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Eldridge v. Williams

United States District Court, Second Circuit

July 30, 2013

TAMMI ELDRIDGE et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
SUPERINTENDENT E. WILLIAMS et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

LAURA TAYLOR SWAIN, District Judge.

Pro se plaintiffs Tammi Eldridge, Joyce Powell, Jazmin Shelton, and Sharon Mabry ("Plaintiffs"), all of whom are current or former inmates of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility ("BHCF"), bring this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against eight current or former New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS") employees - Superintendent E. Williams, Deputy M. Capra, Deputy J. Hayden, Deputy M. Brynes, Deputy L. Zwillinger, Captain J. Fitzgerald, Captain L. Hammond, and Corrections Officer K. Davoren (collectively, "Defendants") - in their individual capacities.[1] Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to serious health risks that were inflicted on Plaintiffs through exposure to unreasonably high levels of environmental tobacco smoke ("ETS") due to inadequate enforcement of BHCF's indoor smoking ban. Plaintiffs assert that Defendants' deliberate indifference to violations of the ban violated their right under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Plaintiffs also allege that Defendants violated New York state law through inadequate enforcement of the New York State Clean Indoor Air Act and the DOCCS Indoor Smoke-Free Policy. Plaintiffs purport to sue on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated. All of the Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, and Eldridge, Powell, and Shelton seek declaratory and injunctive relief as well.[2]

Currently pending before the Court is Defendants' motion, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. The Court has jurisdiction of Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367. The Court has reviewed carefully all of the parties' submissions. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are drawn from the parties' submissions and are undisputed unless otherwise indicated.[3] Plaintiffs Tammi Eldridge and Joyce Powell are current inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, and Plaintiffs Jazmin Shelton and Sharon Mabry were inmates there until June 2011 and June 2010, respectively. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 2-5; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶ 2.) Although Plaintiffs allege that most of BHCF's inmates smoke and generally do so throughout the facility, they allege that they suffered unreasonably high exposure to ETS in two areas of the facility's housing unit in particular: their individual cells, in which they allege that they were continuously exposed to smoke through the ventilation system, and the shower areas. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 27-28, 41-42, 53, 81; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 3, 15, 24, 41, 57.) The units in which Plaintiffs are or were (before their release) housed consist of single-cell units with windows that can be opened, doors that are solid except for openings along the perimeters, and air vents. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 15, 110; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 3, 61.) Defendants deny that smoke constantly enters through vents in the cells. Instead, Defendants assert that the ventilation system should filter out such smoke before it enters another cell, that smoke detectors should be triggered by in-cell smoking and that, to the extent that inmates take measures to conceal their in-cell smoking from detection by the smoke detector (such as by smoking at a window or over a flushing toilet), the measures would tend to reduce or eliminate the migration of ETS to other cells. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 106-08.) Plaintiffs contend that smoke detectors generally have not been sensitive enough for smoking to activate them. (Pl. 56.1 St. ¶ 59.)

Since 2001, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS") has had in effect an internal policy banning indoor smoking in correctional facilities. (Id. ¶ 16.) Violations of this policy are required to be treated as disciplinary infractions, leading prison officials to issue misbehavior reports initiating disciplinary proceedings. Penalties for such violations range in severity based on the offense, with Tier I disciplinary proceedings involving the least severe infractions and punishments, and Tier III involving the most severe. (Id. ¶ 103.) Tier II and Tier III proceedings regarding smoking policy violations[4] declined from 63 charges (50 guilty findings) in 2008 to 21 charges (17 guilty findings) in 2012. (Id. ¶ 105.) Smoking in outdoor areas is not banned, and inmates are allowed to possess tobacco products and lighters in their cells. (Kap. Decl. ¶ 29.)

