United States District Court, N.D. New York
Tony McGee, Pro Se, Great Meadow Correctional Facility, Comstock, NY, for Plaintiff.
HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, New York State Attorney General, KEVIN M. HAYDEN, ESQ., Assistant Attorney General, Albany, NY, for Defendants.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
DAVID E. PEEBLES, Magistrate Judge.
Pro se plaintiff Tony McGee, a New York State prison inmate, has commenced this action against several corrections employees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that they have violated his civil rights, including his right to equal protection as guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff claims that the defendants have denied him meals, showers, and other privileges based exclusively upon his sexual orientation. Plaintiff's complaint, as amended, seeks declaratory relief and an award of punitive damages.
Currently pending before the court is a motion brought by the three remaining defendants who have appeared in the action seeking the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's remaining claims. Defendants argue that plaintiff's claims are procedurally precluded based upon his failure to exhaust available administrative remedies before commencing suit. They also contend that plaintiff's claims are legally deficient, and any damage claims asserted against them in their official capacities are precluded by the Eleventh Amendment. For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that defendants' motion be granted.
Plaintiff is a prison inmate currently in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"). See generally Dkt. No. 7. At the times relevant to his claims, McGee was confined in the Coxsackie Correctional Facility ("Coxsackie"), located in Coxsackie, New York. Id.
In this action, plaintiff alleges he was deprived of meals, showers, law library access, and other privileges at Coxsackie over a twelve-month period beginning in September 2011 and extending through August 2012. See generally Dkt. No. 7. As it relates to the three remaining defendants who have appeared in the case, plaintiff's complaint alleges that (1) defendant Saltsman, a corrections officer, denied him three showers in October 2011, stating that "he did not like fags, '" Dkt. No. 7 at 2; (2) defendant Haigh denied plaintiff three meals on November 22, 2011, November 26, 2011, and December 17, 2011, telling plaintiff, "[Y]ou won't eat faggot, " id. at 3; Dkt. No. 41-20 at 13-14; and (3) defendant Bushane, another corrections officer, refused to provide plaintiff with commissary buy-sheets on June 18, 2012 and July 17, 2012, telling plaintiff, "[You] don't need a commissary sheet faggot.' Dkt. No. 7 at 3; Dkt. No. 41-20 at 42.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff commenced this action on or about April 8, 2013, and later filed an amended complaint on July 1, 2013. Dkt. Nos. 1, 7. Named as defendants in plaintiff's complaint, as amended, are Corrections Officers Haigh, Saltsman, Bushane, Williams, Nickleson, Reinbeck, Walsh, Brow, Droit, Dru/Drummond, Mays, Russell, Meaurbeau/Muschrid, Omans, Wiltsie, and Vasquez, as well as an individual identified as McMacllean, who, according to plaintiff, is a correspondent unit employee. Dkt. No. 7. Plaintiff's complaint asserts an equal protection claim in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment based on his status as a homosexual. See generally id.; see also Dkt. No. 43 at 5.
Following initial review of plaintiff's amended complaint, District Judge Mae A. D'Agostino issued a decision and order dated October 11, 2013, dismissing plaintiff's claims asserted against defendants Drummond, McMacllean, Williams, Omans, Brow, Droit, Mays, Russell, Meaurbeau, Nickelson, Reinbeck, Wiltsie, Vasquez, and Mateo, leaving intact only his Fourteenth Amendment cause of action against defendants Haigh, Saltsman, Bushane, and Walsh. Dkt. No. 9. Defendant Walsh has yet to be served and has not appeared in the action.
Following service upon defendants Haigh, Saltsman, and Bushane, the joinder of issue, and the completion of discovery, defendants moved, on June 12, 2014, for the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's claims. Dkt. No. 41. In their motion, defendants argue that plaintiff failed to exhaust available administrative remedies before filing suit and is therefore barred from pursuing the claims in this action. Dkt. No. 41-2 at 9-13. Addressing the merits, defendants maintain that plaintiff's equal protection claim is legally deficient in that it fails to identify any cognizable injury, and further contend that plaintiff's damage claims asserted against them in their official capacities are precluded by the Eleventh Amendment. Id. at 14-16. The court has since received three separate submissions from the plaintiff in opposition to defendants' summary judgment motion. Dkt. Nos. 43-45. Defendants' motion, which is now ripe for determination, has been referred to me for the issuance of a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Northern District of New York Local Rule 72.3(c). See Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b).
A. Plaintiff's Failure to Submit a Responsive Rule 7.1(a)(3) Statement
Although plaintiff has opposed defendants' motion for summary judgment, he did not address defendants' statement of undisputed material issues of fact submitted pursuant to rule 7.1(a)(3) of the local rules of practice for this court. See generally Dkt. Nos. 43-45. Before turning to the merits of defendants' motion, a threshold issue to be addressed is the legal significance of this failure.
This court's local rules provide that any motion for summary judgment must be accompanied by a statement of material facts as to which, the moving party submits, there exists no genuine dispute. N.D.N.Y. L.R. 7.1(a)(3). The rule further requires that each fact listed set forth a specific citation to the record where the fact is established. Id.
