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Frank Bellezza v. D. Holland et al

November 7, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul A. Engelmayer, District Judge


Plaintiff Frank Bellezza brings this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that defendant Douglas Holland, a prison employee, infringed his First Amendment right to the free flow of mail. Holland moves for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons that follow, that motion is granted.


Except as otherwise noted, the following facts are not disputed. Frank Bellezza is an inmate in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"). Am. Compl. ¶ 4. During the time period relevant here, he was incarcerated at the Woodburne Correctional Facility ("Woodburne"). Bellezza Decl. ¶ 8.

Douglas Holland is a senior investigator employed by DOCCS. Holland Decl. ¶ 1. Brenda Clark is a senior mail clerk employed by DOCCS; she currently works at Woodburne, and is responsible for processing incoming mail. Clark Decl. ¶¶ 1, 3.

Two directives govern the processing of mail that comes into Woodburne. Clark Decl. ¶ 3; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 7. All incoming general mail is governed by Directive 4422, Clark Decl. ¶ 5; id. Ex. B ("Dir. 4422"); it must be opened and inspected for cash, checks, or any form of contraband. Dir. 4422 § III(G)(1)(B). General mail may be inspected outside of the inmate's presence. Id. Directive 4421, on the other hand, governs all "privileged correspondence," which is defined as mail addressed by an inmate to, or to an inmate from (1) any governmental or public official; (2) an attorney or legal representative; or (3) any medical personnel. Clark Decl. ¶ 4; id. Ex. A ("Dir. 4421"). Incoming mail that is determined to be privileged must be logged and opened in the presence of the inmate. Dir. 4421 § 721.3(b). In the event that a piece of privileged correspondence is not clearly identified as such, and thus is opened outside the presence of the inmate, it must be logged and the envelope attached to its contents so that the inmate can see that the mail could not be identified as privileged. Id.

On or about March 23, 2009, Clark processed a bulk envelope that was not addressed to any single inmate. Clark Decl. ¶ 7; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 14. Clark testified that there was nothing on the face of the package to indicate that it contained privileged mail. Clark Decl. ¶ 7. Bellezza disputes that assertion, because during discovery he was not provided with a copy of the envelope. Pl. 56.1 ¶ 15. Clark opened the package and found four smaller envelopes inside, each addressed to a different inmate. Clark Decl. ¶ 7; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 16. Due to what Clark described as the "unusual" nature of the package, she gave it to a supervisor; Clark had no further involvement with the package. Clark Decl. ¶ 7.

Each of the four envelopes contained a settlement check for the case of Wilson v. Airborne, Inc.-a consumer class action against the makers of the over-the-counter vitamin supplement Airborne. Holland Decl. ¶ 5; id. Ex. A; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 18. One such check was made out to Bellezza, in the amount of $55.98. Holland Decl. Ex. A. Airborne is considered contraband at Woodburne. Holland Decl. ¶ 6 n.2; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 20.

On March 24, 2009, Lieutenant S. Katz sent a memo to Superintendent Raymond Cunningham stating that Katz, as Cunningham had requested, had interviewed each of the four inmates to whom the settlement checks had been addressed, including Bellezza. Holland Decl. Ex. B. According to Katz, Bellezza denied ever having used Airborne, and claimed that he bought it as a gift for a friend. Id. Bellezza's account is consistent with Katz's; Bellezza stated that he "informed Katz that he purchased Airborne products as gifts through outside purchases, and had the product sent directly to family members and friends." Bellezza Decl. ¶ 12. In his deposition, Bellezza testified that, during the interview, Lt. Katz's "main concern was that he wanted to know whether or not I possessed the Airborne medication inside the facility." Harkins Decl. Ex. B ("Bellezza Dep.") at 29.

On March 24, 2009, Cunningham sent a memo to the deputy commissioner of the New York Inspector General's office, attaching Katz's memo and stating that:

[F]our (4) inmates . . . have received settlement checks . . . for use of a product that they clearly were not entitled to have and did not possess. As they were clearly in a correctional facility during the time period this product was recalled, to me this amounts to fraud and I am reluctant to release the checks.

Holland Decl. Ex. E. Cunningham requested that the Inspector General's office conduct an investigation. Id.

Holland was assigned to conduct the investigation. He testified that its goal was to determine whether the four inmates had actually purchased Airborne, whether they were eligible to partake in the class action settlement, and if not, whether they had committed fraud in connection with the class action. Holland Decl. ¶ 7; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 23--24.

On or about April 13, 2009, Holland interviewed Bellezza as part of that investigation. Holland Decl. ¶ 8; Bellezza Decl. ¶ 18. Holland testified that Bellezza told him that he had purchased Airborne as gifts for relatives within the last three or four years. Holland Decl. ¶ 8. Holland then examined the previous five years of Bellezza's inmate account statements. He found that, contrary to Bellezza's claim, they did not reflect any outside purchases of Airborne. Id. Bellezza has been continuously incarcerated since 1997. Id. ¶ 9.

Bellezza, however, asserts that he told Holland during that interview that he was unsure of the exact dates of his Airborne purchases. Pl. 56.1 ¶ 26. Bellezza testified that he later determined, after checking written records he kept in his cell, that the exact date on which he purchased Airborne was in November 2001-outside the five-year period for which Holland examined Bellezza's account statements. Bellezza Decl. ¶ 18. DOCCS does not maintain inmate account statements beyond a period of five years, id. ¶ 21, and Bellezza has not produced the written records that he kept in his cell, which purportedly enabled him to ascertain the date of his Airborne purchase.

Based on his finding that Bellezza had been ineligible to participate in the class action, Holland issued an Inmate Misbehavior Report. Holland Decl. ¶ 8. At the ensuing disciplinary hearing, Bellezza claimed to have purchased the Airborne in 2001 from Maggy's Pharmacy in Dannemora, New York, through its mail order catalog. Id. Holland, however, stated that he contacted Maggy's Pharmacy, and was told that it does not issue a mail order catalogue, and that, in 2001, the pharmacy did not carry Airborne. Id.*fn2 Holland attempted to contact the claims administrator for the Airborne class action to inform him of the situation, but failed. Id. ¶ 10. Accordingly, pursuant to Directive 410 § (VI)(D)(1), Holland turned Bellezza's settlement check over to the State Treasury, and it was ultimately deposited in the Crime Victim's Fund. Id. ¶ 10; id. Ex. G.

On or about April 14, 2009, Bellezza received an application to participate in another class action, which the parties refer to as the "Track 1 AWP" class. Holland Decl. ¶ 9; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 32. Bellezza's Amended Complaint in this action claims that he was a legitimate member of this class. Am. Compl. ¶ 12. However, Bellezza now states that he determined that he was not a proper class member, and accordingly did not file a claim. Bellezza Decl. ¶ 37. Bellezza alleges that Clark opened, copied, and withheld correspondence related to the Track 1 AWP class action. Am. Compl. ¶ 13. He also asserts that Holland "has and may continue to have the class action packets opened, read and photocopied" and that Holland ordered that "all future settlement ...

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