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Houston v. Cotter

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 27, 2014


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For Plaintiff: Christopher Denicola, Laura Zuckerwise, Sarah Edwards, Stewart Dearing, and Victor Hou, of Clearly Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, New York, NY.

For Defendants: Brian Mitchell, Assistant County Attorney, Office of the Suffolk County Attorney, Hauppauge, NY.


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JOSEPH F. BIANCO, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Robert Houston (" Houston" or " plaintiff" ) brings this action against defendants Thomas Cotter (" Cotter" ), John Weiss (" Weiss" ), and the County of Suffolk (" the County" ) (collectively, " defendants" ) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] Houston's Fourteenth Amendment claim against the County, at issue here, asserts that while incarcerated at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility (" SCCF" ) and following an assault by Cotter and Weiss, corrections officials unconstitutionally placed and maintained Houston on suicide watch for two weeks--including eight days after mental health professionals determined that Houston was not a suicide risk. Houston claims that there was no credible justification for his placement and maintenance on suicide watch, much less the duration of his placement, and the tangible conditions of his confinement. He asserts that his treatment was the result of the County's deficient policy or custom, whereby inmates could be kept on suicide watch as punishment, with no meaningful oversight, and for reasons other than legitimate mental health concerns. Houston seeks compensatory and punitive damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The parties cross-move for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Defendants argue (1) plaintiff should have filed his claim on or before January 24, 2010, because he at least had reason to know of the County's policy or custom by that time; and (2) regardless, plaintiff did not suffer an atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life, because he was on suicide watch for two

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weeks in conditions minimally distinguishable from those on the disciplinary tier. Plaintiff contends that (1) he could not have learned of the County's policy or custom until the deposition of Dr. Thomas Troiano, a psychiatrist, on July 13, 2011; (2) his conditions of confinement gave rise to a constitutional violation; and (3) the evidence establishes that corrections and classifications officials regularly abuse their discretion by using suicide watch to punish difficult inmates. For the following reasons, the Court denies the cross-motions for summary judgment. There are genuine issues of disputed fact that must be resolved as to, inter alia, the statute of limitations issue, whether SCCF deprived plaintiff of a state-derived liberty interest when it placed plaintiff on suicide watch in January 2007, and whether a Suffolk County policy, custom, or deliberate indifference caused any resulting injury.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

The Court takes the following facts from the parties' affidavits, depositions, exhibits, and Rule 56.1 Statements of Fact. With respect to each motion and the issues raised therein, the Court construes the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[2] See Capobianco v. City of New York, 422 F.3d 47, 50 (2d Cir. 2005).

On January 11, 2007, an altercation occurred between Houston, then an inmate housed on the disciplinary tier at SCCF,[3] and Cotter and Weiss, then corrections officers. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 1; Def. 56.1 ¶ 12.) Shortly after the altercation, Officer James Zahn and Sergeant Gerard Reynolds moved Houston to a holding pen. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 3.) Officer Robert Urban was the on-duty holding pen officer. ( Id.) At 9:10 a.m., Urban filled out a CF-11 form, which is used to place inmates on suicide watch, for Houston. ( Id. ¶ 5.) At SCCF, any employee can put an inmate on suicide watch by filling out a CF-11. ( Id. ¶ 7.) According to the CF-11, Houston had said, " I wish I would have died upstairs when I beat that cop[']s ass. I won't stop beating cops till [sic] they kill me." [4] ( Id. ¶ 5.) Lieutenant John Krieg signed the CF-11 on January 11, formally placing plaintiff on suicide watch. ( Id. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff testified that he believes SCCF used the suicide watch to cover up the assault and as a punishment. (Def. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 6-8.)

Upon placing Houston on suicide watch, SCCF took away Houston's clothing and required him to wear a suicide-safe garment: a sleeveless smock made of coarse, tear-resistant material and Velcro. ( Id. ¶ 8.) SCCF officers--and Houston--have referred to the garment as a suicide " dress" or " skirt." ( Id. ¶ 8; Houston Aff. ¶ 3.) Plaintiff, like other suicide watch inmates,

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could not wear underwear, socks, or any other undergarment with the smock. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 8.) SCCF then removed Houston to a stripped cell in the Behavioral Modification Housing Unit (" BMHU" ). (Def. Counter 56.1 ¶ 9.) The cell contained a bare mattress and a blanket made out of the same coarse material as the smock, and corrections officers situated immediately in front of the Plexiglass cell window constantly supervised plaintiff.[5] (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 9.) There also is evidence that, the day after the altercation, Weiss monitored Houston.[6] ( See BMHU Logbook, Pl. Ex. 24 (showing Weiss on shift on January 12).) According to the County, suicide watch inmates have access to the yard, a plastic spoon, a rubberized pen, the law library, showers, razors, and medical and mental health services. ( See Koelbel Dep. at 227:20-230:10.) Plaintiff, however, claims that he had no showers, telephone calls, prescription medications, food, or access to the law library while in BMHU. (Pl. Counter 56.1 ¶ 17.) It is unclear whether plaintiff suffered these conditions while on suicide watch ( see id. ¶ 18 (noting that conditions on suicide watch differ from conditions in BMHU)), because plaintiff's Rule 56.1 Statement does not make such representations.

