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Dontie S. Mitchell v. New York State Department of Correctional Services; et al

December 12, 2012


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


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Dontie S. Mitchell ("Mitchell" or "Plaintiff") commenced this action pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In a Decision and Order entered September 28, 2011 (Dkt #100), the Court (Siragusa, D.J.) granted in part, and denied in part, Mitchell's motion to file a Second Amended Complaint (Dkt #62). This matter was transferred to the undersigned on October 26, 2012. (Dkt #146). Presently pending are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt #111) and Mitchell's Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment (Dkt ##121, 142). Also pending are motions for joinder brought by various other DOCCS' inmates seeking to intervene in the present action, as well as Plaintiff's motions for reconsideration and for permission to further amend the Second Amended Complaint.

For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, and Mitchell's Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment are denied. The remaining pending motions denied with prejudice as moot.

II. Background

A. Facts

Plaintiff's supporting allegations cover a number of disparate topics. To avoid unnecessary repetition, the facts pertinent to the alleged constitutional violations will be set forth below in the sections addressing Plaintiff's specific claims.

B. Claims Asserted in the Second Amended Complaint

Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint includes the following eleven claims: (1) DOCCS' inmate grievance program is unconstitutional and inadequate; (2) DOCCS' officials and employees misuse the disciplinary program in an arbitrary and unconstitutional manner; (3) the environment at DOCCS facilities is unsafe and psychologically damaging; (4) corrections officials engaged in the abusive and excessive use of mechanical restraints on Plaintiff while he was incarcerated at Southport Correctional Facility ("Southport"); (5) the mailroom clerk at Southport arbitrarily censored inmate mail, photos, and publications; (6) DOCCS failed to accommodate the religious diet of members of the Nation of Islam ("NOI"); (7) DOCCS failed to provide religious festival meals to members of the NOI; (8) DOCCS' Prison Rules 105.13 and 105.14, which prohibit gangs and unauthorized organizations, are unconstitutional; (9) DOCCS' grooming policy concerning dreadlocks is unconstitutional; (10) DOCCS has an unconstitutional policy of limiting the number of times an inmate who is a registered member of one religion can attend the congregational services of other faiths; and (11) DOCCS' policy of serving soy-based foods violates the Eighth Amendment.

III. General Legal Principles

A. Motions to Dismiss Under F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6) and Motions for Summary Judgment Under F.R.C.P. 56 Defendants cite both Rule 12(b)(6) and Rule 56(c) in support of their motion to dismiss. Because Defendants have filed an Answer to the Complaint, it appears that this motion is more appropriately made pursuant to Rule 12(c). The Court need not decide the issue because in deciding a Rule 12(c) motion, the same standard as that applicable to a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) is applied. Desiano v. Warner--Lambert & Co., 467 F.3d 85, 89 (2d Cir. 2006). A dismissal motion may be treated as one for summary judgment if all parties are "given reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). E.g., Carione v. United States, 368 F. Supp.2d 186, 190 (E.D.N.Y. 2005).

In determining whether to convert a motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment, the "essential inquiry" is "whether the non-movant should reasonably have recognized the possibility that the motion might be converted into one for summary judgment or was taken by surprise and deprived of a reasonable opportunity to meet facts outside the pleadings." Krijn v. Pogue Simone Real Estate Co., 896 F.2d 687, 689 (2d Cir. 1990) (internal quotations omitted). Here, Defendants provided Mitchell with notice of the consequences of failing to respond to a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Irby v. New York City Transit Auth., 262 F.3d 412, 413 (2d Cir. 2001), and Mitchell cross-moved for summary judgment. Accordingly, the Court is satisfied that Mitchell was fully apprised of the potential that Defendants' motion would be converted.

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a complaint may be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter . . . to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Thus, unless a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations have "nudged [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, [the plaintiff's] complaint must be dismissed." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. The Court must liberally construe all claims, accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. E.g., Roth v. Jennings, 489 F.3d 499, 510 (2d Cir. 2007); Cargo Partner AG v. Albatrans, Inc., 352 F.3d 41, 44 (2d Cir. 2003).

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). Initially, the moving party must show that there is "an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once the moving party has carried its burden, the opposing party must set forth "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial[,]" FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e), and

must introduce evidence beyond the mere pleadings to show that there is an issue of material fact concerning "an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

In order to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) conduct attributable at least in part to a person acting under color of state law, and (2) deprivation, as the result of the challenged conduct, of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Dwares v. City of New York, 985 F.2d 94, 98 (2d Cir.1993). To bring a § 1983 claim against a prison official, a plaintiff must allege that individual's personal involvement; it is not enough to assert that the defendant is a "link in the prison chain of command." McKenna v. Wright, 386 F.3d 432, 437 (2d Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted); see also Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 873 (2d Cir. 1995).

IV. Discussion

A. Claim One: Commissioner Fischer oversees an unconstitutional and inadequate grievance program.

Plaintiff charges that DOCCS' Commissioner Brian Fischer is liable for overseeing what he describes as an unconstitutional and inadequate inmate grievance program. This claim must be dismissed because inmates have no constitutional right to file a grievance. E.g., Tafari v. McCarthy, 714 F. Supp.2d 317, 349 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) ("While the First Amendment guarantees the right of access to courts, grievance programs [such as DOCCS'] were undertaken voluntarily and have no legal basis in the Constitution. Therefore these programs are not considered constitutional rights.") (citing Cancel v. Goord, No. 00 CIV 2042 LMM, 2001 WL 303713, at *3-4 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2001) ("While there is a First Amendment right of meaningful access to the courts and a right to petition the government for redress, e.g., Bill Johnson's Rest., Inc. v. NLRB, 461 U.S. 731, 741 (1983) (finding that "the right of access to the courts is an aspect of the First Amendment right to petition the Government for redress of grievances"), inmate grievance procedures are not required by the Constitution and therefore a violation of such procedures does not give rise to a claim under § 1983.") (citation omitted)); Odoom v. Poirier, No. 99 Civ. 4933(GBD), 2004 WL 2884409, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 10, 2004) ("While the filing of grievances is constitutionally protected, the manner in which grievance investigations are conducted do not create a protected liberty interest.") (citing Torres v. Mazzuca, 246 F. Supp.2d 334, 342 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) (finding that because "[p]rison grievance procedures do not confer any substantive right upon an inmate requiring the procedural protections envisioned by the Fourteenth Amendment," claims that corrections officers failed to properly address plaintiff's grievances by conducting a thorough investigation to plaintiff's satisfaction must be dismissed).

B. Claim Two: DOCCS' officials and employees misuse the disciplinary program in an arbitrary and unconstitutional manner.

Mitchell asserts that DOCCS' disciplinary program "violates the rights of the plaintiffs [sic] to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive fines and penalties, and due to due process of law under the Fifth, Eight [sic], and Fourteenth Amendment. . . ." Second Am. Compl., ΒΆ 86. Mitchell alleges that Commissioner Fischer, along with the Superintendents and Deputy Superintendents of all DOCCS' facilities, are liable for the program's shortcomings. Mitchell contends that the "systemic misuse" of DOCCS' disciplinary program ...

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