In this instance, defendants' motion was accompanied by a proper rule 7.1(a)(3) statement, including corresponding record citations. Dkt. No. 41-22. The motion also included a notice to plaintiff of the consequences of failing to properly respond to the summary judgment motion, which stated that, "[i]f [plaintiff] do[es] not submit a short and concise statement of material facts as to which [he] claim[s] there are genuine issues in dispute, all material facts set forth in the statement filed and served by the defendant(s) shall be deemed admitted." Dkt. No. 41-1.
Rule 7.1(a)(3) provides that "[t]he Court shall deem admitted any facts set forth in the Statement of Material Facts that the opposing party does not specifically controvert." N.D.N.Y. L.R. 7.1(a)(3) (emphasis in original). Under this rule, plaintiff's failure to respond to the defendants' rule 7.1(a)(3) statement is the functional equivalent of his admission of the material facts contained with the statement for purposes of the instant motion. See Elgamil v. Syracuse Univ., No. 99-CV-611, 2000 WL 1264122, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 22, 2000) (McCurn J.) (listing cases); see also Monahan v. N.Y. City Dep't of Corrs., 214 F.3d 275, 292 (2d Cir. 2000) (discussing district courts' discretion to adopt local rule 7.1(a)(3); Ketchuck v. Boyer, No. 10-CV-0870, 2011 WL 5080404, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 25, 2011) (McAvoy, J.) ("[T]he responding Statement of Material Facts is not a mere formality, and the courts apply this rule strictly." (listing cases)).
B. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment motions are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under that provision, the entry of summary judgment is warranted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material facts and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Sec. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 82-83 (2d Cir. 2004). A fact is "material" for purposes of this inquiry, if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 553 (2d Cir. 2005). A material fact is genuinely in dispute "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.
A party moving for summary judgment bears an initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute of material fact to be decided with respect to any essential element of the claim in issue, and the failure to meet this burden warrants denial of the motion. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 n.4; Sec. Ins. Co., 391 F.3d at 83. In the event this initial burden is met, the opposing party must show, through affidavits or otherwise, that there is a material dispute of fact for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.
When deciding a summary judgment motion, a court must resolve any ambiguities, and draw all inferences, in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Jeffreys, 426 F.3d at 553; Wright v. Coughlin, 132 F.3d 133, 137-38 (2d Cir. 1998). The entry of summary judgment is justified only in the event of a finding that no reasonable trier of fact could rule in favor of the non-moving party. Bldg. Trades Employers' Educ. Ass'n v. McGowan, 311 F.3d 501, 507-08 (2d Cir. 2002); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (finding summary judgment appropriate only when "there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict").
C. Failure to Exhaust Available Administrative Remedies
Defendants contend that plaintiff is precluded from maintaining this action based upon his failure to exhaust available administrative remedies prior to commencing suit. Dkt. No. 41-2 at 9-13. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 ("PLRA"), Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), which imposes several restrictions on the ability of prisoners to maintain federal civil rights actions, expressly requires that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a); see also Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 84 (2006) ("Exhaustion is... mandatory. Prisoners must now exhaust all available' remedies[.]"); Hargrove v. Riley, No. 04-CV-4587, 2007 WL 389003, at *5-6 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 31, 2007) ("The exhaustion requirement is a mandatory condition precedent to any suit challenging prison conditions, including suits brought under Section 1983."). "[T]he PLRA's exhaustion requirement applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong." Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002). In the event the defendant establishes that the inmate plaintiff failed "to fully complete the administrative review process" prior to commencing the action, the plaintiff's complaint is subject to dismissal. Pettus v. McCoy, No. 04-CV-0471, 2006 WL 2639369, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 13, 2006) (McAvoy, J.); see also Woodford, 548 U.S. at 93 ("[W]e are persuaded that the PLRA exhaustion requirement requires proper exhaustion."). "Proper exhaustion" requires a plaintiff to procedurally exhaust his claims by "compl[ying] with the system's critical procedural rules." Woodford, 548 U.S. at 95; accord, Macias v. Zenk, 495 F.3d 37, 43 (2d Cir. 2007).
The DOCCS makes available to inmates a grievance procedure entitled the Inmate Grievance Program ("IGP"). The IGP is comprised of three steps that inmates must satisfy when they have a grievance regarding prison conditions. 7 N.Y.C.R.R. § 701.5; Mingues v. Nelson, No. 96-CV-5396, 2004 WL 324898, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 20, 2004). Embodied in 7 N.Y.C.R.R. § 701, the IGP requires that an inmate first file a complaint with the facility's IGP clerk within twenty-one days of the alleged occurrence. 7 N.Y.C.R.R. § 701.5(a)(1). If a grievance complaint form is not readily available, a complaint may be submitted on plain paper. Id. A representative of the facility's IGRC has up to sixteen days after the grievance is filed to informally resolve the issue. Id. at § 701.5(b)(1). If there is no such informal resolution, then the full IGRC conducts a hearing within sixteen days after receipt of the grievance. Id. at § 701.5(b)(2).
A grievant may then appeal the IGRC's decision to the facility's superintendent within seven days after receipt of the IGRC's written decision. Id. at § 701.5(c). The superintendent must issue a written decision within a certain number of days after receipt of the grievant's appeal. Id. at § 701.5(c)(i), (ii).
