United States District Court, N.D. New York
For Plaintiff: JAMES M. BOGIN, ESQ., SOPHIA D. HELLER, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, PRISONERS' LEGAL SERVICES - ALBANY OFFICE, Albany, NY.
For Defendants: CHRISTOPHER W. HALL, ESQ., Ass't Attorney General, OF COUNSEL, HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General for the State of New York, The Capitol, Albany, NY.
MEMORANDUM--DECISION and ORDER
DAVID N. HURD, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Vidal Whitley (" Whitley" or " plaintiff" ), an inmate in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (" DOCCS" ), filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendants John Miller (" Miller" ), Donald Venettozzi (" Venettozzi" ),
and Albert Prack (" Prack" ). Plaintiff alleges Miller, Venettozzi, and Prack (collectively " defendants" ), prison officials involved in administering DOCCS' Special Housing/Inmate Disciplinary Program, violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.
Following discovery, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (" Rule" ) 56. Both motions were opposed, but neither party replied. The motions were considered on the basis of the submissions without oral argument.
At approximately 8:50 p.m. on August 19, 2011, a fight erupted among inmates at Clinton Correctional Facility (" CCF" ) in an outdoor recreation space known as the " flats area" of the " North Yard." Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 16-5, ¶ 2 (" Pl.'s Rule 7.1 Stat." ); Defs.' Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 18-1, ¶ 6 (" Defs.' Rule 7.1 Stat." ). Although Whitley and a large number of other inmates were in the North Yard when the fight broke out, only twenty inmates participated in the fight and prison officials were eventually able to restore order. See id.
The next morning, Corrections Sergeant M. Guynup completed an " Inmate Misbehavior Report" alleging Whitley had participated in this fight. Heller Aff., Ex. 1, ECF No. 16-2, 2. Specifically, the report alleged plaintiff was " involved in a [twenty] man altercation in the North Yard on the flats" and was " observed by staff throwing closed fist punches at the head and torso of unknown inmates." Id. It further alleged that plaintiff refused to obey orders to stop fighting and lie on the ground. Id. The report indicated plaintiff was " identified by [his] photo ID and escorted fro the area of the altercation." Id. Plaintiff was charged with violating five prison disciplinary rules, including rule 100.13 (fighting); rule 104.11 (violent conduct); rule 104.13 (disturbance); rule 106.10 (direct orders); and rule 105.13 (gang activity). Id.
On August 24, 2011, prison officials conducted an " Administrative Tier III" disciplinary hearing to adjudicate the charges alleged in the Inmate Misbehavior Report. Pl.'s Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 1, 6; Defs.' Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 1. Miller, a Lieutenant at CCF, served as Hearing Officer for the proceeding. Pl.'s Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 7; Defs.' Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 2, 16. Whitley pleaded not guilty to each of the charges against him and testified that although he was in the North Yard when the fight began, he was not a participant and immediately complied when prison officials ordered everyone in the area to lie on the ground. Pl.'s Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 8-9; Defs.' Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 7-9, 14-15.
Hearing Officer Miller then reviewed a videotape of the incident. Pl.'s Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 10; Defs.' Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 10. Although Whitley insisted he could identify himself in the video running away from the fight, Hearing Officer Miller concluded " [a]h, I'm unable to positively identify [plaintiff] . . . from the video." Heller Aff., Ex. 2, ECF No. 16-3, 5-6 (" Hearing Transcript" ). Hearing Officer Miller then called Sergeant Guynup, the author of the Inmate Misbehavior Report, to testify and explain how he had identified plaintiff as one of the participants in the fight. Pl.'s Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 11-12; Defs.' Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 16-17. Sergeant Guynup testified:
GUYNUP: From the area of the affected altercation [ ] we ascertained from Ground Post 23 over and across to Ground Post 21 and back to the section of the fence line going towards the rec shack. Any [ ] inmate that was in the direct area had a participation either actually fighting or attempting to come into the altercation.
. . . .
GUYNUP: Anybody that was on that ground was positively, was handcuffed, positively identified by your ID and then escorted out of the [North] Yard of that affected area to the gymnasium. There was a hundred . . .
Hearing Transcript at 6, 9.
Hearing Officer Miller noted that Whitley admitted to being in the flats area during the fight, and that he did not deny being brought to the gymnasium afterward. Hearing Transcript at 9. However, he also noted that the Inmate Misbehavior Report specifically alleged that plaintiff " was observed throwing closed fist punches at the head and torso of unknown inmates" and decided to review the videotape a second time. Hearing Transcript at 6. During this second viewing, plaintiff continued to insist he was not involved in the fight:
WHITLEY: I'm gonna show where I'm at in [the videotape].
MILLER: You show me where you're at or where you believe you're at . . . . [c]ause as far as I can see all the inmates in that flat area were participating in this incident.
. . . .
MILLER: Now it takes a while everybody's escorted out of the [North Yard]. Now you told me earlier you came running across the [North Yard], right?
WHITLEY: No, I said I was making my rounds around the [ ] work out area back to my, right around where . . . .
MILLER: Well this guy that you claim that you are [ ] didn't come from over here, you didn't come from the weight area. He's out in the middle of the field the whole time.
Hearing Transcript at 6-7.
Even after this second viewing, Hearing Officer Miller concluded he could not identify Whitley in the videotape. Hearing Transcript at 8-9. Plaintiff then inquired directly of Sergeant Guynup as to how he had been identified as one of the inmates actually throwing punches, who explained:
GUYNUP: Not to see it on camera when I was at 1 Post when this eruption took off, we were watching as we moved out to the [North] Yard. Anybody that was in that direct area was throwing punches. The camera pans off a little while looking at
other areas. You were in that direct route by 23 Post. It's my estimation that you were involved in that altercation ...