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Randle v. Alexander

United States District Court, Second Circuit

May 30, 2013

EL'REKO D'WYANE RANDLE, Plaintiff,
v.
SERGEANT TRACY ALEXANDER et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

This civil rights case, brought by Plaintiff El'Reko D'Wyane Randle pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against a number of prison officials, arises from serious allegations of abuse and neglect within the prison system. Before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the Third Amended Verified Complaint ("TAC") pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(3), and 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background

A. Factual Background[1]

Plaintiff El'Reko D'Wayne Randle ("Randle" or "Plaintiff") is currently a prisoner in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"). During late 2008 and early 2009, when the events giving rise to this suit occurred, Randle was housed at Green Haven Correctional Facility ("Green Haven"), within the protective custody unit commonly referred to as "the Company."

There are several defendants in this action. Defendant Officers Dennis Benitez, William Monzon, H. Hanaman, and K. Nelson (together, the "Guard Defendants") were all correctional officers at Green Haven during the relevant time. Defendants Tracy Alexander and Robert Ercole were, respectively, a sergeant at and the Superintendent of Green Haven while Randle was incarcerated there.

Defendant Marinelli was Randle's therapist during and prior to Randle's suicide attempts. Defendant Doris Ramirez-Ramero was the Director of Correctional Mental Health Services during Randle's time in the Group Therapy Program ("the GTP").

John Carvill, Zaida Chase, Betsy Smith, and Mariann Amodio were CLM Reviewers working for the DOCCS Office of Classification and Movement while Randle was maintained in the GTP. Steven Kaska and Sean Duncan were IG Reviewers working for the Office of the Inspector General during the relevant time period. Donald Selsky and Kenneth Decker were both working for the Assistant Commissioner of DOCCS during the relevant time; and Ryan McNulty, Melissa Collins, Mitchell Lake, and Charles Gordon were all Mental Health Reviewers working for the DOCCS Bureau of Mental Health during the relevant time period. Timothy Votraw and Albert Prack were Special Housing reviewers for the Special Housing/Inmate Disciplinary Program while Randle was housed in that unit. Collectively, the aforementioned defendants in this paragraph are referred to as "the Mental Health Defendants."

While Randle was incarcerated at Green Haven, he interacted with Benitez frequently, as Benitez was one of the guards who regularly worked shifts on the Company. Benitez frequently encouraged inmates within the Company to harass and punish inmates whom Benitez disliked. These harassing inmates acted as Benitez's agents, whom he utilized to inflict punishment on those inmates he targeted. Moreover, it was common knowledge within the Company that inmates could approach Benitez for "permission" to fight another inmate. Benitez, in turn, would encourage these fights and would sanction inmate fighting, particularly when he did not like the inmates involved. Benitez frequently suggested areas to inmates where these fights could occur, uninterrupted. As a result of Benitez's behavior, inmates frequently filed grievances about these fights and harassment; however, nothing ever changed.

Randle was one of the inmates whom Benitez disliked, and Benitez routinely "roughed up" Randle's cell more than necessary for the sole purpose of intimidating Randle. Benitez also filed various false reports against Randle.

Melvin Johnson was another inmate housed at Green Haven in the Company, as he too necessitated protective custody. Johnson was also disliked by Benitez and the Guard Defendants. Though Randle bore no ill will toward Johnson, Benitez and Monzon would frequently make harassing comments to Randle, suggesting that Randle and Johnson disliked each other. These intimations culminated in December 2008, when Benitez approached Randle and stated that Johnson and Randle should fight each other. Benitez explained that, as was Benitez's practice, he would not report Randle, or otherwise discipline him, if he fought Johnson-so long as no weapons were used.

Benitez added that Randle should not be afraid to fight Johnson, as Johnson was a "bitch." Benitez's assessment of Johnson as a "bitch" derived from Benitez's own interaction with Johnson, when Benitez himself had challenged Johnson to a fight, and Johnson had refused, or, in Benitez's words, had "bitched up." Benitez added that if Randle fought Johnson in a secluded area in the back of the Company, he would not file misbehavior reports against either inmate. It was also well known throughout the Company that Benitez disliked Johnson, and Benitez told at least one other inmate that Benitez was "just waiting" for that inmate to fight Johnson.