The third and final step of the IGP involves an appeal to the DOCCS CORC", which must be taken within seven days after receipt of the superintendent's written decision. Id. at § 701.5(d)(1)(i). The CORC is required to render a written decision within thirty days of receipt of the appeal. Id. at § 701.5(d)(2)(i).
As can be seen, at each step of the IGP process, a decision must be rendered within a specified time period. Significantly, "[a]ny failure by the IGRC or the superintendent to timely respond to a grievance or first-level appeal, respectively, can - and must - be appealed to the next level, including CORC, to complete the grievance process." Murray v. Palmer, No. 03-CV-1010, 2010 WL 1235591, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2010) (Hurd, J., adopting report and recommendation by Lowe, M.J.) (citing, inter alia, 7 N.Y.C.R.R. § 701.6(g)(2)).
Generally, if a plaintiff fails to follow each of the required three steps of the above-described procedure prior to commencing litigation, he has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. See Ruggerio v. Cnty. of Orange, 467 F.3d 170, 176 (2d Cir. 2006) ("[T]he PLRA requires proper exhaustion, which means using all steps that the agency holds out, and doing so properly (so that the agency addresses the issues on the merits)." (quotation marks omitted)).
A review of the record now before the court reveals that plaintiff has a robust grievance history. According to Jeffrey Hale, Assistant Director of the DOCCS IGP, plaintiff has appealed eighteen grievances to the CORC, ten of which were filed in 2011 and 2012, while plaintiff was incarcerated at Coxsackie. Dkt. No. 41-12 at 2; Dkt. No. 41-13 at 1-2. According to Hale, five of the ten grievances are relevant to the claims asserted by plaintiff. See generally Dkt. No. 41-12. Although I will analyze those grievances individually below, in general, none of them contain allegations of discrimination based on his sexual orientation, and thus did not squarely place prison officials on notice of his equal protection claims.
1. Denial of Meals
Plaintiff claims that defendant Haigh denied him meals on November 22, 2011, November 26, 2011, and December 17, 2011. Dkt. No. 7 at 2; Dkt. No. 41-20 at 13-14. The record reflects that on December 27, 2011, plaintiff filed Grievance No. CX-16919-11 concerning the denial of meals on those dates, and that the grievance was denied at all levels, including before the CORC. Dkt. No. 41-15. Plaintiff's grievance, however, only alleged that he was denied meals by defendant Haigh on November 22, 2011, November 26, 2011, and December 17, 2011. Id. at 5. Plaintiff did not allege that he was denied meals based on his sexual orientation or discriminatory animus. Id. During the investigation of plaintiff's grievance, he was interviewed by Captain Murphy, who stated that plaintiff "had nothing to add" to his grievance during the interview. Id. at 8. Moreover, the decisions issued by the superintendent and CORC denying plaintiff's grievance do not indicate any finding of discrimination or mention plaintiff's sexual orientation. Id. at 1, 6. Accordingly, there is no basis to conclude that plaintiff's grievance alleging denial of meals by defendant Haigh on November 22, 2011, November 26, 2011, and December 17, 2011, placed defendants on notice of an equal protection claim or discrimination allegation.
2. Denial of Showers
Plaintiff alleges that defendant Saltsman denied him access to showers on three occasions in October 2011, due to plaintiff's status as a homosexual. Dkt. No. 7 at 2. The record reveals that on January 12, 2012, plaintiff filed Grievance No. CX-16936-12 complaining of receiving threats and being deprived of showers and access to the law library. Dkt. No. 41-16. A careful review of the documents associated with that grievance, which was denied at all levels up through the CORC, however, fails to reflect any allegation of shower denials in October 2011, or any mention of defendant Saltsman being involved in the deprivations. Id. Moreover, it does not appear that defendant Saltsman was interviewed during the course of the investigation of that grievance. Id. In addition, even assuming defendant Saltsman was involved in the alleged deprivations, the grievance does not allege discrimination or mention plaintiff's sexual orientation. Id. at 4. Similarly, during the investigation of the grievance, plaintiff was interviewed by Sergeant Marshall, who reported that plaintiff "provided no witnesses or evidence to support his grievance[, and plaintiff] had nothing to add." Id. at 7. Accordingly, there is nothing in the record to suggest that, even assuming Grievance No. CV-16936-12 was intended to implicate defendant Saltsman, plaintiff intended to allege that Saltsman's conduct was motivated by discriminatory animus towards his sexual orientation. As a result, plaintiff's grievance concerning the denial of showers did not place defendants on notice of his equal protection claim.
