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Wright v. Esgrow

United States District Court, Second Circuit

April 30, 2013



CHARLES J. SIRAGUSA, District Judge.

This is an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, in which Plaintiff, a prison inmate in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"), alleges that Defendant, who is a hearing officer employed by DOCCS, violated his federal constitutional due process rights during a disciplinary hearing. Now pending before the Court is Defendant's motion (Docket No. [#8]) to dismiss and/or for summary judgment. The application for summary judgment is granted.


Unless otherwise noted, the following are the undisputed facts of this case. At all relevant times Plaintiff was confined at Elmira Correctional Facility. On or about July 3, 2008, Corrections Sergeant Krause ("Krause") issued Plaintiff a misbehavior report, accusing him, along with two other inmates, of assaulting another inmate and "forc[ing] [him] to engage in [a] sexual act." The misbehavior report alleged that the attack had taken place approximately[1] one month earlier, "in early June at approximately 2:30 pm in the Mess Hall #2 inmate bathroom." Plaintiff and the other two accused inmates worked in the facility kitchen that was near the aforementioned bathroom. The kitchen was supervised by Corrections Officer Knuth ("Knuth"). However, the kitchen was separated from the bathroom area by a door that was usually, if not always, locked and controlled by Corrections Officer Otto ("Otto"). The misbehavior report did not specifically describe the nature of the alleged sexual assault. The misbehavior report also did not state that a weapon was used during the attack, though the alleged victim later claimed that his attackers used a weapon to subdue him.

Upon being accused of the infraction, Plaintiff was immediately placed in the Special Housing Unit ("SHU") pending a hearing. Plaintiff was assigned a hearing assistant, who gathered whatever evidence Plaintiff requested to the extent that it was available. In that regard, Plaintiff asked to have the videotape of the area where the attack allegedly took place, but prison officials indicated that the tape was not preserved.

The disciplinary hearing was held between July 8, 2008 and August 14, 2008.[2] Defendant James Esgrow was the hearing officer. The Court will refer to the victim as " X." X was an inmate who worked in Mess Hall 2, near the kitchen. Plaintiff's theory of defense was that the attack never happened, and that X had fabricated the entire event, because he wanted a transfer to another facility. Plaintiff claimed that X had made similar false allegations at Attica Correctional Facility ("Attica"). Plaintiff further maintained that the attack could not have occurred as X claimed for the following reasons: 1) Plaintiff would have been busy working in the kitchen under Knuth's supervision at 2:30 p.m.; 2) kitchen workers were not allowed in Mess Hall 2, and if the event had occurred as X claimed, Otto would have seen it; and 3) X was "keeplocked" in his cell for a disciplinary infraction at the time of the alleged attack.

At the start of the hearing, Plaintiff provided Defendant with a list of witnesses that he wanted to testify. Plaintiff asked to call Krause, Knuth and Otto. Defendant indicated that he would question Knuth and Otto outside of Plaintiff's presence, but that Plaintiff could provide him with certain questions to ask Knuth and Otto, which Plaintiff did. Plaintiff also requested testimony from his two "co-defendants, " Michael Bethea ("Bethea") and Anthony Green ("Green"), as well as two other inmates, Keith Edwards ("Edwards") and Brandon Holmes ("Holmes"). Plaintiff also asked Defendant to explore X's mental health history and possible motivation for fabricating the allegation, since X had a history of mental illness and of fabricating such allegations to obtain transfers. Defendant told Plaintiff that he would confidentially review X's records. Plaintiff told Defendant that he understood that certain parts of the testimony from witnesses would be confidential, and that he would not be allowed to hear such testimony. Plaintiff's witness list did not include two civilian witnesses who worked in the kitchen.

At the hearing, in Plaintiff's presence Krause testified that he had attempted to reviewvideotape from the security cameras, but it was not preserved. Plaintiff attempted to ask Krause questions about the nature and extent of his investigation, but Defendant did not allow the questions, since he intended to question witnesses with firsthand knowledge about those matters.

Defendant took additional testimony from numerous witnesses outside of Plaintiff's presence. The first confidential witness was a corrections officer who interviewed X. The officer stated that X told him that the three inmates had anally raped him and then made him perform oral sex on all three of them. Subsequently, though, X testified that he was anally raped by only two, and only forced to perform oral sex on one of them. The corrections officer further testified that it was his understanding that the accused inmates, who worked in the kitchen, had "free access" to the mess hall where the assault allegedly occurred. The officer further indicated that the door between the kitchen and mess hall was usually unlocked, and that it would be " very easy" for kitchen workers to have committed the attack. The officer also stated that he had heard from inmates that the three accused inmates were "high ranking gang members." The officer further stated that he had talked with unidentified inmates who worked in the kitchen, and they said that they had heard that someone had recently been raped in the mess hall bathroom.

Defendant also took confidential testimony from a Corrections Captain who had interviewed X about the alleged attack. The Captain indicated that X was unsure of the exact date of the attack. The Captain stated that X seemed genuinely fearful when being interviewed, and that facility medical records indicated that X had experienced some type of anal penetration. On that point, though, there is no indication that any objective exam was performed. Instead, it appears that X merely made a subjective complaint of having anal problems. Nevertheless, the Captain stated that he found X to be credible. Curiously, though, the Captain described X as being a "very small vulnerable white inmate, " with a "slight" build, [3] while the aforementioned corrections officer described X as follows:

[X] is about 5' 8", stocky build, he's not somebody that's ripped and in shape but he looks like a typical farmboy type.... He doesn't look like your typical guy that is taken advantage of sexually. He's not a 135 lb scar[ed] looking kid, he's just a normal, average guy.

The Captain admitted that he was not aware of any evidence to either support or deny X's accusation, and that it was a matter of X's word against the word of the three accused inmates.

Defendant also took confidential testimony from a psychologist at Elmira, who interviewed X following the alleged assault. The psychologist stated that X seemed more nervous than usual following the date of the alleged assault, and claimed to be suicidal, which resulted in him being transferred to a mental health unit.

Defendant next took confidential testimony from a corrections officer who was working in the kitchen on June 4, 2008. The officer testified that he was right in the kitchen and could see all of the inmates working there. The officer further stated that the kitchen inmates had their own bathroom and would not use the mess hall bathroom. The officer opined that the three accused inmates could not have committed the attack in the mess hall bathroom:

Q. Based on you recollection, can you tell me that these guys could not have left their post and gotten into that bathroom?
A. I can't say 100% on that, but I would say no they didn't.

In that regard, the officer stated, for example, that Plaintiff worked on the ovens, and that he generally never left his work area for any reason, and that if he had done so, it would have appeared strange, and he would have remembered it. The officer stated that it would have been even more unusual and remarkable if all three of the accused inmates had been missing from the kitchen at the same time, and he did not recall that happening. The ...

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