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Clarence L. Artis, Jr v. Adam M. Valls

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


September 25, 2012

CLARENCE L. ARTIS, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
ADAM M. VALLS, BROOME CNTY. JAIL; C.O. PATRICIA KLEINSMITH; C.O. CONNERS; LT. HILL; JEFFREY KATEN, A/K/A BIGGS; WILLIAM BROWN, A/K/A JOHN DOE; MARK W. SMOLINSKY; SHERIFF HARDER; JOSEPH JELLICK, BROOME CNTY. JAIL; AND LT. JOHN DOE, BROOME CNTY. JAIL, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: 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 Clarence L. Artis, Jr. ("Plaintiff") against the ten above-captioned county correctional employees ("Defendants"), are the following: (1) Defendants' motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all of Plaintiff's claims; (2) United States Magistrate Judge Therese W. Dancks' Report-Recommendation recommending that Defendants' motion be granted in part and denied in part, such that all of Plaintiff's claims are dismissed, except for his excessive-force claims against Defendants Valls and Jellick regarding the incident of March 15, 2010; (3) Plaintiff's objection to the Report-Recommendation; and (4) Defendants' objection the Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. Nos. 46, 49, 54, 55, 56.) For the reasons set forth below, the Report-Recommendation is accepted and adopted in its entirety; Defendant's motion is granted in part and denied in part; and all of Plaintiff's claims are dismissed, except for his excessive-force claims against Defendants Valls and Jellick pertaining to the incident of March 15, 2010.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiff's Complaint

Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this action on April 12, 2010. (Dkt. No. 1.) Construed with the utmost of liberality, Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that he was subjected to excessive force and falsely charged with assault at the Broome County Correctional Facility ("BCCF") in four separate incidents occurring during the period of June 2008 to March 2010. (See generally id.)

More specifically, Plaintiff asserts the following five claims: (1) a claim that, on June 6, 2008, six correctional officers, including Defendants Hill and Katen, subjected him to excessive force in violation of the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments;*fn1 (2) a claim that, on April 29, 2009, Defendants Kleinsmith and Jellick falsely accused Plaintiff of inciting an assault on another inmate at BCCF, and Defendants Harder and Smolinsky falsely accused him of assaulting a known gang member and "supported and co-signed" the indictment against Plaintiff, subjecting him to malicious prosecution, false arrest, and/or a false misbehavior report, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and either the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments (and possibly the First Amendment); (3) a claim that, as a result of the false accusations by Defendants Kleinsmith and Jellick arising from the incident of April 29, 2009, Defendant Brown wrongly found Plaintiff guilty of assault and sanctioned him to 45 days in the SHU, in violation of either the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment; (4) a claim that, on July 24, 2009, after Defendants failed to protect Plaintiff from an attack by inmate Jacob Rogers, Defendants wrongfully found Plaintiff guilty of fighting in violation of the Eighth Amendment and either the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments; and (5) a claim that, on March 15, 2010, Plaintiff was subjected to excessive force by Defendants Valls and Jellick in violation of the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments. (Id.)

In addition, Plaintiff's Complaint alleges that his visitation rights were restricted on two, separate, unidentified occasions in violation of the First Amendment, and that Defendants defamed Plaintiff by wrongfully accused him of being a rapist. (Id.)

For a more detailed recitation of Plaintiff's claims and supporting factual allegations, the Court refers the reader to the Complaint in its entirety, as well as Magistrate Judge Dancks' Report-Recommendation, which accurately summarize those allegations. (Id.; see also Dkt. No. 146 at Part I [Background].)

B. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

On April 1, 2011, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 46.) Generally, in support of their motion, Defendants assert the following eight arguments.*fn2 (See generally Dkt. No. 46.) First, based on the four corners of the Complaint, Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Harder and Smolinksy should be dismissed due to their lack of personal involvement in the constitutional violations alleged. Second, based on the record evidence, Plaintiff's claims do not rise to the level of constitutional violations. Third, based on the record evidence, Defendants are protected from liability as a matter of law by the doctrine of qualified immunity. Fourth, based on the record evidence, Plaintiff has failed to exhaust administrative remedies. Fifth, based on the record evidence, Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Jellick and Kleinsmith should be dismissed from the action because those Defendants had probable cause to prosecute Plaintiff. Sixth, based on the four corners of his Complaint, and in the alternative based on the record evidence, Plaintiff has failed to state or establish a claim for defamation. Seventh, based on the four corners of his Complaint, Plaintiff has failed to state any claims against Defendants Connors and Brown. Eighth, based on the four corners of his Complaint, Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages against the Broome County or the individual Defendants in their official capacities. (Id.)