3. Denial of Commissary Sheets
In his complaint, plaintiff also alleges that defendant Bushane refused to provide him with commissary sheets on June 18, 2012 and July 17, 2012, and in doing so made a derogatory reference to his sexual orientation. Dkt. No. 7 at 3; see also Dkt. No. 41-20 at 42. Plaintiff filed two separate grievances concerning commissary denials while at Coxsackie. The first, Grievance No. CX-17192-12, was filed on June 21, 2012, and alleges that the "Commissary Steward Mr. G. Melenez" refused to permit plaintiff to shop at the prison commissary. Dkt. No. 41-17 at 6. The second, Grievance No. CX-17248-12, was filed on July 19, 2012, and alleges that defendant Bushane failed to provide him with a commissary buy-sheet on July 17, 2012. Dkt. No. 41-18 5. Neither of those grievances, however, contained allegations of discrimination against plaintiff based on his sexual orientation. Dkt. No. 41-17 at 6; Dkt. No. 41-18 5. In addition, the investigations of plaintiff's grievances regarding the denial of commissary privileges do not reveal that Commissary Steward Melenez or defendant Bushane deprived plaintiff of commissary access or a commissary buy-sheet based on his sexual orientation. See generally Dkt. Nos. 41-17, 41-18. Commissary Supervisor Melenez stated, in connection with the investigation of grievance No. CX-17192-12, that plaintiff "turned in the wrong commissary sheet dated 4/6/12 and dropped it the day after his buy day, 6/18/12." Dkt. No. 41-17 at 10. In connection with Grievance No. CX-17248-12, Commissary Supervisor Melenez stated that plaintiff's commissary buy-sheet was sent to him and the corrections officer responsible for passing them out "said all sheet[s] were passed out." Dkt. No. 41-18 at 12 (emphasis in original). None of the decisions issued by the IGRC, facility superintendent, or CORC, all of which denied both of plaintiff's grievances regarding commissary access, reflect any finding of discrimination or motivation by the accused individuals of discriminatory animus. Accordingly, I find that plaintiff failed to exhaust the available administrative remedies regarding the denial of commissary access based on his sexual orientation.
In summary, the record reflects that plaintiff failed to exhaust available administrative remedies before commencing this action. The sole remaining cause of action is an equal protection claim based on allegations that the defendants discriminated against him by denying him meals, showers, and commissary due to his sexual orientation. Although plaintiff filed grievances complaining of being deprived those specific rights and privileges, none of the relevant grievances included an allegation of discrimination, and the investigations undertaken in connection with the grievances did not reveal either discriminatory animus by the accused individuals or plaintiff's belief that the individuals' conduct was motivated by his sexual orientation. As such, the grievances failed to place defendants on notice of plaintiff's equal protection claim. Accordingly, I find that plaintiff failed to exhaust all available administrative remedies prior to filing suit. See Young v. Goord, No. 01-CV-0626, 2002 WL 31102670, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 3, 2002), aff'd in relevant part by Young v. Goord, 67 F.Appx. 638 (2d Cir. 2003), (dismissing the plaintiff's equal protection claim based on exhaustion grounds because "[a]t no point during the administrative proceedings did [he] raise, in words of substance, an equal protection claim based on the differential treatment of other Rastafarians").
The failure to exhaust, however, does not warrant dismissal of plaintiff's amended complaint without further inquiry. In a series of decisions rendered since enactment of the PLRA, the Second Circuit has prescribed a three-part test for determining whether dismissal of an inmate plaintiff's complaint is warranted for failure to satisfy the PLRA's exhaustion requirement. See, e.g., Hemphill v. New York, 380 F.3d 680, 686 (2d Cir. 2004); see also Macias, 495 F.3d at 41. Those decisions instruct that, before dismissing an action as a result of a plaintiffs failure to exhaust, a court must first determine whether the administrative remedies were available to the plaintiff at the relevant times. Macias, 495 F.3d at 41; Hemphill, 380 F.3d at 686. In the event of a finding that a remedy existed and was available, the court must next examine whether the defendant has forfeited the affirmative defense of non-exhaustion by failing to properly raise or preserve it, or whether, through his own actions preventing the exhaustion of plaintiff's remedies, he should be estopped from asserting failure to exhaust as a defense. Id. In the event the exhaustion defense survives these first two levels of scrutiny, the court must examine whether the plaintiff has plausibly alleged special circumstances to justify his failure to comply with the applicable administrative procedure requirements. Id.
In this case, although plaintiff contends, in his opposition to defendants' motion, that plaintiff-inmates are not required to "specially plead or demonstrate exhaustion in [their] civil rights complaint, ' courts in this circuit have found that, once a defendant satisfies the burden of demonstrating that an inmate has failed to exhaust administrative remedies, it then becomes incumbent upon the plaintiff to counter with a showing of unavailability, estoppel, or special circumstances. See, e.g., Murray v. Palmer, No. 03-CV-1010, 2010 WL 1235591, at *4 & n.17 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2010) (Suddaby, J.); see also Calloway v. Grimshaw, No. 09-CV-1354, 2011 WL 4345299, at *5 & n.5 (N.D.N.Y. Aug.10, 2011) (Lowe, M.J.) (citing cases), report and recommendation adopted by 2011 WL 4345296 (N.D.N.Y. Sept.15, 2011) (McAvoy, J.); Cohn v. KeySpan Corp., 713 F.Supp.2d 143, 155 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (finding that, in the employment discrimination context, the defendants bear the burden of establishing the affirmative defense of failure to timely exhaust his administrative remedies, but once defendants have done so, the plaintiff must plead and prove facts supporting equitable avoidance of the defense.). In this instance, plaintiff has not presented, nor has the court discerned, any basis to conclude that the IGP was not available to him, defendants should be estopped from asserting failure to exhaust, or that special circumstances exist to justify plaintiff's failure to exhaust. Accordingly, I recommend that defendants' motion be granted and plaintiff's remaining claims asserted against defendants Haigh, Saltsman, and Bushane be dismissed for failure to exhaust available administrative remedies.
