United States District Court, N.D. New York
LEONARD HINTON, Plaintiff, Pro Se, Franklin Correctional Facility, Malone, NY.
JOSHUA E. McMAHON, ESQ., Assistant Attorney General, HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General of the State of New York, Albany, NY, Attorney for Defendants.
RANDOLPH F. TREECE, Magistrate Judge.
Pro se Plaintiff Leonard Hinton brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants violated his right to due process at three separate disciplinary hearings. See Dkt. No. 1, Compl. Plaintiff has moved for summary judgment. Dkt. No. 39. Defendants oppose that Motion, and Cross-Move for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 42. Plaintiff opposes Defendants' Cross-Motion. Dkt. Nos. 44, Pl.'s Opp'n, & 45, Pl.'s Supp. Opp'n. For the reasons that follow, we recommend that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment be DENIED, Defendants' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment be GRANTED, and that this action be DISMISSED.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a), summary judgment is appropriate only where "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The moving party bears the burden to demonstrate through "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with  affidavits, if any, " that there is no genuine issue of material fact. F.D.I.C. v. Giammettei, 34 F.3d 51, 54 (2d Cir. 1994) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). "When a party has moved for summary judgment on the basis of asserted facts supported as required by [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(e)] and has, in accordance with local court rules, served a concise statement of the material facts as to which it contends there exist no genuine issues to be tried, those facts will be deemed admitted unless properly controverted by the nonmoving party." Glazer v. Formica Corp., 964 F.2d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 1992).
To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must set out specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial, and cannot rest merely on allegations or denials of the facts submitted by the movant. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); see also Scott v. Coughlin, 344 F.3d 282, 287 (2d Cir. 2003) ("Conclusory allegations or denials are ordinarily not sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment when the moving party has set out a documentary case."); Rexnord Holdings, Inc. v. Bidermann, 21 F.3d 522, 525-26 (2d Cir. 1994). To that end, sworn statements are "more than mere conclusory allegations subject to disregard... they are specific and detailed allegations of fact, made under penalty of perjury, and should be treated as evidence in deciding a summary judgment motion" and the credibility of such statements is better left to a trier of fact. Scott v. Coughlin, 344 F.3d at 289 (citing Flaherty v. Coughlin, 713 F.2d 10, 13 (2d Cir. 1983) and Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 872 (2d Cir. 1995)).
When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant. Nora Beverages, Inc. v. Perrier Group of Am., Inc., 164 F.3d 736, 742 (2d Cir. 1998). "[T]he trial court's task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution." Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994). Furthermore, where a party is proceeding pro se, the court must "read [his or her] supporting papers liberally, and... interpret them to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994), accord, Soto v. Walker, 44 F.3d 169, 173 (2d Cir. 1995). Nonetheless, mere conclusory allegations, unsupported by the record, are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. See Carey v. Crescenzi, 923 F.2d 18, 21 (2d Cir. 1991).
When considering cross-motions for summary judgment, a court "must evaluate each party's motion on its own merits, taking care in each instance to draw all reasonable inferences against the party whose motion is under consideration." Hotel Employees & Rest. Employees Union, Local 100 of N.Y. v. City of N.Y. Dep't of Parks & Recreation, 311 F.3d 534, 543 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Heublein, Inc. v. United States, 996 F.2d 1455, 1461 (2d Cir. 1993)). "[N]either side is barred from asserting that there are issues of fact, sufficient to prevent the entry of judgment, as a matter of law, against it... [and] a district court is not required to grant judgment as a matter of law for one side or the other." Heublein, Inc. v. United States, 996 F.2d at 1461.
A. Due Process
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated his right to due process at three separate disciplinary hearings. See generally Compl.
