court has held that "[w]here the plaintiff was confined for an intermediate duration -between 101 and 305 days - 'development of a detailed record' of the conditions of the confinement relative to ordinary prison conditions is required."*fn16 Palmer v. Richards, 364 F.3d 60, 64-65 (2d Cir. 2004)
(quoting Colon, 215 F.3d at 232). "In the absence of a detailed factual record, we have affirmed dismissal of due process claims only in cases where the period of time spent in SHU was exceedingly short - less than the 30 days that the Sandin plaintiff spent in SHU - and there was no indication that the plaintiff endured unusual SHU conditions." Palmer, 364 F.3d at 65-66.
In Palmer, the Second Circuit agreed with the district court that despite the plaintiff's relatively short confinement - 77 days - in the absence of evidence concerning the conditions of the confinement, summary judgment was inappropriate. Palmer, 364 F.3d at 66 (agreeing that "'Palmer should have the opportunity to demonstrate that the conditions of his confinement vis-a-vis both the conditions in administrative confinement and in the general prison population were sufficiently harsh' to violate a liberty interest despite the 'comparative shortness' of his confinement." (quoting Palmer v. Goss, No. 02 Civ. 5804, 2003 WL 22327110 at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 10, 2003)). In Ortiz v. McBride, the Second Circuit also found that a 90-day SHU sentence was sufficiently "atypical and significant" to withstand dismissal where the plaintiff alleged that conditions differed from "normal SHU confinement". 380 F.3d at 655 (plaintiff alleged he was "kept in SHU for twenty-four hours a day, was not permitted an hour of daily exercise, and was prevented from showering 'for weeks at a time'").
Very recently, in a decision from the Southern District of New York in a case involving confinement in SHU for 291 days, a motion to dismiss was denied, the court concluding that plaintiff has not alleged that the conditions of his confinement differed from normal SHU circumstances. Plaintiff simply alleges that he was sentenced to twenty-two months in SHU, and actually confined in SHU for 291 days. Looking to Palmer and considering plaintiff's status as a pro se litigant, we conclude that plaintiff's confinement in SHU for 291 days is sufficient for pleading purposes, to implicate a liberty interest . . . . The length of time of plaintiff's SHU confinement and the lack of information concerning the conditions of plaintiff's confinement leave open sufficient possibility that plaintiff had a valid liberty interest.
Thomas, 824 F. Supp. at 500-01.
As can be seen, there is considerable uncertainty within this circuit as to whether a period of disciplinary SHU confinement for a period of 120 days is sufficiently atypical and significant to demonstrate the loss of a constitutionally protected liberty interest. In this instance, however, the matter comes before the court on a motion for summary judgment. To support their summary judgment motion it was incumbent upon the defendants to prove the lack of any issues of material fact. In light of the Second Circuit's cautionary notes, including in Palmer, calling for the development of a detailed factual record concerning the conditions of an inmate's confinement during the relevant period in cases such as this and defendants' failure to show that it was not a sufficiently atypical and significant departure from the ordinary incidents of general prison life, I recommend a finding that defendants have not sustained their burden of demonstrating entitlement to summary judgment on this claim. Palmer, 364 F. 3d at 67-68.
IV. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATION
In seeking dismissal of plaintiff's claims defendants' motion raises several issues, both procedural and substantive in nature. Turning first to the question of personal involvement, I recommend a finding that defendant Fischer cannot potentially be found liable for any alleged due process violation, based upon his lack of involvement in the relevant conduct, and that defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's claims against him on this basis therefore be granted. Turning to the question of exhaustion of remedies, I conclude that the uncontradicted record in the case reflects that plaintiff failed to exhaust available administrative remedies with respect to his failure to protect claim against defendant Frenya before commencing this action, and therefore recommend dismissal of that claim on this procedural basis. Finally, addressing plaintiff's procedural due process claim, I recommend a finding that because defendants have failed to successfully shoulder their initial burden of demonstrating the lack of any genuine issues of fact surrounding whether plaintiff was deprived of a cognizable liberty interest by virtue of his 120-day SHU confinement, their motion for summary judgment dismissing this cause of action should be denied.
Based upon the foregoing, it is hereby respectfully
RECOMMENDED, that defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 44) be GRANTED, in part, and that all claims in this action against defendants Frenya and Fischer be DISMISSED, but that defendants' motion otherwise be DENIED.
NOTICE: Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the parties may lodge written objections to the foregoing report. Such objections must be filed with the clerk of the court within FOURTEEN days of service of this report. FAILURE TO SO OBJECT TO THIS REPORT WILL PRECLUDE APPELLATE REVIEW. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(a), 6(d), 72; Roldan v. Racette, 984 F.2d 85 (2d Cir. 1993).
It is hereby ORDERED that the clerk of the court serve a copy of this report and recommendation upon the parties in accordance with this court's local rules.