D. Plaintiff's Claims Against Defendant Walsh
On October 11, 2013, following the court's initial review of plaintiff's amended complaint, summonses were issued for the four remaining defendants, including defendant Walsh. Dkt. No. 10. The summons for defendant Walsh was subsequently returned unexecuted a short time later with a handwritten notation that states, "[C]an not identify[.]" Dkt. No. 12. Since then, plaintiff has taken no steps to identify defendant Walsh more particularly and/or arrange for service of the summons and complaint upon him. Although defendants' motion does not explicitly request this relief, I recommend that the court sua sponte examine whether plaintiff should be permitted to proceed against this unserved defendant.
Rule 4(m) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that service of a summons be effectuated within 120 days of its issuance, absent a court order extending that period. Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(m). Upon a showing of good cause, this time for service must be extended. See Panaras v. Liquid Carbonic Indus. Corp., 94 F.3d 338, 340 (7th Cir. 1996). "If, however, good cause does not exist, the court may, in its discretion, either dismiss the action without prejudice or direct that service be effected within a specified time." Panaras, 94 F.3d at 340 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(m)); see also Zapata v. City of New York, 502 F.3d 192, 196 (2d Cir. 2007) ("We hold that district courts have discretion to grant extensions even in the absence of good cause."); Romandette v. Weetabix Co., Inc., 807 F.2d 309, 311 (2d Cir. 1986). When examining whether to extend the prescribed period for service, a district court is afforded ample discretion to weigh the "overlapping equitable considerations" involved in determining whether good cause exists and whether an extension may be granted in the absence of good cause. Zapata, 502 F.3d at 197.
Plaintiff's pro se status entitles him to a certain degree of leniency insofar as service of process is concerned, and courts generally favor resolution of a case on its merits rather than on the basis of a procedural technicality. Poulakis v. Amtrak, 139 F.R.D. 107, 109 (N.D. III. 1991). When a plaintiff proceeds in forma pauperis, as is the case in this instance, the court is obligated to issue the plaintiff's process to the United States Marshal, who must, in turn, effect service upon the defendants, thereby relieving the plaintiff of the burden to serve once reasonable steps have been taken to identify the defendants named in the complaint. Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(c)(3); 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d); see also Byrd v. Stone, 94 F.3d 217, 219 (6th Cir. 1996) ("[Section] 1915([d]) provides that the officers of the court shall issue and serve all process' when a plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis."). Of course, this does not mean that a pro se plaintiff may stand idle upon being notified that efforts by the U.S. Marshals Service to serve a particular defendant have been unsuccessful. VanDiver v. Martin, 304 F.Supp.2d 934, 938-43 (E.D. Mich. 2004). A plaintiff who does so acts at his peril, and risks dismissal of his claims against an unserved defendant. As the Second Circuit has observed,
[i]f a plaintiff proceeding IFP chooses to rely on the Marshals to serve the relevant parties, and it becomes apparent that the Marshals will not accomplish by the Rule 4(m) or court-ordered deadline, she must advise the district court that she is relying on the Marshals to effect service and request a further extension of time for them to do so.
Meilleur v. Strong, 682 F.3d 56, 63 (2d Cir. 2012). Accordingly, a district court must look at the facts and circumstances surrounding each case to determine whether good cause exists. Meilleur, 682 F.3d at 63.
In this case, defendant Walsh was not served and did not appear in the action within the appropriate time period. Based upon a review of the record, I do not find good cause exists to justify plaintiff's failure to effectuate timely service upon that defendant, and find no basis to exercise my discretion in favor of extending the governing period of service. Accordingly, because this court has never acquired jurisdiction over him, I recommend that plaintiff's claims be dismissed as against defendant Walsh, without prejudice. See Miss. Publ'g Corp. v. Murphree, 326 U.S. 438, 444-45 (1946) ("[S]ervice of summons is the procedure by which a court having venue and jurisdiction of the subject matter of the suit asserts jurisdiction over the person of the party served."); accord, Osrecovery, Inc. v. One Group Intl, Inc., 234 F.R.D. 59, 60 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).
IV. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATION
Defendants have raised the question of whether plaintiff exhausted all available administrative remedies before commencing this action Having reviewed the record, I conclude that, while plaintiff filed grievances alleging that he was denied meals, showers, and commissary access, those grievances did not allege he was denied those rights and privileges based on his sexual orientation or any discriminatory animus. When asked during the investigation of the grievances whether he had anything to add, plaintiff declined to offer any additional information, including any allegations of discrimination. Accordingly, I find that plaintiff's grievances, which did not allege discrimination or a violation of equal protection, are not sufficient to satisfy his requirement under the PLRA. Because the record is also devoid of any evidence to suggest that plaintiff should be excused from the exhaustion requirement, dismissal of the remaining claims is appropriate.
Based upon the foregoing, it is hereby respectfully
RECOMMENDED that defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 41) be GRANTED and that all claims against Haigh, Saltsman, and Bushane be DISMISSED; and it is further
RECOMMENDED that the court dismiss all claims against defendant Walsh, without prejudice, based upon the fact that he has not yet been served in the action; and it is further
RECOMMENDED that, to the extent plaintiff's amended complaint is construed as asserting an Eighth Amendment cause of action, the claim be dismissed; and it is further
RECOMMENDED that plaintiff's cross motion (Dkt. No. 43) be DENIED.