Randle refused Benitez's offer to fight Johnson, and in response, Benitez threatened Randle, stating that if Benitez caught Randle fighting without his prior approval he would diffuse the fight with his "stick"-referring to his baton-and send someone "upstairs"-referring to the Special Housing Unit-"broken up, " meaning bruised and beaten. Randle understood this threat to mean that if Randle ever got into a fight without first seeking Benitez's approval, Benitez would beat him with his baton.

Monzon knew of Benitez's feelings towards Johnson, and that Benitez approved of inmates fighting each other within specified conditions as a general rule. Moreover, Monzon once suggested to Randle that there was tension between Randle and Johnson. However, Randle disagreed with this characterization.

In a further attempt to incite a fight between Randle and Johnson, Benitez next went to Randle's cell and told Randle that Johnson had written a letter to the prison administration falsely stating that Randle was keeping weapons within his cell. Randle went to Johnson's cell to discuss this issue with him, and the two engaged in a brief fistfight while inside Johnson's cell. Monzon, who was near Johnson's cell at the time, told Randle and Johnson to stop fighting, a request with which the two immediately complied. Monzon next ordered Randle to leave Johnson's cell, locked Johnson's cell, frisked Randle, and took Randle-without handcuffs or restraints-to the area in front of the Company known as the "A-1 mantrap."

Monzon told Hanaman and Nelson that there had been a fight in the Company, and a few minutes later, Benitez brought Johnson-also without restraints-to the A-1 mantrap area. One of the officers proceeded to unlock the door to an open area in front of the mantrap known as the "CO Bubble, " and Randle and Johnson were ordered to step through the Company's entrance/exit door. Benitez also told Hanaman and Nelson to ensure that all of the other inmates within range were locked within their cells.

At this point, Benitez asked Johnson and Randle if they wished to finish their fight, stating that they had five minutes to "finish what y'all started." The Guard Defendants, who were all present at the time, heard Benitez make this statement to Johnson and Randle. Randle refused, stating that the fight was over. Benitez, dissatisfied that Randle and Johnson would not continue their fight, took out his baton and tapped it on his hand, and reminded Randle of his prior warning about the consequences of getting into a fight without Benitez's prior approval. Benitez proceeded to tell Randle and Johnson that they had to "finish" the fight, while the Guard Defendants watched, and if they refused, Benitez would beat them with his baton and tell his supervisors that Randle and Johnson had received their injuries while fighting each other.

At this point, Hanaman and Nelson, who were inside the CO Bubble's control panel, made cat calls and side comments. Monzon, Hanaman, and Nelson together agreed that they too would corroborate Benitez's story to their supervisors, each stating their version of the planned statements to cover up Benitez's beating of Randle and Johnson.

In light of what Randle and Johnson perceived as Benitez's credible threat, Johnson attacked Randle, and the two began to fight as Benitez and the Guard Defendants watched and mocked the inmates. During the course of the fight, Johnson fell to the ground. Alexander arrived after Johnson fell, and remarked "why is this piece of shit laying out in my hallway?" In response to Alexander's query, the Guard Defendants told Alexander that a fight had started in Johnson's cell, to which Alexander replied "and it ended out here?" Benitez then stated, "basically."

In the aftermath of the incident, both Randle and Johnson were taken to the clinic, where Randle was treated for a hand injury. Johnson died a few days later from his injuries. Following the fight, Benitez, Alexander, and the Guard Defendants wrote false reports concerning the fight, covering up its true circumstances. Randle was later visited by New York state police officers, and during the conversation Randle explained what had happened. The officers observed that there were shadows under the door, indicating someone was eavesdropping on their conversation, and then stated that Randle would need to be transferred for his own safety. Randle was later transferred to Upstate Correctional Facility, where he was subsequently threatened about the fact that he had filed grievances against Benitez, Alexander, and the Guard Defendants.

Randle has a documented history of serious mental illness, and his mental health deteriorated further in the wake of the forced fight. For example, Randle began experiencing flashbacks of the fight and heard Johnson's voice inside his head. At his disciplinary hearing for the fight, Randle accordingly requested that he be placed in a mental health services program, but he was left untreated. These latent mental health issues, exacerbated by the fight, resulted in 3 separate suicide attempts by Randle.