C. Magistrate Judge Dancks' Report-Recommendation

On July 31, 2012, Magistrate Judge Dancks issued a Report-Recommendation recommending that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part. (Dkt. No. 54.) More specifically, regarding the incident of June 6, 2008, Magistrate Judge Dancks concluded that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. (Id. at 11-14.) Regarding the incident of April 29, 2009, Magistrate Judge Dancks concluded that, although Plaintiff properly exhausted his administrative remedies, Defendants were entitled to summary judgment on all five of Plaintiff's claims arising out of the incident of April 29, 2009: (1) his claim of malicious prosecution against Defendant Kleinsmith (id. at 16-19); (2) his claim of false arrest against Defendant Kleinsmith (id.); (3) his claim of malicious prosecution against Defendants Harder and Smolinsky (id. at 19-21); (4) his claim of false arrest against Defendants Harder and Smolinsky (id.); and (5) his claim that Defendant Jellick issued him a false misbehavior report (id. at 21-23). Regarding the incident of July 24, 2009, Magistrate Judge Dancks concluded that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. (Id. at 23-24.) Regarding the incident of March 15, 2010, Magistrate Judge Dancks concluded that (1) Plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies was justified by special circumstances (id. at 24-26), and (2) the record evidence demonstrates that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Defendants Valls and Jellick applied force maliciously and sadistically against Plaintiff to cause him harm (id. at 26-29.) Regarding Plaintiff's claim that Defendants violated his First Amendment by restricting his visitation rights, Magistrate Judge Dancks concluded that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. (Id. at 29.)

Regarding Plaintiff's claim against Defendants for defamation, Magistrate Judge Dancks concluded that Plaintiff's Complaint failed to state a claim because it contained only a cursory allegation of defamation. (Id. at 29-30.) Finally, Magistrate Judge Dancks recommended that Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Conners and Brown be dismissed from this action because Plaintiff's Complaint failed to allege facts plausibly suggesting that either of those two Defendants were personally involved in any of the constitutional violations alleged. (Id. at 30-31.)

D. Plaintiff's Objection to the Report-Recommendation

On August 8, 2012, Plaintiff filed an objection to the Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. No. 55.) Liberally construed, Plaintiff's objection asserts the following two arguments: (1) Magistrate Judge Dancks erred by recommending the dismissal of his claims against Defendant Brown for lack of personal involvement, because Brown presided over the hearing in which he wrongfully determined Plaintiff was guilty of the assault charges arising from the incident of April 29, 2009 (id. at 1-2); and (2) Magistrate Judge Dancks erred by recommending that Plaintiff's claims arising from the incident of April 29, 2009, should be dismissed for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, because he wrote "numerous letters [and] grievances of all sort[s]," which "just disappear[ed] as if nothing ever happened." (id. at 3).

E. Defendants' Objection to the Report-Recommendation

On August 17, 2012, Defendants filed an objection to the Report-Recommendation. (Dkt. No. 56.) Generally, in support of their objection, Defendants argue that Magistrate Judge Dancks erred in concluding that Plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies regarding the incident of March 15, 2010, was justified by special circumstances. (Id. at 2-5.) Defendants also argue that the Court should apply the rule arising from Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549 (2d Cir. 2005), which, according Defendants, instructs that, where the record evidence "'[is] so replete with inconsistencies and improbabilities' that no reasonable juror would undertake the suspension of disbelief necessary to credit the allegations made in his complaint." (Id. at 5-7 [quoting Jeffreys, 426 F.3d at 555].) More specifically, regarding the incident of March 15, 2010, Defendants argue that no reasonable factfinder could conclude that Defendants Valls and Jellick used force in an effort to maliciously and sadistically cause Plaintiff harm, because the incident reports arising from that incident establish that "the transport officers" used "'empty hands only' physical force against the plaintiff in order to control [him] . . . ." (Id. at 6.)

II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Standard of Review Governing a Report-Recommendation

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).*fn3 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.*fn4

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.*fn5 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.*fn6 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.*fn7

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 of Review Governing a Motion for Summary Judgment

Magistrate Judge Dancks correctly recited the legal standard governing a motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 54, at Part II.A.) As a result, that standard is incorporated by reference in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for the review of the parties.

C. Standard of Review Governing a Motion to Dismiss

Magistrate Judge Dancks correctly recited the legal standard governing a motion to dismiss dismissal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). (Dkt. No. 54, at Part II.B.) As a result, that standard is incorporated by reference in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for the review of the parties.

III. ANALYSIS

As explained above in Parts I.D. and I.E. of this Decision and Order, the parties specifically challenge only the following four portions of Magistrate Judge Dancks' Report-Recommendation: (1) her finding that Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Brown should be dismissed for lack of personal involvement; (2) her finding that Plaintiff's claims regarding the incident of July 24, 2009 should be dismissed for failure to exhaust to administrative remedies; (3) her finding that Plaintiff did exhaust his administrative remedies regarding the incident of March 15, 2010; and (4) her finding that admissible record evidence exists from which a rational factfinder could conclude that Defendants Valls and Jellick used force in an effort to maliciously and sadistically cause Plaintiff harm.

After carefully reviewing the relevant filings in this action, the Court can find no error whatsoever in these four portions of Report-Recommendation: Magistrate Judge Dancks employed the proper standards, accurately recited the facts, and reasonably applied the law to those facts. (Dkt. No. 54.) With regard to the remaining portions of the Report-Recommendation, not specifically challenged by the parties, Court can find no clear error in those portions. (Id.) As a result, Magistrate Judge Dancks' Report-Recommendation recommending dismissal of all of Plaintiff's claims, except his excessive-force claims against Defendants Valls and Jellick pertaining to the incident of March 15, 2010, is accepted and adopted in its entirety for the reasons stated therein. (Id.)