NOTICE: Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the parties may lodge written objections to the foregoing report. Such objections must be filed with the clerk of the court within FOURTEEN days of service of this report. FAILURE TO SO OBJECT TO THIS REPORT WILL PRECLUDE APPELLATE REVIEW. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(a), 6(d), 72; Roldan v. Racette, 984 F.2d 85 (2d Cir. 1993).
It is hereby ORDERED that the clerk of the court serve a copy of this report and recommendation upon the parties in accordance with this court's local rules.
Joch & Kirby, Ithaca, New York, for Plaintiff, Joseph Joch, of counsel.
Bond, Schoeneck & King, LLP, Syracuse, New York, for Defendant, John Gaal, Paul Limmiatis, of counsel.
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
McCURN, Senior J.
*1 Plaintiff brings suit against defendant Syracuse University ("University") pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. ("Title IX") claiming hostile educational environment, and retaliation for complaints of same. Presently before the court is the University's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff opposes the motion.
LOCAL RULES PRACTICE
The facts of this case, which the court recites below, are affected by plaintiff's failure to file a Statement of Material Facts which complies with the clear mandate of Local Rule 7.1(a)(3) of the Northern District of New York. This Rule requires a motion for summary judgment to contain a Statement of Material Facts with specific citations to the record where those facts are established. A similar obligation is imposed upon the non-movant who
shall file a response to the [movant's] Statement of Material Facts. The non-movant's response shall mirror the movant's Statement of Material Facts by admitting and/or denying each of the movant's assertions in matching numbered paragraphs. Each denial shall set forth a specific citation to the record where the factual issue arises.... Any facts set forth in the [movant's] Statement of material Facts shall be deemed admitted unless specifically controverted by the opposing party.
L.R. 7.1(a)(3) (emphasis in original).
In moving for summary judgment, the University filed an eleven page, twenty-nine paragraph Statement of Material Facts, replete with citations to the record in every paragraph. Plaintiff, in opposition, filed a two page, nine paragraph statement appended to her memorandum of law which failed to admit or deny the specific assertions set forth by defendant, and which failed to contain a single citation to the record. Plaintiff has thus failed to comply with Rule 7.1(a)(3).
As recently noted in another decision, "[t]he Local Rules are not suggestions, but impose procedural requirements upon parties litigating in this District." Osier v. Broome County, 47 F.Supp.2d 311, 317 (N.D.N.Y.1999). As a consequence, courts in this district have not hesitated to enforce Rule 7.1(a)(3) and its predecessor, Rule 7.1(f)FN1 by deeming the facts asserted in a movant's proper Statement of Material Facts as admitted, when, as here, the opposing party has failed to comply with the Rule. See, e.g., Phipps v. New York State Dep't of Labor, 53 F.Supp.2d 551, 556-57 (N.D.N.Y.1999); DeMar v. Car-Freshner Corp., 49 F.Supp.2d 84, 86 (N.D.N.Y.1999); Osier, 47 F.Supp.2d at 317; Nicholson v. Doe, 185 F.R.D. 134, 135 (N.D.N.Y.1999); TSI Energy, Inc. v. Stewart and Stevenson Operations, Inc., 1998 WL 903629, at *1 n. 1 (N.D. N.Y.1998); Costello v. Norton, 1998 WL 743710, at *1 n. 2 (N.D.N.Y.1998); Squair v. O'Brien & Gere Engineers, Inc., 1998 WL 566773, at *1 n. 2 (N.D.N.Y.1998). As in the cases just cited, this court deems as admitted all of the facts asserted in defendant's Statement of Material Facts. The court next recites these undisputed facts.
FN1. Amended January 1, 1999.
*2 Plaintiff became a doctoral student in the University's Child and Family Studies ("CFS") department in the Spring of 1995. Successful completion of the doctoral program required a student to (1) complete 60 credit hours of course work; (2) pass written comprehensive examinations ("comp.exams") in the areas of research methods, child development, family theory and a specialty area; (3) after passing all four comp. exams, orally defend the written answers to those exams; (4) then select a dissertation topic and have the proposal for the topic approved; and (5) finally write and orally defend the dissertation. Plaintiff failed to progress beyond the first step.
Each student is assigned an advisor, though it is not uncommon for students to change advisors during the course of their studies, for a myriad of reasons. The advisor's role is to guide the student in regard to course selection and academic progress. A tenured member of the CFS department, Dr. Jaipaul Roopnarine, was assigned as plaintiff's advisor.
As a student's comp. exams near, he or she selects an examination committee, usually consisting of three faculty members, including the student's advisor. This committee writes the questions which comprise the student's comp. exams, and provides the student with guidance and assistance in preparing for the exams. Each member of the committee writes one exam; one member writes two. Two evaluators grade each exam; ordinarily the faculty member who wrote the question, and one other faculty member selected by the coordinator of exams.
Roopnarine, in addition to his teaching and advising duties, was the coordinator of exams for the entire CFS department. In this capacity, he was generally responsible for selecting the evaluators who would grade each student's comp. exam, distributing the student's answer to the evaluators for grading, collecting the evaluations, and compiling the evaluation results.