Other approaches that prison officials have used to enforce the indoor smoking ban include giving oral warnings, instead of issuing misbehavior reports, to inmates not known to have a history of violating the ban. (Id. ¶¶ 103-04.) Defendants also assert that they have the option of curtailing inmate privileges for an entire housing unit to address smoking violations when officers have found that identifying and punishing specific violators is otherwise impossible, but note that this form of punishment has rarely been necessary. (Id. ¶ 111.) Inmates' complaints about specific individuals and smoke detectors may further aid enforcement efforts. (Id. ¶ 108.)

In 2007, Plaintiff Powell made a written complaint to former Superintendent Ada Perez, complaining that her unit had been "locked down" in response to unauthorized smoking, asserting that she should not have been punished for others' infractions, and requesting redesignation to a non-smoking unit. (Fitz. Decl. ¶ 8.) The letter was forwarded to Defendant Fitzgerald, who responded that the facility takes indoor smoking seriously and that a shutdown of common areas "has to be done to encourage all inmates to follow the rules." (Id.)

Plaintiffs made multiple complaints about ETS and inadequate enforcement of the indoor smoking ban in the summer of 2009. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 29, 43, 54, 65, 86.) In July 2009, Eldridge filed an inmate grievance about the response of Defendant Corrections Officer Davoren to an asthma attack that Eldridge had suffered and requested that prison officials enforce the indoor smoking ban in order to ensure a smoke-free environment. (Schul. Decl., Exh. A at 10.) Prison officials consolidated Eldridge's grievance with the other Plaintiffs' grievances that followed. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶ 97.) Plaintiffs generally complained of ETS exposure in the housing unit occurring in the shower area, as well as in their cells through the ventilation system such that they have even had to "tape" and "cover" up their vents to reduce exposure. (Schul. Decl., Exh. A at 26-28, 33-35, 50.) After an investigation by Sergeant Peperone, which concluded that while there was smoking, it "was not enough to be a problem, " and that "the only way to stop secondhand smoke is to not allow tobacco at all, " Defendant Superintendent Williams ultimately declined to institute new measures to enforce the indoor smoking ban as requested by Plaintiffs. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 98-99.)

In addition, Plaintiffs allege that they suffer from medical conditions that have been caused or exacerbated by ETS exposure. Eldridge has suffered the most serious of the conditions as she has a history of asthma attacks and has had multiple inpatient stays in the infirmary. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 49, 61, 67; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶ 21.) The other Plaintiffs have had less serious medical episodes and have not required hospitalizations, although Mabry has been provided with emergency treatment for asthma. (Pl. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 34-35.) Mabry and Powell's asthma conditions have been usually characterized as "mild intermittent, " the least severe of four possible assessment levels of asthma. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 38, 73-74; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 14, 34-35.) Eldridge, Mabry, and Powell attribute their asthmatic conditions, and/or the exacerbation of those conditions, allergies, nasal and eye discomfort, and headaches, to ETS exposure. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 23-24, 36, 49, 72; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 9, 14, 21, 33-35.) No diagnostic link between ETS and these conditions is recorded in the medical documentation that has been proffered in this motion practice, although the records reflect that Plaintiffs complained to medical personnel that their conditions had been triggered or exacerbated by ETS. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 25, 37, 73, 75; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 9, 14, 21, 36.) Furthermore, Mabry has testified that her respiratory illness has only had a "slight" impact on her daily activities, and there is no evidence that Mabry has developed a more serious medical condition since she left BHCF in June 2010. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 75-76; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 36-37.) Shelton does not suffer from asthma, but claims that the ETS to which she was exposed exacerbated pre-existing allergies, causing problems such as difficulty in breathing and chest pains. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶¶ 23-25; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶ 9.) In May 2012, nearly a year after she left BHCF, Shelton testified that she has no physical health issues and has not been taking any prescribed medications. (Def. 56.1 St. ¶ 34; Pl. 56.1 St. ¶ 13.)

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is to be granted in favor of a moving party if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of establishing that there is no genuine issue of material fact. See Anderson , 477 U.S. at 256. A fact is considered material "if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, " and an issue of fact is a genuine one where "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248.

