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Thomas Goodson v. "John" Silver

September 25, 2012

THOMAS GOODSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
"JOHN" SILVER, SERGEANT, CLINTON CORR. FACILITY; AND " JOHN" RENADETTE, CORR. OFFICER, CLINTON CORR. FACILITY, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

The trial in this prisoner civil rights action, filed pro se by Thomas Goodson ("Plaintiff") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, began with an evidentiary hearing before the undersigned on September 18, 2012, regarding the affirmative defense, asserted by Sergeant "John" Silver and Corrections Officer "John" Renadette ("Defendants"), that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, before filing this action on March 12, 2009. At the hearing, documentary evidence was admitted, and testimony was taken. At the conclusion of the hearing, the undersigned dismissed Plaintiff's action for failure to exhaust his available administrative remedies, and indicated that a written decision would follow. This is that written decision.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

Through their pre-hearing briefs and hearing summation, the parties have demonstrated an accurate understanding of the claims and factual allegations asserted in Plaintiff's Complaint, the relevant portions of the procedural history of this action, and the legal and factual issues relevant to the hearing. As a result, the Court will not repeat that information in its entirety in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for the review of the parties. Rather, the Court will merely state as follows.

Plaintiff dated, and thus filed, his Complaint in this action on March 12, 2009. (Dkt. No. 1.) Construed with the utmost of special liberality, that portion of Plaintiff's Complaint surviving the Court's Decision and Order of March 27, 2012, alleges that on April 4, 2006, at Clinton Correctional Facility ("Clinton C.F."), the two above-captioned Defendants violated his constitutional rights in the following manner: (1) Defendant Silver sexually assaulted Plaintiff in a bathroom while escorting him to a physical therapy appointment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and (2) Defendant Renadette failed to protect Plaintiff from the alleged sexual assault, by knowing of Defendant Menard's physical threat against Plaintiff, by having reason to know that Defendant Silver intended to harm Plaintiff, but failing to accompany Plaintiff into the bathroom during his transport to physical therapy, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (See generally Dkt. Nos. 1, 49.)

On May 11, 2012, Plaintiff was appointed pro bono trial counsel. (Dkt. No. 50.) On August 7, 2012, Defendants filed a letter-motion requesting a pre-trial evidentiary hearing regarding Plaintiff's asserted failure to exhaust his available administrative remedies before filing this action. (Dkt. No. 57.) On August 10, 2012, the Court granted that request. (Text Order filed Aug. 10, 2012.)

Generally, in their pre-hearing brief, and during their hearing summation, Defendants argued as follows: (1) the Supreme Court's decision in Woordford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 92 - 93 (2006), required Plaintiff to have "properly" exhausted his available administrative remedies before filing this action (i.e., complete the administrative review process in accordance with the applicable procedural rules, including deadlines); and (2) Plaintiff did not do so in this case, in large part because an investigation by the New York State Office of the Inspector General does not suffice to exhaust administrative remedies without an appeal to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS") Central Office Review Committee ("CORC"). (Dkt. No. 76, at 4-6 [attaching pages "4" through "6" of Defs.' Pre-Hrg. Brief]; Hrg. Transcript, at 122-129.)

Generally, in his pre-hearing brief, and during their hearing summation, Plaintiff argued that, pursuant to the third part of the three-part inquiry established by the Second Circuit for exhaustion of administrative remedies, special circumstances exist justifying Plaintiff's failure to exhaust his available administrative remedies before filing this action, due to the following: (1) the purported fact that (due to fear of reprisal) his speech was chilled, or at least he was hopelessly distracted, while he was at Clinton C.F. following the alleged assault; (2) the purported fact that his mail was interfered during the two days following the alleged assault; (3) the purported fact that, procedurally, he could not file a formal grievance at Clinton C.F. after he was transferred from there; (4) the fact that his hand-delivered letter to Maureen Bosco, which was brought to the attention of Clinton C.F. Deputy Superintendent of Security Jeff Tedford and referred by him to the IG, was effectively treated as a harassment grievance; (5) the purported fact that an appeal to CORC would have been futile under the circumstances because CORC would merely have "rubber stamped" the IG's conclusion that Plaintiff's claims were unsubstantiated; and (6) the purported fact that the IG investigation served the same purpose as the grievance process. (Dkt. No. 68, at 5-8 [attaching pages "3" through "6" of Plf.'s Pre-Hrg. Brief]; Hrg. Transcript, at 129-131.)

