IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
January 23, 2013
MARC LEWIS, PLAINTIFF,
HAVERNACK, SERGEANT, MT. MCGREGOR CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: David E. Peebles U.S. Magistrate Judge
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Pro se plaintiff Marc Lewis, a New York State prison inmate with considerable prior litigation experience, has commenced this action against five corrections officers employed at the prison facility in which he was confined at the relevant times, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging deprivation of his civil rights.*fn1 In his complaint, plaintiff alleges that he was assaulted by one of the defendants and denied medical attention for his injuries arising from the alleged assault, and that the defendants later conspired to conceal the alleged assault. As relief, plaintiff's complaint seeks recovery of $3 million in damages.
Currently pending before the court is a motion brought by the defendants seeking dismissal of plaintiff's complaint based on his failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and for failure to state a claim as it relates to all of plaintiff's causes of action with the exception of his Eighth Amendment excessive force claim. For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust be denied as premature, without prejudice, but that their motion otherwise be granted.
Plaintiff is a New York State prison inmate currently being held in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"). See generally Complaint (Dkt. No. 1). While he is now incarcerated elsewhere, at the times relevant to his claims in this action, plaintiff was confined in the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility ("Mt. McGregor"), located in Wilton, New York. Id.
During the week of February 19, 2009, plaintiff filed a complaint with Mt. McGregor Superintendent William T. Hagget, accusing corrections officers of stealing and consuming state food products. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 6. Plaintiff was interviewed by a corrections lieutenant on February 14, 2009, concerning the complaint, and was advised that the matter would be addressed. Id.
On February 15, 2009, plaintiff was subjected to an unauthorized search of his prison cell by several corrections officers, all of whom threatened him. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 7. Plaintiff attributes the search and threats to his complaint to Superintendent Hagget concerning the conduct of corrections officers. Id. In the morning of February 16, 2009, plaintiff mailed another written complaint regarding corrections officers stealing and consuming state food products to Mt. McGregor Superintendent Hagget and DOCCS Commissioner Brian Fischer. Id. at 9.
On February 20, 2009, plaintiff was asked to voluntarily meet with defendant Havernack, a corrections sergeant, to discuss his complaints. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 9. Believing the meeting to be a "set up," plaintiff refused to attend and retreated to his cell. Id. After returning to his cell, defendant Havernack and two other unidentified officers arrived at plaintiff's cell, placed him in handcuffs, and escorted him to the basement of Mt. McGregor's administration building. Id. at 10. Upon arriving, and while still in handcuffs, plaintiff was placed in a chair in front of a desk, behind which defendant Sheridan, a corrections lieutenant, was sitting. Id. At some point during the meeting defendant Sheridan stood up, walked behind plaintiff, and struck plaintiff on the right side of the face with a closed fist, rendering Lewis unconscious and knocking him out of his chair. Id. at 12. As a result of the incident, Lewis experienced injuries to his right upper facial cheek and lower eyelid, as well as his left upper facial cheek. Id. Upon returning to consciousness, plaintiff's several requests for medical attention were denied. Id. at 13-14.
Shortly following the incident, defendants Imfeld and Johnson, together with an unidentified corrections sergeant, escorted plaintiff to a waiting van, where he was transported out of Mt. McGregor. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 15. As the van left the facility, plaintiff continued to complain of his injuries and request medical attention. Id. at ¶ 31. Those requests were denied. Id. Eventually, after plaintiff threatened to cause an accident if he was not provided medical attention, defendants Imfeld and Johnson returned the van to Mt. McGregor, where plaintiff was taken to the prison infirmary, and ultimately seen by medical personnel. Id. at 15-16.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff's complaint in this action was filed on January 9, 2012. Complaint
(Dkt. No. 1). That complaint names Corrections Sergeant Havernack, Corrections Lieutenant Sheridan, and Corrections Officers Chapman, Johnson and Imfeld, all of whom were stationed at Mt. McGregor at the relevant times, as defendants, and sets forth five causes of action, including excessive force and deliberate indifference claims under the Eighth Amendment, a claim for conspiracy to violate his Eighth Amendment rights, and claims that are based upon alleged threats by defendants and the issuance of a false misbehavior report. Id.
In answer to plaintiff's complaint, defendants moved for its dismissal on July 3, 2012, arguing that plaintiff's claims are precluded based upon his failure to exhaust available administrative remedies, and additionally that all of his claims, except the excessive force claim, fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Dkt. No. 30. Plaintiff has since responded in opposition to defendants' dismissal motion. Dkt. No. 42. In addition, plaintiff seeks leave, by motion filed on September 21, 2012, to file an amended complaint in the action. Dkt. No. 46. Plaintiff's motion for leave to amend has been opposed by defendants on the basis of futility. Dkt. No. 47.
The parties' cross-motions, which are now fully briefed and ripe for determination, have 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 Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b).
A. Dismissal Standard
A motion to dismiss a complaint, brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure calls upon a court to gauge the facial sufficiency of that pleading using a pleading standard which, though unexacting in its requirements, "demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed me accusation" in order to withstand scrutiny. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007)). Under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "a pleading must contain a 'short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. 677-78 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). While modest in its requirements, that rule commands that a complaint contain more than mere legal conclusions. See id. at 679 ("While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.").