In deciding a summary judgment motion, the Court must consider all of the admissible evidence, including affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, and "resolve all ambiguities and draw all factual inferences in favor of the nonmovant." See Davis v. New York , 316 F.3d 93, 100 (2d Cir. 2002); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). Moreover, the Court must generally afford "special solicitude" to pro se litigants. Graham v. Lewinski , 848 F.2d 342, 344 (2d Cir. 1988).

Nevertheless, "Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment... against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to the party's case and on which the party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. , 477 U.S. at 322. The nonmoving party cannot defeat summary judgment "merely upon a metaphysical doubt' concerning the facts or on the basis of conjecture or surmise." Bryant v. Maffucci , 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)).

Section 1983 Claim

For Plaintiffs to prevail on a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against state prison officials in their individual capacities, two elements must be met: (1) the defendants must be acting under the color of state law, and (2) their actions must have deprived the plaintiffs of a right guaranteed by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. Bryant , 923 F.2d at 983-84. There is no dispute here about the first element - Defendants were state employees acting in their official capacities, and thus acting under color of state law. The second element subsumes inquiries as to whether Defendants were personally involved in the alleged constitutional violation and the elements required to establish that the alleged violation occurred. See Hernandez v. Keane , 341 F.3d 137, 144 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Wright v. Smith , 21 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1994)); see also, Farrell v. Burke , 449 F.3d 470, 484 (2d Cir. 2006) ("personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under § 1983"). Here, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants violated their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution through "deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm, " that is, medical risks associated with exposure to ETS.

The Court will first consider whether the Plaintiffs have alleged facts sufficient to demonstrate that each of the Defendants was personally involved in the alleged deprivation of constitutional rights.

Personal Involvement

To establish supervisory liability under Section 1983, Plaintiff must show "that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009). Under Colon v. Coughlin , 58 F.3d 865, 873 (2d Cir. 1995), a supervisory defendant can be found to be personally involved in a Section 1983 violation by showing any of the following:

(1) the defendant participated directly in the alleged constitutional violation, (2) the defendant, after being informed of the violation through a report or appeal, failed to remedy the wrong, (3) the defendant created a policy or custom under which unconstitutional practices occurred, or allowed the continuance of such a policy or custom, (4) the defendant was grossly negligent in supervising subordinates who committed the wrongful acts, or (5) the defendant exhibited deliberate indifference to the rights of inmates by failing to act on information indicating that unconstitutional acts were occurring.[5]

A defendant's personal receipt of a complaint or letter and subjective awareness of the alleged unconstitutional conditions may be one factor that helps establish personal involvement. See Rivera v. Fischer , 655 F.Supp.2d 235, 238 (W.D.N.Y. 2009) ("[i]f... the official does personally look into the matters raised in the letter, or otherwise acts on the prisoner's complaint or request, the official may be found to be personally involved"). However, even if a complaint or letter is directly addressed to the defendant and the defendant becomes subjectively aware of the alleged problem, if the defendant "lacks the authority to remedy or take action with respect to any constitutional violation, '" personal involvement "cannot be found." Kregler v. City of New York , 821 F.Supp.2d 651, 658 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (quoting Kuolkina v. City of New York , 559 F.Supp.2d 300, 317 (S.D.N.Y. 2008)); see, e.g., Denis v. N.Y.S. Dept. of Correctional Services, No. 05 Civ. 4495 , 2006 WL 217926, at *21(S.D.N.Y. Jan. 30, 2006), report and recommendation adopted by, 2006 WL 406313 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 22, 2006) (granting summary judgment for the Chief Medical Officer of the correctional facilities due to lack of personal involvement because, while he may have received a complaint, he did not participate in the formulation, approval, implementation, or enforcement of the facilities' smoking policy and thus did not participate in the alleged ...


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