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects against restraints or conditions of confinement that "exceed the sentence in... an unexpected manner[.]" Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995). To state a due process claim under § 1983, an inmate must first establish that he enjoys a protected liberty interest. Arce v. Walker, 139 F.3d 329, 333 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Kentucky Dep't of Corr. v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 460 (1989)). Inmates' liberty interests are derived from two sources: (1) the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (2) state statute or regulations. Id. With regard to liberty interests arising directly under the Due Process Clause, the Supreme Court has "narrowly circumscribed its scope to protect no more than the most basic liberty interests in prisoners[, ]'" Arce v. Walker, 139 F.3d at 333 (quoting Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 467 (1983)), and limited to freedom from restraint that "exceed the sentence in... an unexpected manner[, ]" Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 478 (1995).
Turning to liberty interests created by the state, the Supreme Court states that such liberty interests shall be limited solely to those deprivations which subject a prisoner to "atypical and significant hardship... in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Sandin v. Connor, 515 U.S. at 484; see also Giano v. Selsky, 238 F.3d 223, 225 (2d Cir. 2001) (citing Sandin ); Welch v. Bartlett, 196 F.3d 389, 392 (2d Cir. 1999).
Factors relevant to an analysis of what constitutes an atypical and significant hardship include "(1) the effect of the confinement on the length of prison incarceration, (2) the extent to which the conditions of segregation differ from other routine prison conditions, and (3) the duration of the disciplinary segregation compared to discretionary confinement." Spaight v. Cinchon, 1998 WL 167297, at *5 (N.D.N.Y. Apr. 3, 1998) (citing Wright v. Coughlin, 132 F.3d 133, 136 (2d Cir. 1998)); see also Palmer v. Richards, 364 F.3d 60, 64 (2d Cir. 2004) (stating that in assessing what constitutes an atypical and significant hardship, "[b]oth the conditions [of confinement] and their duration must be considered, since especially harsh conditions endured for a brief interval and somewhat harsh conditions endured for a prolonged interval might both be atypical" (citation omitted)). Though the length of the confinement is one guiding factor in a Sandin analysis, the Second Circuit has cautioned that "there is no bright-line rule regarding the length or type of sanction" that meets the Sandin standard. Jenkins v. Haubert, 179 F.3d 19, 28 (2d Cir. 1999) (citations omitted). Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals has stated that "[w]here the plaintiff was confined for an intermediate duration - between 101 and 305 days - development of a detailed record' of the conditions of the confinement relative to ordinary prison conditions is required." Palmer v. Richards, 364 F.3d at 64-65 (quoting Colon v. Howard, 215, F.3d 227, 232 (2d Cir. 2000)); see also Hanrahan v. Doling, 331 F.3d 93, 97-98 (2d Cir. 2003) ("[W]here the actual period of disciplinary confinement is insignificant or the restrictions imposed relatively minor, such confinement may not implicate a constitutionally protected liberty interest."); Edmonson v. Coughlin, 1996 WL 622626, at *4-5 (W.D.N.Y. Oct. 4, 1996) (citing cases for the proposition that courts within the Second Circuit tend to rule, as a matter of law, that "disciplinary keeplock or SHU confinement to 60 days or less in New York prisons is not an atypical or significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life"); Sims v. Artuz, 230 F.3d 14, 23 (2d Cir. 2000) (noting that segregative sentences of 125-288 days are "relatively long" and therefore necessitate "specific articulation of... factual findings before the district court could properly term the confinement atypical or insignificant"). Accordingly, the court must "make a fact-intensive inquiry" that would examine the actual conditions of confinement within SHU. Palmer v. Richards, 364 F.3d at 65 (citations omitted); see also Wright v. Coughlin, 132 F.3d at 137; Brooks v. DiFasi, 112 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir. 1997). If the conditions of confinement are undisputed, a court may decide the Sandin issue as a matter of law. Palmer v. Richards, 364 F.3d at 65. If, however, normal conditions of SHU exist, but the period of confinement is longer than the intermediate duration, then it would constitute a significant departure from ordinary prison life requiring the protection of procedural due process under Sandin. Id.