In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal motion, the court must accept the material facts alleged in the complaint as true and draw all inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56); see also Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546, 546 (1964); Miller v. Wolpoff & Abramson, L.L.P., 321 F.3d 292, 300 (2d Cir. 2003); Burke v. Gregory, 356 F. Supp. 2d 179, 182 (N.D.N.Y. 2005) (Kahn, J.). However, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint does not apply to legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
To withstand a motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570); see also Ruotolo v. City of New York, 514 F.3d 184, 188 (2d Cir. 2008). As the Second Circuit has observed, "[w]hile Twombly does not require heightened fact pleading of specifics, it does require enough facts to 'nudge plaintiffs' claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.'" In re Elevator Antitrust Litig., 502 F.3d 47, 50 (2d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570) (alterations omitted).
When assessing the sufficiency of a complaint against this backdrop, particular deference should be afforded to a pro se litigant, whose complaint merits a generous construction by the court when determining whether it states a cognizable cause of action. Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94 ("'[A] pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)) (internal citation omitted)); Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 191 (2d Cir. 2008) ("[W]hen a plaintiff proceeds pro se, a court is obliged to construe his pleadings liberally." (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted)); Kaminski v. Comm'r of Oneida Cnty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 804 F. Supp. 2d 100, 104 (N.D.N.Y. 2011) (Hurd, J.) ("A pro se complaint must be read liberally.").
B. Exhaustion of 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 also Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 84 (2006) ("Exhaustion is . . . mandatory. Prisoners must now exhaust all 'available' remedies[.]"); Hargrove v. Riley, No. 04-CV-4587, 2007 WL 389003, at *5-6 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 31, 2007) ("The exhaustion requirement is a mandatory condition precedent to any suit challenging prison conditions, including suits brought under Section 1983.").*fn3 "[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 (2002).
The failure of a prisoner to satisfy the PLRA's exhaustion requirement is an affirmative defense that must be raised by a defendant in response to an inmate suit. Jones v. Block, 549 U.S. 199, 212 (2007). In the event the defendant establishes that the inmate plaintiff failed "to fully complete the administrative review process" prior to commencing the action, the plaintiff's complaint is subject to dismissal. 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 93 ("[W]e are persuaded that the PLRA exhaustion requirement requires proper exhaustion."). "Proper exhaustion" requires a plaintiff to procedurally exhaust his claims by "compl[ying] with the system's critical procedural rules." Woodford, 548 U.S. at 95; see also Macias v. Zenk, 495 F.3d 37, 43 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Woodford).
Here, defendants argue that plaintiff's claims are barred based upon plaintiff's alleged failure to comply with the exhaustion requirement pursuant to the PLRA. Defs.'s Memo. of Law (Dkt. No. 30, Attach. 1) at 5-7. In support, defendants have filed a declaration from Jeffrey Hale, the Assistant Director of the Inmate Grievance Program with DOCCS, who avers that, based on an examination of DOCCS's records, plaintiff "did not pursue a grievance appeal to CORC regarding an incident date of February 15, 2009[,] or February 20, 2009, including the issues presented in this action[.]" Hale Decl. (Dkt. No. 30, Attach. 3) at ¶ 4. In response, plaintiff concedes that he did not file a grievance with regard to the alleged assault on February 20, 2009, because he argued these issues, instead, "at his multiple hearing proceedings," including "Superintendent hearing proceedings" -- which I have presumed to be a reference to a disciplinary hearing -- and his administrative appeal to the Commissioner. Plf.'s Memo. of Law (Dkt. No. 42) at 9-10.
The exhaustion defense is one that is not particularly well-suited for resolution for a motion to dismiss, absent the clearest indication in a plaintiff's complaint that a failure to exhaust has occurred. See, e.g., Laporte v. Fisher, No. 11-CV-9458, 2012 WL 5278543, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 24, 2012) ("Dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to exhaust is thus appropriate only where nonexhaustion is apparent from the face of the complaint." (citing McCoy v. Goord, 255 F. Supp. 2d 233, 251, (S.D.N.Y. 2003)). In this instance, plaintiff's complaint alleges that he filed more than one grievance related to the facts in his complaint, and that his grievance was denied. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 4. Plaintiff's complaint also alleges that he filed complaints to the DOCCS Commissioner, as well as the Superintendent at Mt. McGregor. Id. Considering these allegations, which are contained in the four corners of plaintiff's complaint, I conclude that there is sufficient doubt as to whether plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies to deny defendants' motion to dismiss on this ground. See Laporte, 2012 WL 5278543, at *5 (holding that, absent a clear indication from the face of the complaint that a plaintiff has failed to exhaust, dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is not appropriate).
While defendants have submitted extrinsic evidence, including the Hale declaration, calling into question plaintiff's representation that exhaustion has been accomplished, such extrinsic materials are not properly considered on a motion to dismiss. It is true that one potential course would be to convert the motion into one for summary judgment, pursuant to Rule 12(d), so that the extrinsic materials would then properly be considered. See McCoy, 255 F. Supp. 2d at 251 ("If nonexhaustion is not clear from the face of the complaint, a defendant's motion to dismiss should be converted . . . to one for summary judgment limited to the narrow issue of exhaustion and the relatively straightforward questions about the plaintiff's efforts to exhaust, whether remedies were available, or whether exhaustion might be, in very limited circumstances, excused."). I recommend against conversion, however, since the plaintiff has not been put on notice that such a conversion was a possibility, or of the possible consequences of such a conversion. See Hernandez v. Coffey, 582 F.3d 303, 308 (2d Cir. 2009) ("[A]bsent a clear indication that the pro se litigant understands the nature and consequences of Rule 56 [governing motions for summary judgment] . . . he or she must be so informed by the movant in the notice or, failing that, by the district court.").