The Court would add only the following four brief points. First, the Court finds that those portions of Magistrate Judge Dancks' Report-Recommendation that Defendants did not specifically challenge would survive even a de novo review.

Second, in addition to agreeing with the Report-Recommendation's conclusion that all of Plaintiff's five claims arising from the incident of April 29, 2010, should be dismissed due to the absence of admissible record evidence creating a genuine dispute of material fact regarding those claims (Dkt. No. 54 at 16-23), the Court finds that those claims are properly dismissed on the alternative ground that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with regard to them.

The administrative remedy procedure that Plaintiff used in writing Defendant Smolinsky (referred in the Report-Recommendation as the "Disciplinary Appeals Process") is available for prisoners who "are not satisfied with the actions of the disciplinary officer . . . ." (Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 7.) In other words, following a disciplinary hearing, a prisoner is permitted to appeal to the facility administrator (through the Disciplinary Appeals Process) if he is not satisfied with the outcome of that hearing. (Id.) This particular appeal mechanism is distinct from the prisoner grievance procedure, which is available to prisoners who "feel [they] have a legitimate grievance against the facility." (Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 21 at 1.)

Here, Plaintiff's claims arising out of the incident of April 29, 2010, are that Defendant Kleinsmith is liable for malicious prosecution and false arrest, Defendants Harder and Smolinsky are liable for malicious prosecution and false arrest, and Defendant Jellick is liable for issuing an alleged false misbehavior report. (See generally Dkt. No. 1 at 6-7; see also Dkt. No. 54, at 4-7, 16-23.) Based on the current record, no rational factfinder could conclude that Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies through the Disciplinary Appeals Process for the following two reasons: (1) Plaintiff failed to show that he reasonably believed that the disciplinary hearing (and appeal therefrom) was his only available avenue through which he could lodge these grievances; and (2) he has failed to show that he articulated and pursued these grievances in the disciplinary hearing (and appeal) in a manner that afforded corrections officials the time and opportunity to thoroughly investigate those grievances. With regard to this last finding, it is important to note that a disciplinary appeal focuses on the actions of the disciplinary officer, not the actions of the individuals against whom a grievant has claims of false arrest and malicious prosecution. Rather, to be properly exhausted, the claims in question should have been, but were not, asserted and appealed through the prisoner grievance procedure.

Third, regarding the Report-Recommendation's finding that Plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies regarding the incident on March 15, 2010, the Court would only add that the record evidence creates a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Defendants would have accepted a grievance from Plaintiff had he sent one after he was transferred to Elmira Correctional Facility. If the record evidence clearly established that Defendants would have accepted and processed Plaintiff's grievance (rather than, for example, reject it as moot because he was no longer an inmate at BCCF), this would reveal that the administrative remedies at BCCF remained available to Plaintiff even after he was transferred to Elmira Correctional Facility.*fn8 However, although Defendants argue that Plaintiff should have sent a grievance to Defendants Smolinsky or Harder "probably . . . [by] sending the grievance by mail" from Elmira Correctional Facility, there is nothing in the record that clearly demonstrates that, had Plaintiff done what Defendants suggest, the grievance would have been accepted and processed. (Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 39 at 16-19; Dkt. No. 56 at 3-4.) This factual dispute persuades the Court that, based on the current record, a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether "special circumstances" exist justifying Plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies through BCCF.*fn9

Fourth, regarding Defendants' argument that, based on the record evidence, a reasonable juror would not conclude Defendants used excessive force against Plaintiff (Dkt. No. 56 at 5-7), the Court agrees with the Report-Recommendation's finding that Plaintiff's verified Complaint (which has the force and effect of an affidavit) creates a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Defendants applied force maliciously and sadistically to cause harm on March 15, 2010. (Dkt. No. 54 at 27-28.) Although the Court acknowledges that the evidence suggesting that Defendants Valls and Jellick violated Plaintiff's constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment on these facts is slight, the Court is reminded that, because the facts demonstrating a genuine dispute of fact are based, in part, on the credibility of Plaintiff, such a dispute is more appropriately decided by a factfinder at trial. Defendants have not persuaded the Court that the prerequisites have been met for the Court to reject Plaintiff's sworn assertions as incredible, based on Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549 (2d Cir. 2005).*fn10

For all of these reasons, all of Plaintiff's claims are dismissed, except for his excessive force claim against Defendants Jellick and Valls regarding the incident of March 15, 2010.

ACCORDINGLY, it is

ORDERED that Magistrate Judge Dancks' Report-Recommendation (Dkt. No. 54) is ACCEPTED and ADOPTED in its entirety; and it is further

ORDERED that Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 46) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, such that all of Plaintiff's claims are DISMISSED -- EXCEPT FOR his excessive force claim against Defendants Jellick and Valls regarding the incident of March 15, 2010; 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 excessive force claims against Defendants Jellick and Valls. Counsel are directed to appear at the final pretrial conference with settlement authority from the parties.


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