The evaluators graded an exam in one of three ways: "pass, " "marginal" or "fail." A student who received a pass from each of the two graders passed that exam. A student who received two fails from the graders failed the exam. A pass and a marginal grade allowed the student to pass. A marginal and a fail grade resulted in a failure. Two marginal evaluations may result in a committee having to decide whether the student would be given a passing grade. In cases where a student was given both a pass and a fail, a third evaluator served as the tie breaker.
These evaluators read and graded the exam questions independently of each other, and no indication of the student's identity was provided on the answer.FN2 The coordinator, Roopnarine, had no discretion in compiling these grades-he simply applied the pass or fail formula described above in announcing whether a student passed or failed the comp. exams. Only after a student passed all four written exam questions would he or she be permitted to move to the oral defense of those answers.
FN2. Of course, as mentioned, because one of the evaluators may have written the question, and the question may have been specific to just that one student, one of the two or three evaluators may have known the student's identity regardless of the anonymity of the examination answer.
*3 Plaintiff completed her required course work and took the comp. exams in October of 1996. Plaintiff passed two of the exams, family theory and specialty, but failed two, child development and research methods. On each of the exams she failed, she had one marginal grade, and one failing grade. Roopnarine, as a member of her committee, authored and graded two of her exams. She passed one of them, specialty, and failed the other, research methods. Roopnarine, incidently, gave her a pass on specialty, and a marginal on research methods. Thus it was another professor who gave her a failing grade on research methods, resulting in her failure of the exam. As to the other failed exam, child development, it is undisputed that Roopnarine neither wrote the question, nor graded the answer.
Pursuant to the University's procedures, she retook the two exams she failed in January of 1997. Despite being given the same questions, she only passed one, child development. She again failed research methods by getting marginal and fail grades from her evaluators. This time, Roopnarine was not one of the evaluators for either of her exam questions.
After this second unsuccessful attempt at passing research methods, plaintiff complained to the chair of the CFS department, Dr. Norma Burgess. She did not think that she had been properly prepared for her exam, and complained that she could no longer work with Roopnarine because he yelled at her, was rude to her, and was otherwise not responsive or helpful. She wanted a new advisor. Plaintiff gave no indication, however, that she was being sexually harassed by Roopnarine.
Though plaintiff never offered any additional explanation for her demands of a new advisor, Burgess eventually agreed to change her advisor, due to plaintiff's insistence. In March of 1997, Burgess and Roopnarine spoke, and Roopnarine understood that he would no longer be advising plaintiff. After that time period, plaintiff and Roopnarine had no further contact. By June of that year, she had been assigned a new advisor, Dr. Mellisa Clawson.
Plaintiff then met with Clawson to prepare to take her research methods exam for the third time. Despite Clawson's repeated efforts to work with plaintiff, she sought only minimal assistance; this was disturbing to Clawson, given plaintiff's past failures of the research methods exam. Eventually, Clawson was assigned to write plaintiff's third research methods exam.
The first time plaintiff made any mention of sexual harassment was in August of 1997, soon before plaintiff made her third attempt at passing research methods. She complained to Susan Crockett, Dean of the University's College of Human Development, the parent organization of the CFS department. Even then, however, plaintiff merely repeated the claims that Roopnarine yelled at her, was rude to her, and was not responsive or helpful. By this time Roopnarine had no contact with plaintiff in any event. The purpose of plaintiff's complaint was to make sure that Roopnarine would not be involved in her upcoming examination as exam coordinator. Due to plaintiff's complaints, Roopnarine was removed from all involvement with plaintiff's third research methods examination. As chair of the department, Burgess took over the responsibility for serving as plaintiff's exam coordinator. Thus, Burgess, not Roopnarine, was responsible for receiving plaintiff's answer, selecting the evaluators, and compiling the grades of these evaluators;FN3 as mentioned, Clawson, not Roopnarine, authored the exam question.
FN3. Plaintiff appears to allege in her deposition and memorandum of law that Roopnarine remained the exam coordinator for her third and final exam. See Pl.'s Dep. at 278; Pl.'s Mem. of Law at 9. The overwhelming and undisputed evidence in the record establishes that Roopnarine was not, in fact, the coordinator of this exam. Indeed, as discussed above, the University submitted a Statement of Material Facts which specifically asserted in paragraph 18 that Roopnarine was removed from all involvement in plaintiff's exam, including the role of exam coordinator. See Def.'s Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 18 (and citations to the record therein). Aside from the fact that this assertion is deemed admitted for plaintiff's failure to controvert it, plaintiff cannot maintain, without any evidence, that Roopnarine was indeed her exam coordinator. Without more than broad, conclusory allegations of same, no genuine issue of material fact exists on this question.
*4 Plaintiff took the third research methods examination in September of 1997. Clawson and another professor, Dr. Kawamoto, were her evaluators. Clawson gave her a failing grade; Kawamoto indicated that there were "some key areas of concern, " but not enough for him to deny her passage. As a result of receiving one passing and one failing grade, plaintiff's research methods exam was submitted to a third evaluator to act as a tie breaker. Dr. Dean Busby, whose expertise was research, was chosen for this task. Busby gave plaintiff a failing grade, and began his written evaluation by stating that
[t]his is one of the most poorly organized and written exams I have ever read. I cannot in good conscience vote any other way than a fail. I tried to get it to a marginal but could not find even one section that I would pass.