Moreover, although plaintiff has apparently conceded that he did not "proper[ly] exhaust" his claims, Woodford, 548 U.S. at 95, relating to the February 20, 2009 incident, he argues that he satisfied his exhaustion obligation by making his arguments during "multiple hearing proceedings," including "Superintendent hearing proceedings" and on appeal after he was found guilty. Plf.'s Memo. of Law (Dkt. No. 42) at 9. I note that "under certain circumstances, an inmate may exhaust his administrative remedies by raising his claim during a related disciplinary proceeding." Murray v. Palmer, No. 03-CV-1010, 2010 WL 1235591, at *3 (Mar. 31, 2010) (Suddaby, J.) (emphasis omitted), accord, Barksdale v. Frenya, No. 10-CV-0831, 2012 WL 4107805, at *8 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 19, 2012) (Peebles, M.J.), adopted in its entirety by 2012 WL 4107801 (D'Agostino, J.); but see LaBounty v. Johnson, 253 F. Supp. 2d 496, 501-02 (W.D.N.Y. 2003) ("An appeal from a disciplinary hearing does not satisfy the grievance exhaustion requirement for a [constitutional] claim, even if the hearing is based on the same set of facts underlying the grievance." (citing McNair v. Sgt. Jones, No. 01-CV-3253, 2002 WL 31082948, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 18, 2002)). Because the reasons for plaintiff's choice to pursue his complaints through a disciplinary proceeding are far from clear at this early stage of the action, I am unable to make a determination as to whether plaintiff may be excused from properly exhausting his administrative remedies.
For all of these reasons, I recommend that defendants' motion to dismiss on the basis of plaintiff's alleged failure to exhaust be denied, without prejudice to defendants' right to raise the defense at a point when it can be analyzed based upon a more fully developed record.
C. Eleventh Amendment
Plaintiff's complaint alleges that, at the relevant times, the named defendants were acting both in their individuals and official capacities in violating the plaintiff's constitutional rights. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 1. In their motion to dismiss, defendants argue that, to the extent they are sued in their official capacities, plaintiff's claims are precluded under the Eleventh Amendment. Defs.' Memo. of Law (Dkt. No. 30) at 7-8.
The Eleventh Amendment protects a state against suits brought in federal court by citizens of that state, regardless of the nature of the relief sought. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 662-63 (1974); Cory v. White, 457 U.S. 85, 90-91 (1982); Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 529 (2d Cir. 1993). This absolute immunity, which states enjoy under the Eleventh Amendment, extends to both state agencies and state officials sued for damages in their official capacities when the essence of the plaintiff's claim seeks recovery from the state as the real party in interest.*fn4 See, e.g., Daisernia v. State of New York, 582 F. Supp. 792, 798-99 (N.D.N.Y. 1984) (McCurn, J.) ("[A] suit which seeks a money judgment 'which must be paid from the state treasury is barred by the Eleventh Amendment,' even though it is nominally asserted against an individual official." (quoting Edelman, 415 U.S. at 663)); see also Richards v. State of New York App. Div., Second Dep't, 597 F. Supp. 689, 691 (E.D.N.Y. 1984) (citing, inter alia, Cory v. White, 457 U.S. 85, 89-91,(1982)). "To the extent that a state official is sued for damages in his official capacity, such a suit is deemed to be a suit against the state, and the official is entitled to invoke the Eleventh Amendment immunity belonging to the state."*fn5 Ying Jing Gan, 996 F.2d at 529; see also Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991) ("Suits against state officials in their official capacity therefore should be treated as suits against the State.").
Plaintiff's damage claims in this action against the named-defendants in their official capacities are, in reality, claims against the State of New York. Daisernia, 582 F. Supp. at 798-99. They are therefore subject to dismissal. Accordingly, I recommend that, to the extent that any of the claims asserted in plaintiff's complaint are asserted against any of the named-defendants in their official capacities, those claims be dismissed with prejudice.
D. Deliberate Medical Indifference
Plaintiff's complaint alleges that he requested and was denied immediate medical treatment by various correctional officers, including defendants Imfeld and Johnson, after he was allegedly punched and rendered unconscious by defendant Sheridan on February 20, 2009. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 13-14.
Plaintiff's complaint also alleges that he was not provided medical assistance until, while being transferred out of Mt. McGregor and into another facility, he threatened to cause an accident on the highway if defendants Imfeld and Johnson did not return him to the Mt. McGregor infirmary. Id. at 15-16. Defendants argue that the nature of plaintiff's alleged injuries and the modest delay in providing plaintiff medical treatment do not give rise to a plausible claim for medical indifference. Defs.' Memo. of Law (Dkt. No. 30, Attach. 1) at 8-10.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits punishment that is "incompatible with 'the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society[,]' or which 'involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain[.]'" Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102-03 (1976) (quoting Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-01 (1958) and Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 169-73 (1976) (internal citations omitted)). While the Eighth Amendment "'does not mandate comfortable prisons,' neither does it permit inhumane ones." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (quoting Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 349 (1981)).
