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Hernandez v. Goord

United States District Court, Second Circuit

May 29, 2013



SIDNEY H. STEIN, District Judge.

Pro se plaintiff Juan Hernandez has brought this wide-ranging lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against numerous officers and employees of the New York State prison system. Hernandez alleges that defendants engaged in a massive conspiracy to violate repeatedly his constitutional rights-a conspiracy that allegedly lasted for years and stretched across two prisons where Hernandez has been incarcerated. After extended motion practice and discovery proceedings, the defendants who remain in the action have now moved for summary judgment on some, but not all, of Hernandez's claims. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants defendants' motion in part and denies it in part. This action will proceed to trial on claims arising out of two incidents: 1) disciplinary write-ups of Hernandez in October 2001 by defendant Robert Smith, and 2) the alleged assault in July 2004 and subsequent threats of Hernandez by defendants Robert Clerc, Colin Fraser, Michael Mrzyglod, and Douglas Williams.


A. Factual Background

1. Fires at Sing Sing and Placement in IPC

Juan Hernandez has been imprisoned in the New York State penal system since 1994. Prior to January 2000, Hernandez was housed at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Hernandez filed a lawsuit against multiple officers and officials at Sing Sing in 1997 for alleged violations of his Eighth Amendment right to medical care. See Hernandez v. Keane, 341 F.3d 137, 141-43 (2d Cir. 2003). In that action, Hernandez alleged, among other things, that Superintendant Charles Greiner failed to supervise properly prison officials and that Kathy Greiner, a nurse at Sing Sing and the wife of Charles Greiner, failed to provide Hernandez medical care. See id. at 148-49.

The occurrences that give rise to the lawsuit before this Court began during the pendency of the Keane action. On September 3, 1998, a fire broke out in Hernandez's cell, allegedly causing extensive property damage. (Morris Decl. ¶ 3.) Five days later, another fire erupted in Hernandez's cell. ( Id. ¶ 4; Hernandez Dep. at 94-95.)[1] Defendant Noel Morris investigated this fire and concluded that it was "caused by unknown person or persons." (Morris Decl., Ex. C.)

Following the September 8, 1998 fire, a confidential informant told one "Sgt. M. Cooper" that the fires in Hernandez's cell had been set intentionally. (Third Amended Complaint ("TAC"), Ex. F; Nowve Decl., Ex. B.)[2] As a result, Hernandez was placed into involuntary protective custody for several weeks. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶¶ 9-10, 13-14; Defs.' Reply Mem. at 3 n.1.) Hernandez was released following a hearing where it was determined that at least one of the fires was not intentionally set. (Nowve Decl., Ex. B.)

2. Transfer to Green Haven

In January 2000, Hernandez was transferred from Sing Sing to Green Haven Correctional Facility. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 15; Collado Decl. ¶ 5.) According to the paperwork supporting the transfer, the move was initiated because Hernandez allegedly had "recognized a security staff [at Sing Sing] with whom he had a previous relationship. Has asked for favors, has knowledge of staff's family details & desires to rekindle relationship. Transfer requested to any suitable facility to alleviate untenable situation." (Collado Decl., Ex. A.) Superintendant Greiner was also transferred to Green Haven a few months after Hernandez's transfer. (Greiner Decl. ¶ 3.) According to Greiner, he was told he would be transferred to Green Haven in about February 2000 and he became Green Haven's superintendant on May 4, 2000. ( Id. )

Hernandez claims that his travails increased once Greiner arrived at Green Haven. Hernandez asserts that his cell was searched twice in May 2000 as "a message to plaintiff concerning the upcoming [ Keane ] trial." (TAC ¶ 28; Hernandez Dep. at 158.)[3] That trial took place in October 2000, and Hernandez was transferred to federal custody so that he could participate. See Hernandez v. Keane, No. 97 Civ. 1267, 2000 WL 34239139, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 28, 2000), aff'd, 341 F.3d 137 (2d Cir. 2003). The Keane trial ended in a jury verdict for Hernandez, but the trial judge overturned it pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See id. at *3, 9. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed this decision. See Hernandez, 341 F.3d at 149.