Dr. Troiano observed Houston on January 11 and noted that Houston was " on S.W. for reasons unknown; apparently he had confrontation w 2 officers today; doesn't appear suicidal and he denies he is - will remain on sw for now." (January 11 Progress Notes, Pl. Ex. 30.) Plaintiff remained on suicide watch for fourteen days, from January 11 until January 24, 2007. (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 11.) SCCF medical personnel, however, found no medical basis for Houston to remain on suicide watch as of January 16. Specifically, Dr. Troiano noted that Houston was alert, verbal, coherent, and with no signs of mental illness. (January 16 Progress Notes, Pl. Ex. 17.) James Graziano, a social worker, stated that Houston " does not appear suicidal and will be removed from suicide watch." ( Id.) For unknown reasons, an unknown individual overruled the recommendation to remove Houston from suicide watch. ( See Def. Counter 56.1 ¶ 12.) On January 21, Nurse Practitioner Jane Frith saw Houston, noted that he " states he was [discontinued] from S.W. [on] 0111607," and contacted classification. (January 21 Progress Notes, Pl. Ex. 18.) Houston remained on suicide watch. On January 24, Dr. Troiano and Graziano saw Houston again, noted that he continued to deny " suicidal ideations," and stated that they would " write another slip attempting to remove him from suicide watch." (January 24 Progress Notes, Pl. Ex. 19.) Houston left suicide watch on January 24.[7]

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The New York State Sheriff's Association (" NYSSA" ), which accredits SCCF, requires annual in-service training on suicide prevention.[8] (Pl. 56.1 ¶ 17.) NYSSA Standard 107 states, inter alia, that " matters of medical, mental health, and dental judgment are the sole province of the responsible clinicians." ( Id. ¶ 18.) Nevertheless, classifications officers at SCCF have the authority and complete discretion to remove inmates from suicide watch. ( Id. ¶ 15.) Plaintiff has also presented evidence that, based on an interview with inmates that lasts a few minutes, during which no mental health practitioner is present, classifications officers can override a mental health professional's conclusion that an inmate should be removed from suicide watch.[9] ( Id.) The officers do not need supervisory approval or to document their rationale. ( Id.) In making the decision to continue or remove an inmate from suicide watch, classifications officers do not have access to an inmate's mental health history, progress notes, or counseling sessions. ( Id.) The officers also receive no post-academy training in suicide prevention or formal training regarding how to evaluate an inmate to determine if he or she should be removed from suicide watch. ( Id. ¶ 16.)

B. Procedural Background

Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed the complaint alleging excessive force by Cotter, Weiss, Gubitosi, Thomas, and Reynolds on July 26, 2007. Defendants answered on September 19, 2007. Plaintiff requested counsel on November 16, 2009, and the Court denied that motion on November 23, 2009. Counsel was appointed in December 2010, after the case was to proceed to trial on the excessive force claim.

After additional discovery, plaintiff filed an amended complaint on December 16, 2013, alleging, inter alia, that the County " knowingly enforced a policy or custom whereby classification officers were permitted to and did overrule, without justification, directives of mental health professionals that an inmate be removed from suicide watch," and " knowingly enforced a policy or custom whereby classification officers kept inmates from suicide watch for reasons other than legitimate mental health concerns, which reasons include to punish an inmate." (Amended Complaint ¶ ¶ 92-93.) After the Court denied defendants' motion to dismiss on August 10, 2012, defendants answered on September 10, 2012.

Defendants moved for summary judgment on July 26, 2013. Plaintiff filed his cross-motion for summary judgment and his opposition on September 6, 2013. Defendants filed their reply to plaintiffs' opposition and their opposition on October 4, 2013. Plaintiff replied on October 21, 2013. The Court held oral argument on

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November 1, 2013. The Court has fully considered the submissions of the parties.

II. Standard of Review

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), a court may grant a motion for summary judgment only 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Gonzalez v. City of Schenectady, 728 F.3d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 2013). The moving party bears the burden of showing that he or she is entitled to summary judgment. Huminski v. Corsones, 396 F.3d 53, 69 (2d Cir. 2005). " A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The court " is not to weigh the evidence but is instead required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party, and to eschew credibility assessments." Amnesty Am. v. Town of W. Hartford, 361 F.3d 113, 122 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 854 (2d Cir. 1996)); see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (summary judgment is unwarranted if " the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party" ).

Once the moving party has met its burden, the opposing party " 'must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts . . . . [T]he nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Caldarola v. Calabrese, 298 F.3d 156, 160 (2d Cir. 2002) (alteration and emphasis in original) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986)). As the Supreme Court stated in Anderson, " [i]f the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). Indeed, " the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment." Id. at 247-48 (emphasis in original). Thus, the nonmoving party may not rest upon mere conclusory allegations or denials but must set forth " 'concrete particulars'" showing that a trial is needed. R.G. Grp., Inc. v. Horn & Hardart Co., 751 F.2d 69, 77 (2d Cir. 1984) (quoting SEC v. Research Automation Corp., 585 F.2d 31, 33 (2d Cir. 1978)). Accordingly, it is insufficient for a party opposing summary judgment " 'merely to assert a conclusion without supplying supporting arguments or facts.'" BellSouth Telecomms., Inc. v. W.R. Grace & Co., 77 F.3d 603, 615 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Research Automation Corp., 585 F.2d at 33).

III. Discussion

Plaintiff claims the County violated his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by unlawfully depriving him of his liberty interest without due process of law through " [t]he stigma and humiliation that [he] experienced as a result of his placement and stay on suicide watch" ; " the mere tangible conditions of his confinement" ; and because " [t]here was neither a credible justification for his initial placement

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on suicide watch, nor a reasonable explanation for the eight-day period during which he was kept on suicide watch against the advice of mental ...

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