"These elementary principles establish the government's obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration." Estelle, 429 U.S. at 103. Failure to provide inmates with medical care, "[i]n the worst cases, . . . may actually produce physical torture or lingering death, [and] . . . [i]n less serious cases, . . . may result in pain and suffering no one suggests would serve any penological purpose." Id.
A claim alleging that prison officials have violated an inmate's Eighth Amendment rights by inflicting cruel and unusual punishment must satisfy both objective and subjective requirements. Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 268 (2d Cir. 2009); Price v. Reilly, 697 F. Supp. 2d 344, 356 (E.D.N.Y. 2010). To satisfy the objective requirement, the Second Circuit has said that
[d]etermining whether a deprivation is an objectively serious deprivation entails two inquiries. The first inquiry is whether the prisoner was actually deprived of adequate medical care. As the Supreme Court has noted, the prison official's duty is only to provide reasonable medical care . . . . Second, the objective test asks whether the inadequacy in medical care is sufficiently serious. This inquiry requires the court to examine how the offending conduct is inadequate and what harm, if any, the inadequacy has caused or will likely cause the prisoner.
Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 279-80 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal citations omitted).
The second inquiry of the objective test requires a court to look at the seriousness of the inmate's medical condition if the plaintiff alleges a complete failure to provide treatment. Smith v. Carpenter, 316 F.3d 178, 185-86 (2d Cir. 2003). "Factors relevant to the seriousness of a medical condition include whether 'a reasonable doctor or patient would find it important and worthy of comment, whether the condition significantly affects an individual's daily activities, and whether it causes chronic and substantial pain." Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).
If, on the other hand, a plaintiff's complaint alleges that treatment was provided but was inadequate, the second inquiry of the objective test is narrowly confined to that specific alleged inadequacy, rather than focusing upon the seriousness of the prisoner's medical condition. Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280. "For example, if the prisoner is receiving on-going treatment and the offending conduct is an unreasonable delay or interruption in that treatment, [the focus of the] inquiry [is] on the challenged delay or interruption in treatment, rather than the prisoner's underlying medical condition alone." Id. (quoting Smith, 316 F.3d at 185) (internal quotations marks omitted).
To satisfy the subjective requirement, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had "the necessary level of culpability, shown by actions characterized by 'wantonness.'" Blyden v. Mancusi, 186 F.3d 252, 262 (2d Cir. 1999). "In medical-treatment cases . . ., the official's state of mind need not reach the level of knowing and purposeful infliction of harm; it suffices if the plaintiff proves that the official acted with deliberate indifference to inmate health." Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280. "Deliberate indifference," in a constitutional sense, "requires that the charged official act or fail to act while actually aware of a substantial risk that serious inmate harm will result." Id. (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837); see also Leach v. Dufrain, 103 F. Supp. 2d 542, 546 (N.D.N.Y. 2000) (Kahn, J.) (citing Farmer); Waldo v. Goord, No. 97-CV-1385, 1998 WL 713809, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 1, 1998) (Kahn, J. and Homer, M.J.) (same). "Deliberate indifference is a mental state equivalent to subjective recklessness, as the term is used in criminal law." Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280 (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 839-40).
Applying this legal framework to this action, I conclude that plaintiff's complaint fails to allege facts that plausibly satisfy either the objective or subjective requirements. First, although plaintiff's complaint alleges that defendants Imfeld and Johnson denied him medical care shortly after he regained consciousness, it does not provide a time frame indicating how long they denied plaintiff medical care. See generally Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 13-16.. Plaintiff's complaint does show that, at some point after, and on the same day of, the alleged assault by defendant Sheridan, he was treated at the Mt. McGregor infirmary for his injuries. Id. at 16. Accordingly, I am unable to determine whether the facts alleged plausibly suggest that defendants Imfeld and Johnson acted unreasonably under the circumstances as it relates to how quickly they provided plaintiff with medical treatment. See Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 279-80 ("Thus, prison officials who act reasonably in response to an inmate-health risk cannot be found liable under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause[.]" (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted)); see also Herbert v. NYC Dep't of Corrs., No. 10-CV-8799, 2012 WL 3834660, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 21, 2012) (finding that the plaintiff's complaint failed to state a claim for deliberate indifference where the plaintiff "concede[d] . . . that he ultimately did receive medical treatment on the same days that he alerted Captains Williams and Brown to his condition"); Sonds v. St. Barnabas Hosp. Corr. Health Svcs., 151 F. Supp. 2d 303, 312 (S.D.N.Y. May 21, 2001) (finding that the plaintiff's complaint failed to state a claim for deliberate indifference where the plaintiff suffered an injury to his finger and waited for three and one-half hours for treatment).