3. Return to Green Haven Following the Keane Trial

Hernandez remained in federal custody after the Keane trial for medical treatment and did not return to Green Haven until February 2001. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 18; Hernandez Dep. at 91.) When he did, he allegedly found a hangman's noose waiting on his bed. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 18; Hernandez Dep. at 204-07.) Hernandez claims he filed a grievance about the noose-a grievance that "all of a sudden turned up missing." (Hernandez Dep. at 206.)

Hernandez had another unpleasant shock on his return to Green Haven. Prison officials had previously determined that Hernandez should be placed in a bottom bunk due to his medical conditions. (TAC, Ex. B at 41.) However, when Hernandez returned to Green Haven, Virginia Blaetz, the official in charge of assigning bunks, placed him in the top bunk in a cell with two inmates. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 20; Hernandez Dep. at 325-29.) After Hernandez complained, prison officials admitted that this placement was "an error, " but he nonetheless stayed in the top bunk for some time. (TAC, Ex. B at 28-29.) Hernandez claims that his placement in a top bunk caused him pain in his left hand and wrist. (TAC ¶ 41; Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. H at 9.) As a result, Hernandez was prescribed MS Contin, to which he claims he has become addicted. (TAC ¶ 41; Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n at 48.)

4. October 2001 Disciplinary Write-Ups and Tier II Disciplinary Hearing

In the months following Hernandez's return to Green Haven, he became upset at the supposed refusal of his prison counselor, defendant Robert Smith, to see him. Then, on October 1, 2001, Hernandez was allegedly told by unnamed corrections officials to report to Smith's office. (Tier II Disciplinary Hearing Transcript, annexed to the Nowve Decl. as Ex. F, at TR68.) Hernandez purportedly received a pass that authorized him to travel to Smith's office and back. ( Id. at TR66-69.) At the entrance to the counselors' area, Hernandez informed an officer that he had been told to report to Smith. (Nowve Decl., Ex. E.) That officer passed on this information to Smith, who replied that he had not issued a call-out summoning Hernandez, and that Hernandez "was simply trying to get to see [Smith] on his own terms." ( Id. )

Hernandez wrote a letter to a prison higher-up complaining of Smith's refusal to see him and asking to be transferred to a new counselor. (TAC, Ex. C at 1-2.) Three days later, on October 4, Smith formally summoned Hernandez to his office. (Nowve Decl., Ex. E.) Smith himself described during the subsequent Tier II disciplinary hearing what happened next. Smith, in his own words, "told him [Hernandez] not to play me [Smith] anymore about him - to, uh, the bullpen when not being on a call-out, and then trying to gain sides." (Disc. Hearing Tr. at TR62.) Smith also presented Hernandez with supposed evidence showing that Smith was not neglecting him. (Nowve Decl., Ex. E.)

At that point, as Smith later put it, "one thing led to the next" and the two got into a heated argument. (Disc. Hearing Tr. at TR62-63.) A counselor who witnessed this argument later stated that "they were having [] quite a disagreement.... [T]hey were pretty close towards each other, about-let's say less than-definitely less than a foot from each other's face.... And they were both very loud." ( Id. at TR52.) The witness clarified that "it didn't look like you [Hernandez] was going to haul off and hit him [Smith], or he you. It just looked like a heated argument, much like a baseball manager yelling at an umpire []. It went both ways." ( Id. at TR55.)

Hernandez left Smith's office and Smith filled out two inmate misbehavior reports-one concerning Hernandez's attempted visit to Smith three days earlier, and another concerning Hernandez's alleged harassment and false statements that had just taken place. (Nowve Decl., Ex. E.) Smith later explained the delay in writing up the October 1 incident as follows: "I could've written it for [Hernandez being] out of place, and I didn't. Uh, and then as a result of our discussion in my office, I just decided, okay, since he is lying about the, uh, out of place, I'm going to write a ticket. So I wrote both of them at the same time that day." (Disc. Hearing Tr. at TR61.) Smith waited another six days before submitting these reports. ( Id., Nowve Decl., Ex. E.)