In the wake of the suicide attempts, Randle was placed in the GTP at Clinton Correctional Facility. The Clinton GTP was intended to be a short-term program lasting around 90 days with good behavior, with the participant then being promoted to a less restrictive program. While in the GTP, Randle was kept in Special Housing Unit ("SHU") conditions, together with SHU prisoners. Randle remained in the GTP for over two years without advancement or relocation into a less restrictive program, despite the fact that he willingly participated and progressed within the programs. Randle's time in the GTP and within SHU-like conditions caused his mental health to deteriorate significantly.

In July 2010, the New York State Office of Mental Health sent Randle a letter stating that he was "referred and accepted to Great Meadow BHU, but then denied by DOCS for transfer after [he] had been approved." Later, in August 2010, Randle sent Diane Van Buren, the Assistant Commissioner, a letter explaining that he had been in the Clinton GTP since April 2009, that he had spoken to Van Buren twice since arriving in GTP, and that she had indicated to Randle that he should have been moved to a less-restrictive program. Randle's family began calling the DOCCS offices in Albany in an attempt to stop Randle's mistreatment within the GTP and Clinton Unit 14 SHU. Following the calls, however, Randle was again inappropriately transferred to other SHU-like facilities, without regard to his mental health condition.

B. Procedural Background

Randle first filed his pro se complaint in this case in December 2010. (Dkt. No. 2.) In September 2011 several Defendants moved to dismiss Randle's first complaint. In January 2012, the Court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss and granted Randle permission to file a Second Amended Complaint. (Dkt. No. 34.) Magistrate Judge Kevin Nathaniel Fox granted Randle's application to appoint counsel on March 22, 2011, directing the Pro Se Office to identify an attorney whom the Court could appoint to represent Randle. (Dkt. No. 8.) Pro bono counsel entered an appearance on Randle's behalf in February 2012, and Randle filed his Second Amended Complaint in April 2012. (Dkt. No. 45.) In August 2012, with the Court's permission, Randle filed the TAC. (Dkt. No. 60.) In November 2012, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Randle's TAC (Dkt. No. 86); Randle opposed the motion in December 2012 (Dkt. No. 95); and Defendants replied in February 2013. (Dkt. No. 98.)

In his TAC, Randle asserts five claims-all pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983-which are as follows: (1) cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment; (2) conspiracy to engage in a violation of the Eighth Amendment; (3) violation of the Equal Protection Clause; (4) retaliation in violation of the First Amendment; and (5) deliberate indifference to serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

II. Legal Standard

A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

Pursuant to Rule 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain only a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." "To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), however, a complaint must plead enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Cruz v. Rose Associates, LLC, No. 13 Civ. 0112 (JPO), 2013 WL 1387018, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 5, 2013) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). When "the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged, " the claim is said to possess facial plausibility. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); see also ATSI Comm., Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007) (noting that a plaintiff must plead "the grounds upon which his claim rests through factual allegations sufficient to raise a right to relief above the speculative level'" (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 546)). Though Iqbal and Twombly necessitate plausibility, they do not contemplate a "heightened standard that requires a complaint to include specific evidence, factual allegations in addition to those required by Rule 8...." Artista Records, LLC v. Doe 3, 604 F.3d 110, 110 (2d Cir. 2010). Moreover, plausibility is not akin to probability, but rather a lesser burden. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

In deciding a motion to dismiss, courts are required to "accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint, " id. at 572 (quotations omitted), drawing "all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party[]..., " In re NYSE Specialists Sec. Litig., 503 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 2007). Nevertheless, "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

B. Eighth Amendment Claims Generally

The Eighth Amendment, from which the majority of Randle's claims derive, provides that "cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted." U.S. Const. amend. VIII. "That rule, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, is violated by unnecessary and wanton inflictions of pain and suffering." Walker v. Schriro, No. 11 Civ. 9299 (JPO), 2013 WL 1234930, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2013) (citations omitted). While prison officials are indisputably responsible for inmate safety, "[i]t is not, however, every injury suffered by one prisoner at the hands of another that translates into constitutional liability for [the] prison officials [involved]." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). Instead, prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment only when two requirements are met: (1) the alleged deprivation must, as an objective matter, be "sufficiently serious, " and (2) the alleged perpetrator-ordinarily a prison official-must possess a "sufficiently culpable state of mind." Id. (quotations omitted). In the context of prison conditions, courts have defined this culpability as "deliberate indifference" to the health and safety of inmates. See Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834; Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 302-04 (1991) (applying deliberate indifference standard to conditions of confinement claim); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976).