In addition, and more persuasively, plaintiff's complaint fails to allege facts plausibly suggesting that the alleged denial of medical care was "sufficiently serious." See Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280 (requiring, when conducting the objective test, to determine, at the second inquiry, whether "the inadequacy of medical care is sufficiently serious"). To make this determination when a plaintiff, as in this case, alleges a "failure to provide any treatment," the court "examine[s] whether the inmate's medical condition is sufficiently serious." Id. (citing Smith, 316 F.3d at 185-86). Plaintiff's complaint alleges only that he suffered injuries to his "upper facial cheek and lower eyelid, as well as [his] left upper cheek" after being punched just once. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 12. These allegations regarding his injuries do not plausibly suggest that plaintiff's daily activities were "significantly affect[ed]," or that his condition "cause[d] chronic or substantial pain." See Chance v. Armstrong, 143 F.3d 698, 702 (2d Cir. 1998) (listing that some of the factors relevant to determining the seriousness of a medical condition include "the presence of a medical condition that significantly affects an individual's activities[,] or the existence of a chronic and substantial pain"). In addition, these allegations suggest plaintiff suffered only minor injuries, which are not sufficiently serious to state a deliberate indifference claim under the Eighth Amendment. See, e.g., Harris v. Morton, No. 05-CV-1049, 2008 WL 596891, at *3, n.2 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 29, 2008) (Kahn, J. and Treece, M.J.) (noting that, although plaintiff stated he suffered from a "snapped" neck, he had not indicated that he suffered from anything other than a generic neck injury); Bennett v. Hunter, No. 02-CV-1365, 2006 WL 1174309, *3 (N.D.N.Y. May 1, 2006) (Scullin, S.J. and Lowe, M.J.) (finding that a pinched nerve in one's wrist is not a serious medical need); Jones v. Furman, No. 02-CV-939F, 2007 WL 894218, at *10 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 21, 2007) (finding that soreness, pain in, and a lump behind, his right ear, lump on the back of his head, small abrasions on his nose and knuckle, and bruising to his back, ribs, and legs, do not constitute the requisite serious medical need) (citing Hemmings v. Gorczyk, 134 F.3d 104, 109 (2d Cir.1998)); Tapp v. Tougas, No. 05-CV-0149, 2008 WL 4371766, at * 9 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 11, 2008) (Peebles, M.J.), Report and Recommendation Adopted in Part and Rejected in Part, 2008 WL 4371762 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 18, 2008) (Mordue, C.J.), (noting that a "dull pain" in plaintiff's back and kidney area and persistent rash on plaintiff's foot did not raise a constitutional issue) (citing Peterson v. Miller, No. 04-CV-0797, 2007 WL 2071743, at *7 (N.D.N.Y. July 13, 2007) (Hurd, J. and Peebles, M.J.); Salaam v. Adams, No. 03-CV-0517, 2006 WL 2827687, *10 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2006) (Kahn, J. and Lowe, M.J.) (finding that plaintiff's injuries did not constitute a serious medical condition where plaintiff suffered from intermittent back pain requiring pain relievers and physical therapy, a gastrointestinal problem with stomach pains, and a psychological problem requiring Wellbutrin and/or Neurontin); see also Ford v. Phillips, No. 05-CV-6646, 2007 WL 946703, at *12 & n.70 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2007) (finding that plaintiff's allegations of bruises, abrasions, slight bleeding, and scratches, did not constitute a sufficiently serious condition giving rise to a medical indifference claim); Sonds, 151 F. Supp. 2d at 311 (holding that a cut finger, even where the skin had "ripped off" was insufficiently serious); Bonner v. New York City Police Dep't, No. 99-CV-3207, 2000 WL 1171150, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2000) (holding that the inability to "close" a finger due to swelling in one's hand is insufficiently serious to constitute Eighth Amendment violation); Gomez v. Zwillinger, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17713, at *16 (S.D.N.Y. November 6, 1998) (holding that back pain and discomfort were not sufficiently serious); Jones v. New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., No. 84-CV-5372, 1984 WL 1280 at *1 (S.D.N.Y. November 28, 1984) (dismissing claim for deliberate medical indifference where plaintiff challenged treatment for bruises on head and body). Even construing his complaint in the light most favorable to plaintiff, I am unable to conclude that the allegations meet the objective test for a deliberate indifference claim.*fn6
Finally, even if I were to find that the allegations in plaintiff's complaint satisfy the objective test, they would not meet the subjective test. There are simply no allegations in plaintiff's complaint to plausibly suggest that, in denying plaintiff's requests for medical care, defendants Imfeld and Johnson acted with "deliberate indifference." Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280. The complaint, in contrast, alleges only that defendants Imfeld and Johnson denied plaintiff's request for medical care "after seeing [plaintiff's] injuries." Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 14. Bearing in mind that plaintiff's complaint provides little details as to the nature of his injuries, and only alleges that Lewis sustained an injury to his cheeks and an eyelid, I cannot conclude that, even assuming that defendants Imfeld and Johnson did deny plaintiff's medical care, that they were "actually aware of a substantial risk" to plaintiff's health in so doing. See Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280 (holding that deliberate indifference "requires that the charged official act . . . while actually aware of a substantial risk that serious inmate harm will result").
For all of these reasons, I recommend that defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim be granted as to plaintiff's deliberate indifference claim against defendants Imfeld and Johnson.