Smith's two misbehavior reports triggered a Tier II disciplinary hearing. See 7 NYCRR § 270.3(a)(2). On October 20, 2001, following a two-day hearing, the hearing officer dismissed all charges based on the documentary record and testimony from Hernandez, Smith, and the counselor who witnessed their argument. (Nowve Decl., Ex. E; Disc. Hearing Tr. at TR96.)

5. April 2004 Misbehavior Report and Drug Test

Two and one-half years later, on April 14, 2004, Hernandez was in the Green Haven clinic when a prison officer named Miller was brought in after being assaulted by an inmate. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 24; Hernandez Dep. at 296-97.) Defendant Tracy Kohler was escorting Miller into the clinic and claimed to observe Hernandez, along with other inmates, "laughing, pointing and making derogatory remarks" at Miller's condition. (Nowve Decl., Ex. G at 4.) Kohler filed a misbehavior report, charging Hernandez with harassment and "conduct which disturbs the order of the facility." ( Id.; Hernandez Dep. at 300, 305-06.) She also requested that Hernandez be directed to provide a urine sample for drug testing. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 25; Hernandez Dep. at 314.) The justification for this test was provided as "abnormal behavior in clinic bullpen." (Nowve Decl., Ex. H.)

A prison official investigated Kohler's report and asked more than ten inmates whether they "hear[d] Hernandez make these statements." (TAC, Ex. C at 15.) None of the inmates admitted to hearing Hernandez's comments. ( Id. ) Kohler's report was dismissed for procedural reasons on April 20, 2004. (Nowve Decl., Ex. G at 1.) A day later, Hernandez was ordered to give a urine sample. (Nowve Decl., Ex. H.)

6. July 2004 Assault, Denial of Medical Care, and Threats

Finally, Hernandez alleges that on July 6, 2004, two officers isolated him from other prisoners who were on their way to recreation. (Hernandez Dep. at 411-12.) Defendant Douglas Williams then allegedly physically and sexually assaulted plaintiff while defendants Robert Clerc, Michael Mrzyglod, and Colin Fraser looked on, doing nothing. ( Id. at 412-32.) Hernandez claims that Clerc and Williams warned him not to file a grievance about the assault. ( Id. at 436, 442-43.) Defendants contend that this incident was nothing more than a frisk. (Defs.' Mem. in Supp. at 27.)

Williams and Fraser led Hernandez back to his cell after this event, all the while allegedly ignoring his requests for medical assistance. (Hernandez Dep. at 444-46.) Hernandez finally saw a nurse at Green Haven two days later, on July 8, 2004. (Nowve Decl., Ex. I.) Despite Hernandez's claims about the alleged assault, the nurse noted that Hernandez's only complaint was a sore throat. ( Id.; Hernandez Dep. at 464.) Five days later, on July 13, 2004, Hernandez saw a Green Haven doctor, who noted that he did not observe any injuries. (Nowve Decl., Ex. I.)

Despite the officers' warnings, Hernandez did in fact file a grievance about this alleged assault. (TAC, Ex. D at 15-16.) Three of the officers responded by allegedly threatening Hernandez. More specifically, Hernandez allegedly overhead Mrzyglod tell another officer that Mrzyglod was "going to kill" Hernandez. (Hernandez Dep. at 482.) Williams allegedly cornered Hernandez and told him: "we are going to get you again. This time nobody is going to help you and it will be worse, and... if you sue me, so what? The state will pay, not me." ( Id. at 484.) Clerc and Williams sometimes gave Hernandez "the sly way" while Hernandez was walking down hallways in Green Haven. ( Id. at 473.) Hernandez also witnessed Clerc "standing in front of [Hernandez] and whispering to [Clerc's] buddies and then they start laughing and pointing at [Hernandez]." ( Id. ...

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