An objective analysis of the seriousness of the conduct at issue mandates an examination on the putatively unconstitutional conditions. And while comfort within prisons is not constitutionally required, Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 349 (1981) ("[T]he Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons...."), prisoners are entitled to satisfaction of their "basic human needs- e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety." Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 32 (1993) (quoting DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 199-200 (1989)). "Ultimately, to establish the objective element of an Eighth Amendment claim, a prisoner must prove that the conditions of his confinement violate contemporary standards of decency." Phelps v. Kapnolas, 308 F.3d 180, 185 (2d Cir. 2002). As for the second element of an Eighth Amendment claim, namely, an accused prison official's subjective intent, "a plaintiff must show something more than mere negligence." Cuoco v. Moritsugu, 222 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2000) (quotations omitted). Instead, "[a] prisoner injured while in custody may recover for violation of his Eighth Amendment rights [only] if the injury resulted from the defendant prison official's purposeful subjection of the prisoner to a substantial risk of serious harm' or from the official's deliberate indifference to that risk." Fischl v. Armitage, 128 F.3d 50, 55 (2d. Cir. 1997) (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834). "An official acts with the requisite deliberate indifference when that official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference." Cuoco, 222 F.3d at 107 (quotations and citations omitted).

There are three basic theories pursuant to which inmates customarily bring Eighth Amendment claims: (1) denial of adequate medical care; (2) unconstitutional conditions of confinement unrelated to medical care; and (3) failure to protect. First, it is well established that "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain proscribed by the Eighth Amendment." Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104 (quotations and citation omitted). This is the case "whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner's needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed." Id. (footnotes omitted). Second, a prisoner may allege an Eighth Amendment violation relating to unconstitutional conditions of confinement unrelated to medical care, including access to "adequate food, clothing, [and] shelter." Dilworth v. Goldberg, No. 10 Civ. 2224 (JMF) (GWG), 2012 WL 4017789, at *23 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 13, 2012) (quotations and citation omitted).

Finally, it is well established that "[t]he Eighth Amendment imposes a duty on prison officials to take reasonable measures to guarantee safety of the inmates.'" Nunez v. Goord, 172 F.Supp.2d 417, 430 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 832). Accordingly, "[i]t is settled that, under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials have a duty... to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.'" Hines v. Lacy, No. 98-2961, 189 F.3d 460, at *3 (2d Cir. Aug. 20, 1999) (unpublished table) (citations omitted). For example, "an inmate's claim that prison officials failed, as a result of their deliberate indifference, to protect him from the violent actions of other inmates may state a viable § 1983 cause of action." Hendricks v. Coughlin, 942 F.2d 109, 113 (2d Cir. 1991); accord Snider v. Dylag, 188 F.3d 51, 55 (2d Cir. 1999) ("If Dylag did, in fact, declare open season' on Snider, indicating to other inmates that their abuse of Snider would be unimpeded by prison officials, deliberate indifference to Snider's safety would be obvious."). At bottom, prison officials may not abuse prisoners directly, nor may they indirectly subject prisoners to harm by facilitating abuse at the hands of prisoners' fellow inmates.

C. Qualified Immunity

In defense to some of Plaintiff's claims, Defendants assert qualified immunity. (Def.'s Mem. at 12.) Qualified immunity protects state officers, such as police officers and prison officials, from liability associated with their discretionary actions whenever: (1) "[the] conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, '" Cerrone v. Brown, 246 F.3d 194, 199 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)); or (2) "it was objectively reasonable... to believe that [their] actions were lawful at the time of the challenged act.'" Id. (quoting Lennon v. Miller, 66 F.3d 416, 420 (2d Cir. 1995) (internal quotations omitted)). Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense; however, it reflects "an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 552 (1985) (emphasis in original) (quotations and citation omitted). Accordingly, it is appropriate to decide the issue of qualified immunity, when raised, at an early stage of the litigation, such as when deciding a pre-answer motion to dismiss. See Pani v. Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, 152 F.3d 67, 75 (2d Cir. 1998) ("It is also well established that an affirmative defense of official immunity should be resolved as early as possible by the court, and may be resolved by Rule 12(b)(6) if clearly established by the allegations within the complaint." (citations ...


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