E. Plaintiff's Claims of Threats and Harassment
Plaintiff's complaint alleges that, on February 15, 2009, as a prelude to the assault by defendant Sheridan, he was threatened and harassed by corrections officers, including defendant Havernack. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 7. In their motion, defendants also seek dismissal of any claims that may be asserted by those allegations. Defs.' Memo. of Law (Dkt. No. 30, Attach. 1) at 10-11.
It is well recognized that "42 U.S.C. § 1983 is not designed to rectify harassment or verbal abuse." Gill v. Hoadley, 261 F. Supp. 2d 113, 129 (N.D.N.Y. 2003); Aziz Zarif Shabazz v. Pico, 994 F. Supp. 460, 474 (S.D.N.Y. 1998). Thus, "[v]erbal harassment alone, unaccompanied by any injury, no matter how inappropriate, unprofessional, or reprehensible it might seem, does not rise to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation." Carpio v. Walker, No. 95-CV-1502, 1997 WL 642543, at *6 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 15, 1997) (Pooler, J. and DiBianco, M.J.) (citing Purcell, 790 F.2d at 165 (holding that name-calling is insufficient to allege a constitutional violation)); see also Moncrieffe v. Witbeck, No. 97-CV-253, 2000 WL 949457, at *3 (N.D.N.Y. June 29, 2000) (Mordue, J.) (finding allegations that the defendants laughed at the plaintiff while he showered did not give rise to liability under section 1983); Alnutt v. Cleary, 913 F. Supp. 160, 165 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 8, 1996) ("It is well established that mere threatening language and gestures of a custodial officer do not, even if true, amount to constitutional violations.").
In this instance, because plaintiff's allegations of threats are insufficient to support a claim under section 1983, I recommend that defendants' motion to dismiss as it relates to plaintiff's claims of verbal threats against defendant Havernack be granted.
Plaintiff's complaint alleges the existence of a conspiracy among the defendants and other prison officials to cover-up the events giving rise to this action and falsify official documents in order to suggest that plaintiff's injuries were self-inflicted. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 13, 16. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that defendants Chapman and Imfeld conspired to violate his constitutional rights when they allegedly drafted a false misbehavior report accusing Lewis of self-inflicting the injuries, which plaintiff alleges, resulted from defendant Sheridan's assault. Id. at 16. Plaintiff also alleges that defendant Sheridan and Havernack conspired to conceal defendant Sheridan's alleged assault on plaintiff by moving plaintiff into a different room after the alleged assault, and refusing to provide plaintiff with immediate medical care. Id. at 13.
Defendants seek dismissal of these claims, arguing that plaintiff's complaint fails to allege facts plausibly suggesting a conspiracy, and, in any event, the claims are barred by the intra-agency conspiracy doctrine. Defs.' Memo. of Law (Dkt. No. 30, Attach. 1) at 11-12.
"To prove a [section] 1983 conspiracy, a plaintiff must show: (1) an agreement between two or more state actors or between a state actor and a private entity; (2) to act in concert to inflict an unconstitutional injury; and (3) an overt act done in furtherance of that goal causing damages." Pangburn v. Culbertson, 200 F.3d 65, 72 (2d Cir. 1999); Malsh v. Austin, 901 F. Supp. 757, 763 (S.D.N.Y. 1995). "A complaint containing only conclusory, vague, or general allegations of a conspiracy to deprive a person of constitutional rights cannot withstand a motion to dismiss." Sommer v. Dixon, 709 F.2d 173, 175 (2d Cir. 1983).
As it relates to plaintiff's claim of conspiracy against defendants Chapman and Imfeld, "a prison inmate has no general right to be free from being falsely accused in a misbehavior report." Boddie v. Schnieder, 105 F.3d 857, 862 (2d Cir. 1997); see also Applewhite v. Sheahan, No. 08-CV-6045, 2013 WL 144957, at *10 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 11, 2013) (dismissing the plaintiff's claim arising from allegations that the defendant filed a false misbehavior report against the plaintiff to disguise the fact that the defendant stole the plaintiff's legal books). "There must be more, such as retaliation against the prisoner for exercising a constitutional right." Boddie, 105 F.3d at 862. Where an alleged false misbehavior report is filed against a prisoner, his "due process rights are protected if he is granted a hearing on the charges and given an opportunity to rebut them[.]" Jones v. Coughlin, 45 F.3d 677, 679 (2d Cir. 1995).
Here, the allegation that defendants Chapman and Imfeld conspired to file a false misbehavior report against plaintiff is not cognizable under section 1983 because plaintiff has no general constitutional right to be free from being falsely accused in a misbehavior report. See Boddie, 105 F.3d at 862 (dismissing the plaintiff's conspiracy claim arising from allegations that the defendants conspired to retaliate against him by filing a false misbehavior report). For this reason, I recommend defendants' motion to dismiss be granted as it relates to plaintiff's conspiracy claim asserted against defendants Chapman and Imfeld.