Once a prisoner makes a threshold showing of atypical and significant confinement, the court should determine whether that prisoner, prior to his confinement, was afforded the minimum requirements of due process. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556 (1974). A prisoner placed in disciplinary segregation must be provided (1) advanced written notice of the charges against them at least twenty-four hours prior to the hearing; (2) the opportunity to appear at the hearing, to call witnesses, and to present rebuttal evidence; and (3) written statement as to the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the disciplinary action. Id. at 564-66; see also Freeman v. Rideout, 808 F.2d 949, 953 (2d Cir. 1986); Taylor v. Rodriguez, 238 F.3d 188, 192 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. at 476).
With these principles in tow, we discuss the process that was provided at each of the disciplinary hearings at issue seriatim.
1. Liberty Interest
Defendants concede that, in the aggregate, the amount of time Plaintiff spent in the solitary housing unit ("SHU"), as a result of the three disciplinary hearings at issue, was sufficient to implicate a protected liberty interest. Dkt. No. 42-7, Defs.' Mem. of Law, at p. 11; see also Dkt. No. 42-4, Steven Bullis Decl., dated Dec. 26, 2013, at Ex. A, Disciplinary Hr'g Tr. (hereinafter "1st Hr'g Tr."), dated Oct. 13-18, 2010, at p. 1; Dkt. No. 42-5, Donald Haug Decl., dated Dec. 24, 2013, at Ex. A, Disciplinary Hr'g Report, dated Sept. 7-13, 2010; Dkt. No. 42-6, Donald Uhler Decl., dated Dec. 27, 2013, at Ex. A, Disciplinary Hr'g Tr. (hereinafter "3rd Hr'g Tr."), dated February 2-3, 2011, at p. 1. Accordingly, we need only determine whether Plaintiff was deprived of any of the minimum requirements of due process during any of the disciplinary hearings at issue.
2. First Disciplinary Hearing
The following facts are undisputed.
On July 25, 2010, Sgt. Gower issued a misbehavior report charging Plaintiff with extortion, soliciting a sexual act, and making a third party call. Defendant Bullis found Plaintiff guilty of all three violations, and sentenced him to six months in the SHU as well as six months loss of packages, commissary, phone, and good time credits. Dkt. No. 39-3, App. to Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (hereinafter "Pl.'s App."), Sec. 1, at Ex. A, Misbehavior Rep., dated July 25, 2010 (hereinafter "1st Misbehavior Rep."); 1st Hr'g Tr. at p. 1. Plaintiff appealed the decision; but his appeal was denied by Defendant Prack, the Director of the Special Housing/Inmate Disciplinary Program, on December 20, 2010. See Pl.'s App., Sec. I, at Exs. E, Appeal Form, dated Oct. 18, 2010; & F, Appeal Dec., dated Dec. 20, 2010. Subsequently, Plaintiff challenged the disciplinary determination, in State Court, pursuant to N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 7803 ("Article 78"). Id. at Ex. G, Pl.'s Art. 78 Pet., dated Dec. 29, 2010. The New York State Appellate Division, Fourth Department, denied Plaintiff's petition, and unanimously upheld Defendant Bullis's disciplinary determination. Id. at Ex. I, Dec., dated Nov. 9, 2012.
Plaintiff now argues that he is entitled to summary judgment as to his claims against Defendants Bullis and Prack for violations of his right to due process in conjunction with this hearing, because Defendants lacked any credible evidence to support the decision or its subsequent affirmation. See, e.g., Dkt. No. 44-1, Pl.'s Opp'n at p. 2. Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgement as to this claim because Plaintiff was provided all of the process that was due. Dkt. No. 42-7, Defs.' Mem. of Law, at pp. 13-16.