Generally, at the hearing, documentary evidence was admitted, and testimony was taken of Plaintiff as well as Defendants' five witnesses (Grievance Sergeant Scott McLean, Grievance Supervisor Christine Gregory, Legal Office Liaison Tammy Irwin, Inmate Grievance Program Director Karen Bellamy, and Inspector General Senior Investigator Anthony Misercola). (See generally Hrg. Transcript and Exs.) While various facts were of course were disputed, certain facts were uncontroverted, including the following: (1) before the occurrence of the assault alleged in this action, Plaintiff had a good understanding of the DOCCS grievance process, and had some experience filing an appeal to CORC, having done so two times, regarding different subjects, and having written to CORC a third time about a perceived failure to respond to an appeal; (2) the assault is alleged to have occurred on April 4, 2006, at Clinton C.F.; (3) at the time, Plaintiff was housed in the Clinton C.F. Special Housing Unit ("SHU"), where paper and grievance forms were available to him; (4) on or about April 7, 2006, Plaintiff had Office of Mental Health ("OMH") Social Worker Todd Asselin hand-deliver a letter to OMH Unit Chief Maureen Bosco complaining of the alleged assault; (5) on or about April 12, 2006, Plaintiff was transferred to the Clinton C.F. Mental Health Center for observation; (6) on or about April 19, 2006, Plaintiff was transferred to the Central New York Psychiatric Center ("CNYPC"), where he orally complained of the alleged assault to a risk management specialist on or about April 21, 2006; (7) on or about April 24, 2006, Plaintiff's complaint of an alleged assault was referred to the New York State Department of Correctional Services Inspector General's Office ("IG") for an investigation; (8) the investigation was conducted by IG Senior Investigator Anthony Misercola; (9) on or about May 17, 2006, Plaintiff was transferred to Downstate Correctional Facility, and the next day to Great Meadow Correctional Facility; and (10) on or about September 20, 2006, after the IG's investigation was over, the IG concluded that Plaintiff's allegations were unsubstantiated. (Id.)

II. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARD

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA") requires that prisoners who bring suit in federal court must first exhaust their available administrative remedies: "No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under §1983 . . . 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. The PLRA was enacted "to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of prisoner suits" by "afford[ing] corrections officials time and opportunity to address complaints internally before allowing the initiation of a federal case." Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524-25 (2002). In this regard, exhaustion serves two major purposes. First, it protects "administrative agency authority" by giving the agency "an opportunity to correct its own mistakes with respect to the programs it administers before it is haled into federal court, and it discourages disregard of the agency's procedures." Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 89 (2006). Second, exhaustion promotes efficiency because (a) "[c]laims generally can be resolved much more quickly and economically in proceedings before an agency than in litigation in federal court," and (b) "even where a controversy survives administrative review, exhaustion of the administrative procedure may produce a useful record for subsequent judicial consideration." Woodford, 548 U.S. at 89. "[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, 534 U.S. at 532.

In accordance with the PLRA, the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS") has made available a well-established inmate grievance program. 7 N.Y.C.R.R. § 701.7. Generally, the DOCS Inmate Grievance Program ("IGP") involves the following three-step procedure for the filing of grievances. 7 N.Y.C.R.R. §§ 701.5, 701.6(g), 701.7.*fn1 First, an inmate must file a complaint with the facility's IGP clerk within a certain number of days of the alleged occurrence.*fn2 If a grievance complaint form is not readily available, a complaint may be submitted on plain paper.A representative of the facility's inmate grievance resolution committee ("IGRC") has a certain number of days from receipt of the grievance to informally resolve the issue. If there is no such informal resolution, then the full IGRC conducts a hearing within a certain number of days of receipt of the grievance, and issues a written decision within a certain number of days of the conclusion of the hearing. Second, a grievant may appeal the IGRC decision to the facility's superintendent within a certain number of days of receipt of the IGRC's written decision. The superintendent is to issue a written decision within a certain number of days of receipt of the grievant's appeal. Third, a grievant may appeal to the central office review committee ("CORC") within a certain number of days of receipt of the superintendent's written decision. CORC is to render a written decision within a certain number of days of receipt of the appeal.