As it relates to the conspiracy claim against defendants Sheridan and Havernack, I likewise find that plaintiff has failed to state a claim because there is no constitutional right to be free from the cover-up of a past constitutional violation. Generally, the case law that addresses allegations that a defendant conspired to conceal a violation of a plaintiff's constitutional rights assess whether the allegations are sufficient to state a claim of conspiracy for denying the plaintiff's constitutional right to access the courts. See, e.g., McGarty v. Town of Carmel, 997 F. Supp. 435, 437 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (finding that, "for purposes of a motion to amend, plaintiff has made an adequate showing of deprivation of access to courts, and plaintiff's assertions are sufficient to state a [section] 1983 conspiracy claim" where the pleadings alleged that the defendants conspired to conceal evidence that they used excessive force). Here, however, plaintiff has failed to allege any facts that plausibly suggest that his right to access the courts has been denied. Indeed, plaintiff's complaint fails to allege any facts that plausibly suggest that any of plaintiff's constitutional rights have been violated as a result of the alleged conspiracy between defendants Sheridan and Havernack to conceal defendant Sheridan's alleged assault. For this reason, I recommend that defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's conspiracy claim as against defendants Sheridan and Havernack be granted.
For the sake of completeness, I will also briefly address whether plaintiff's conspiracy claims are barred, as argued by defendants, by the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. That doctrine provides that "there is no conspiracy if the conspiratorial conduct challenged is essentially a single act by a single corporation, acting exclusively through its own directors, officers, and employees, each acting within the scope of his employment." See, e.g., Hermann v. Moore, 576 F.2d 453, 459 (2d Cir. 1978); see also Hartline v. Gallo, 546 F.3d 95, 99 n.3 (2d Cir. 2008). While the Second Circuit has applied this doctrine in the context of claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1985, see, e.g., Hermann, 576 F.2d at 459; Girard v. 94th and Fifth Ave. Corp., 530 F.2d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 1976), it has not considered the doctrine's applicability to conspiracy claims arising under section 1983. See Alvarez v. City of New York, No. 11-CV-5464, 2012 WL 6212612, at *3 and n.21 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 12, 2012) (finding that the Second Circuit has "applied the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine to Section 1985 claims[, b]ut it has not considered its applicability to conspiracy claims brought under Section 1983"); see also Appel v. Spiridon, No. 06-CV-1177, 2011 WL 3651353, at *19 (D. Conn. Aug. 18, 2011) (same). Because several district courts within this circuit have applied the doctrine to section 1983 claims,*fn7 and I have not found any controlling authority to the contrary, I find that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine applies to the conspiracy claims against defendants Chapman and Imfeld arising under section 1983.
As it relates to the conspiracy claims against defendants Sheridan and Havernack, however, I find that the "personal stake" exception to the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine precludes its applicability. Under this exception, the doctrine does not apply "to individuals within a single entity when they are pursuing personal interests wholly separate and apart from the entity." Bond v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, No. 97-CV-1337, 1999 WL 151702, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 17, 1999). For the exception to apply, "[t]he plaintiff must . . . allege that [the defendants] acted other than in the normal course of their corporate duties." Girard, 530 F.2d at 72 (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, plaintiff's complaint clearly alleges that defendants Sheridan and Havernack allegedly moved plaintiff from the location where he was allegedly assaulted while he was still unconscious and refused him immediate medical care in an attempt to conceal defendant Sheridan's alleged assault on plaintiff. Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) at 13. These allegations plausibly suggest that defendants Sheridan and Havernack acted in their own personal interest, not in the interest of DOCCS, in covering up defendant Sheridan's alleged excessive force. See Hill v. City of New York, 2005 WL 3591719, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 30, 2005) (finding that the plaintiff's allegations that the defendants conspired to cover-up one of the defendant's alleged use of excessive force was sufficient to apply the "personal stake" exception to the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine); Alvarez, 2012 WL 6212612, at *3 (same). I therefore recommend a finding that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine does not apply to plaintiff's conspiracy claims against defendants Sheridan and Havernack.
G. Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to Amend
In response to defendants' motion, plaintiff has requested leave to amend to his complaint. Dkt. No. 46. In his proposed amended complaint, plaintiff eliminates the claims of threats and conspiracy. See generally Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 2. However, the proposed amended complaint retains a medical indifference claim against defendants Sheridan, Chapman, Imfeld, and Johnson. Id. at 13. Defendants oppose plaintiff's motion for leave to amend, arguing that the claims set forth in his proposed amended complaint are futile in light of his failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and that the allegations set forth in that pleading do not cure the deficiencies as it relates to the medical indifference cause of action. Dkt. No. 47 at 4-11.
Motions for leave to amend are governed by Rule 15(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which provides, in pertinent part, that unless amendment as a matter of right is permitted -- circumstance that is not applicable here -- a party may amend its pleading "only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave. Fed. Riv. Civ. P. 15(a)(2). "The court should freely give leave when justice so requires." Id. Under Rule 15(a), leave to amend ordinarily should be liberally granted absent undue delay, bad faith, dilatory tactics, undue prejudice in being served with the proposed pleading, or futility. Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962); Elma RT v. Landesmann Int'l Mktg. Corp., No. 98-CV-3662, 2000 WL 297197, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 22, 2000) (citing Foman).
Notwithstanding the familiar and well accepted principle that leave to amend should be granted freely, if a claim contained in a proposed amended complaint would be vulnerable in the face of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, then permitting amendment would be an act of futility that should not be sanctioned. See, e.g., Saxholm AS v. Dynal, Inc., 938 F. Supp. 120, 124 (E.D.N.Y. 1996); In re Boesky Sec. Litig., 882 F. Supp. 1371, 1379 (S.D.N.Y. 1995). If, on the other hand, a "proposed claim sets forth facts and circumstances which may entitle the plaintiff to relief, then futility is not a proper basis on which to deny amendment." Saxholm, 938 F. Supp. at 124 (citing Allstate Ins. v. Administratia Asigurarilor De Stat, 875 F. Supp. 1022, 1029 (S.D.N.Y. 1995)).