It is undisputed that Plaintiff was served with a copy of the misbehavior report on October 6, 2010. Pl.'s App., Sec. I, Ex. D, Hr'g Disposition. Accordingly, Plaintiff received notice, as required, more than twenty-four hours prior to his hearing. See Sira v. Morton, 380 F.3d 57, 70 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing, inter alia, Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. at 564 for the proposition that "[d]ue process requires that prison officials give an accused inmate written notice of the charges against him twenty-four hours prior to conducting a disciplinary hearing"). Moreover, the misbehavior report noted, inter alia: "[b]ased on an investigation [Sgt. Gower] conducted it has been determined that inmate Hinton... was attempting to solicit sexual acts and was attempting to extort money from a family member of inmate Veach.... Inmate Hinton also gave inmate Veach two packs of tobacco without authorization of any staff." 1st Misbehavior Rep. Such notice was adequate to inform Plaintiff of the nature of the offenses for which he was charged. See Sira v. Morton, 380 F.3d at 70 (quoting Taylor v. Rodriguez , 238 F.3d at193, for the proposition that "due process requires more than a conclusory charge; an inmate must receive notice of at least some specific facts underlying the accusation such that he can prepare a defense to those charges and not be made to explain away vague charges set out in a misbehavior report.") (internal quotation marks omitted).
b. Opportunity to be Heard
The record clearly establishes that Plaintiff was present at the hearing, able to question witnesses, and present rebuttal evidence. See generally 1st Hr'g Tr. This remains true notwithstanding the fact that four of the witnesses Plaintiff called refused to testify. See id. at p. 10. Crucially, "it is well settled that [a]n inmate does not possess a constitutional right to confront or cross-examine witnesses in prison disciplinary hearings." Fernandez v. Callens, 2010 WL 4320362, at *11 (W.D.N.Y. Oct. 29, 2010) (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. at 567-68; Kalwasinski v. Morse, 201 F.3d 103, 109 (2d Cir. 1999); & Silva v. Casey, 992 F.2d 20, 22 (2d Cir. 1993)). The fact that these witnesses refused to testify on Plaintiff's behalf does not alter the fact that he was given the opportunity to call witnesses. See Creech v. Schoellkoph, 688 F.Supp.2d 205, 213 (W.D.N.Y. 2010) (finding no due process violation where two witnesses called by inmate refused to testify); see also Edmonson v. Coughlin, 1996 WL 622626, at *8 (W.D.N.Y. Oct. 4, 1996) (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. at 568-69 for the proposition that " Wolff specifically recognized the discretion of prison officials to decline to call as witnesses fellow inmates who do not wish to testify, or witnesses who know nothing of the underlying events"); Jamison v. Fischer, 2013 WL 5231457, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. July 11, 2013) (citing cases for the proposition that "if a requested witness refuses to testify at a disciplinary hearing, the hearing officer is not constitutionally required to compel the witness to testify."). Moreover, in such situations, all that is required of the hearing officer is that he provide the inmate with notice of the fact that witnesses are being withheld and explain the reasons why. See N.Y. COMP. CODES R. & REGS. tit. 7, § 254.5(a) ("If permission to call a witness is denied, the hearing officer shall give the inmate a written statement stating the reasons for the denial, including the specific threat to institutional safety or correctional goals presented."). Here, Defendant Bullis explained at the hearing that:
Mr. Hinton, on your assistant form you requested four potential witnesses. It is written down that they all refused to testify and in the file there are four refusal forms, one by inmate Maida... refuses to testify he does not want to be involved. Inmate King... states he does not want to be involved with any of this, he doesn't want to get involved with any of this don't call me again as stated on the form. The next is from inmate Woods... stating he does not want to be involved as he stated on the form. The next is for inmate Veach... stating he does not want to be involved he claimed he does not know anything about this incident on 7/28/2010.
1st Hr'g Tr. at p. 10.
Thus, we can find no evidence of any constitutional deficiency in Plaintiff's opportunity to appear, call witnesses, or present rebuttal evidence at the first disciplinary hearing. See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. at 564-66.
c. Written Decision
It is clear from the record that at 11:15 a.m., on October 8, 2010, Plaintiff received a written statement as to the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the disciplinary action that was ...