Moreover, there is an expedited process for the review of complaints of inmate harassment or other misconduct by corrections officers or prison employees. 7 N.Y.C.R.R. § 701.8. In the event the inmate seeks expedited review, he or she may report the misconduct to the employee's supervisor. The inmate then files a grievance under the normal procedures outlined above; however, all grievances alleging employee misconduct are given a grievance number, and sent immediately to the superintendent for review. The superintendent or his designee shall "promptly determine whether the grievance, if true, would represent a bona fide case of harassment," and if so, then the superintendent shall initiate an investigation of the complaint, either "in-house," by the Inspector General's Office, or by the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations. An appeal of the adverse decision of the superintendent may be taken to the CORC as in the regular grievance procedure.

It is important to note that these procedural requirements contain certain safeguards. For example, if an inmate could not file such a complaint within the required time period after the alleged occurrence, he or she could apply to the facility's IGP Supervisor for an exception to the time limit based on mitigating circumstances. If that application was denied, the inmate could file a complaint complaining that the application was wrongfully denied.*fn3

Moreover, any failure by the IGRC or the superintendent to timely respond to a grievance or first-level appeal, respectively, can--and must--be appealed to the next level, including CORC, to complete the grievance process.*fn4 There appears to be a conflict in case law regarding whether the IGRC's or superintendent's non-response must be appealed to the next level where the inmate's grievance was never assigned a grievance number.*fn5 After carefully reviewing this case law, the Court finds that the weight of authority persuasively answer this question in the affirmative.*fn6 The Court notes that, if the inmate adequately describes, in his appeal to the superintendent, the substance of his grievance (or if the plaintiff attaches, to his appeal, a copy of his grievance), it would appear that there is something for the superintendent to review.

Generally, if a prisoner has failed to follow each of the required three steps of the above-described grievance procedure prior to commencing litigation, he has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Ruggiero v. County of Orange, 467 F.3d 170, 175 (2d Cir. 2006) (citing Porter, 534 U.S. at 524). However, the Second Circuit has held that a three-part inquiry is appropriate where a defendant contends that a prisoner has failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies, as required by the PLRA. Hemphill v. State of New York, 380 F.3d 680, 686, 691 (2d Cir. 2004), accord, Ruggiero, 467 F.3d at 175. First, "the court must ask whether [the] administrative remedies [not pursued by the prisoner] were in fact 'available' to the prisoner." Hemphill, 380 F.3d at 686 (citation omitted). Second, if those remedies were available, "the court should . . . inquire as to whether [some or all of] the defendants may have forfeited the affirmative defense of non-exhaustion by failing to raise or preserve it . . . or whether the defendants' own actions inhibiting the [prisoner's] exhaustion of remedies may estop one or more of the defendants from raising the plaintiff's failure to exhaust as a defense." Id. [citations omitted]. Third, if the remedies were available and some of the defendants did not forfeit, and were not estopped from raising, the non-exhaustion defense, "the Court should consider whether 'special circumstances' have been plausibly alleged that justify the prisoner's failure to comply with the administrative procedural requirements." Id. [citations and internal quotations omitted].

Finally, two points bear mentioning regarding exhaustion hearings. First, the Second Circuit has ruled that a plaintiff in a lawsuit governed by PLRA is not entitled to a jury trial on disputed factual issues relating to his exhaustion of administrative remedies; rather, PLRA exhaustion is a matter of judicial administration. Messa v. Goord, 652 F. 3d 305, 308-10 (2d Cir. 2011). Second, given that non-exhaustion is an affirmative defense, the defendant bears the burden of showing that a prisoner has failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies.*fn7

However, once a defendant has adduced reliable evidence that administrative remedies were available to the plaintiff and that the plaintiff nevertheless failed to exhaust those administrative remedies, the plaintiff must then "counter" the defendant's assertion by showing exhaustion, unavailability, estoppel, or "special circumstances."*fn8 As a result, practically speaking, while the burden on this affirmative defense ...


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