As is the case with respect to his original complaint, plaintiff's proposed amended complaint sets forth a plausible cause of action for the use of excessive force as against defendant Sheridan.*fn8 Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 2 at 6. Moreover, plaintiff's proposed amended complaint, like his original complaint, alleges that plaintiff fulfilled his obligation to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 2 at 3-4. The proposed amended complaint similarly asserts a medical indifference claim, as does its predecessor, but does not cure the deficiencies identified in this report and recommendation. For example, plaintiff's proposed amended complaint fails to allege facts plausibly suggesting that his injuries were "sufficiently serious." See Salahuddin, 467 F.3d at 280 (finding that, to determine whether "the inadequacy of medical care is sufficiently serious" when a plaintiff alleges "failure to provide any treatment," the court "examine[s] whether the inmate's medical condition is sufficiently serious."). Instead, plaintiff's proposed amended complaint alleges only that his face "swelled up . . . with his right eye shut closed" and that he experienced pain as a result of his injuries. Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 2 at 8. As a result, I find that it would be futile to permit plaintiff to file his proposed amended complaint, and therefore recommend that his motion for leave to amend be denied.
H. Whether to Permit Further Amendment
Ordinarily, a court should not dismiss a complaint filed by a pro se litigant without granting leave to amend at least once "when a liberal reading of the complaint gives any indication that a valid claim might be stated." Branum v. Clark, 927 F.2d 698, 704-05 (2d Cir.1991); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a) (leave to amend "shall be freely given when justice so requires"); see also Mathon v. Marine Midland Bank, N.A., 875 F.Supp. 986, 1003 (E.D.N.Y.1995) (permitting leave to replead granted where court could "not determine that the plaintiffs would not, under any circumstances, be able to allege a civil RICO conspiracy"). Given the procedural history of this action, I must next determine whether to recommend that plaintiff be afforded the benefit of this general rule.
As plaintiff seemingly recognizes, and as is reflected in his proposed amended complaint, the claims arising from allegations of the issuance of false misbehavior reports, harassment, threatening conduct, and conspiracy are not plausibly stated, nor are they likely to be in any future amended complaint. See generally Dkt. No. 46, Attach. 2. In contrast, while I also have significant reservations as to plaintiff's ability to state facts demonstrating the existence of a cognizable medical indifference claim for the reasons set forth above, I nonetheless recommend that he be granted leave to amend in order to attempt to plead facts that would support such a claim.
In formulating a new, amended complaint, plaintiff is advised that the law in this circuit clearly provides that "'complaints relying on the civil rights statutes are insufficient unless they contain some specific allegations of fact indicating a deprivation of rights, instead of a litany of general conclusions that shock but have no meaning.'" Hunt v. Budd, 895 F. Supp. 35, 38 (N.D.N.Y. 1995) (McAvoy, J.) (quoting Barr v. Abrams, 810 F.2d 358, 363 (2d Cir. 1987)); Pourzandvakil v. Humphry, No. 94-CV-1594, 1995 WL 316935, at *7 (N.D.N.Y. May 22, 1995) (Pooler, J.). In his amended complaint, plaintiff therefore must clearly set forth the facts that give rise to the claim, including the dates, times, and places of the alleged underlying acts, and each individual who committed each alleged wrongful act. In addition, the revised pleading should specifically allege facts demonstrating the specific involvement of each of the named defendants in the constitutional deprivations alleged in sufficient detail to establish that they were tangibly connected to those deprivations. See Bass v. Jackson, 790 F.2d 260, 263 (2d Cir. 1986)
IV. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATION
Plaintiff's complaint in this action states a plausible claim for use of
excessive force against defendant Sheridan. However, his complaint fails to state a cognizable claim for medical indifference, filing a false misbehavior report, threats and harassment, and conspiracy against any of defendants.*fn9 I therefore recommend dismissal of those claims, with leave to file a proposed amended complaint, in accordance with the local rules of practice for this court, with respect to the plaintiff's medical indifference claim only.
Turning to defendants' argument that plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed on the basis of plaintiff's alleged failure to exhaust his administrative remedies, I conclude that the issue cannot be determined at this early stage of the litigation. As a result, I recommend that this portion of defendants' motion be denied, without prejudice to renewal upon a more robust record, either on motion for summary judgment or at trial.
Based upon the foregoing it is therefore hereby respectfully RECOMMENDED that defendants' motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 30) be GRANTED, and that all of plaintiff's claims, except those based upon defendant Sheridan's alleged assault of plaintiff, asserted against defendants in their individual and official capacities be DISMISSED; and it is further
RECOMMENDED that plaintiff be given leave to replead only with respect to his deliberate medical indifference cause of action; and it is further
RECOMMENDED that plaintiff's motion for leave to amend (Dkt. No. 46) be DENIED, without prejudice to his right to submit an amended complaint to the court that cures the deficiencies identified in this report and recommendation.
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.