Busby Aff. Ex. B.
The undisputed evidence shows that Clawson, Kawamoto and Busby each evaluated plaintiff's exam answer independently, without input from either Roopnarine or anyone else. Kawamoto and Busby did not know whose exam they were evaluating.FN4 Importantly, it is also undisputed that none of the three evaluators knew of plaintiff's claims of sexual harassment.
FN4. Clawson knew it was plaintiff's examination because she was plaintiff's advisor, and wrote the examination question.
After receiving the one passing and two failing evaluations, Burgess notified plaintiff in December of 1997 that she had, yet again, failed the research methods exam, and offered her two options. Although the University's policies permitted a student to only take a comp. exam three times (the original exam, plus two retakes), the CFS department would allow plaintiff to retake the exam for a fourth time, provided that she took a remedial research methods class to strengthen her abilities. Alternatively, Burgess indicated that the CFS department would be willing to recommend plaintiff for a master's degree based on her graduate work. Plaintiff rejected both offers.
The second time plaintiff used the term sexual harassment in connection with Roopnarine was six months after she was notified that she had failed for the third time, in May of 1998. Through an attorney, she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Roopnarine with the University. This written complaint repeated her allegations that Roopnarine had yelled at her, been rude to her, and otherwise had not been responsive to her needs. She also, for the first time, complained of two other acts:
1. that Roopnarine had talked to her about his sex life, including once telling her that women are attracted to him, and when he attends conferences, they want to have sex with him over lunch; and
2. that Roopnarine told her that he had a dream in which he, plaintiff and plaintiff's husband had all been present.
Prior to the commencement of this action, this was the only specific information regarding sexual harassment brought to the attention of University officials.
The University concluded that the alleged conduct, if true, was inappropriate and unprofessional, but it did not constitute sexual harassment. Plaintiff then brought this suit. In her complaint, she essentially alleges two things; first, that Roopnarine's conduct subjected her to a sexually hostile educational environment; and second, that as a result of complaining about Roopnarine's conduct, the University retaliated against her by preventing her from finishing her doctorate, mainly, by her failing her on the third research methods exam.
*5 The University now moves for summary judgment. Primarily, it argues that the alleged conduct, if true, was not sufficiently severe and pervasive to state a claim. Alternatively, it argues that it cannot be held liable for the conduct in any event, because it had no actual knowledge of plaintiff's alleged harassment, and was not deliberately indifferent to same. Finally, it argues that plaintiff is unable to establish a retaliation claim. These contentions are addressed below.
The principles that govern summary judgment are well established. Summary judgment is properly granted only when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all factual inferences and resolve all ambiguities in favor of the nonmoving party. See Torres v. Pisano, 116 F.3d 625, 630 (2d Cir.1997). As the Circuit has recently emphasized in the discrimination context, "summary judgment may not be granted simply because the court believes that the plaintiff will be unable to meet his or her burden of persuasion at trial." Danzer v. Norden Sys., Inc., 151 F.3d 50, 54 (2d Cir.1998). Rather, there must be either an absence of evidence that supports plaintiff's position, see Norton v. Sam's Club, 145 F.3d 114, 117-20 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1001 (1998), "or the evidence must be so overwhelmingly tilted in one direction that any contrary finding would constitute clear error." Danzer, 151 F.3d at 54. Yet, as the Circuit has also admonished, "purely conclusory allegations of discrimination, absent any concrete particulars, " are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir.1985). With these principles in mind, the court turns to defendant's motion.
I. Hostile Environment
Title IX provides, with certain exceptions not relevant here, that
[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).
Recently, the Supreme Court reiterated that Title IX is enforceable through an implied private right of action, and that monetary damages are available in such an action. See Gebser v. Lugo Vista Indep. Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274, 118 S.Ct. 1989, 1994 (1998) (citing Cannon v. University of Chicago, 441 U.S. 677 (1979) and Franklin v. Gwinnett County Pub. Sch., 503 U.S. 60 (1992)).
A. Severe or Pervasive
Provided that a plaintiff student can meet the requirements to hold the school itself liable for the sexual harassment, FN5 claims of hostile educational environment are generally examined using the case law developed for hostile work environment under Title VII. See Davis, 119 S.Ct. at 1675 (citing Meritor Say. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986), a Title VII case). Accord Kracunas v. Iona College, 119 F.3d 80, 87 (2d Cir.1997); Murray v. New York Univ. College of Dentistry, 57 F.3d 243, 249 (2d Cir.1995), both abrogated on other grounds by Gebser, 118 S.Ct. at 1999.
FN5. In Gebser, 118 S.Ct. at 1999, and Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 119 S.Ct. 1661, 1671 (1999), the Supreme Court explicitly departed from the respondeat superior principles which ordinarily govern Title VII actions for purposes of Title IX; in a Title IX case it is now clear that a school will not be liable for the conduct of its teachers unless it knew of the conduct and was deliberately indifferent to the discrimination. Defendant properly argues that even if plaintiff was subjected to a hostile environment, she cannot show the University's knowledge and deliberate indifference. This argument will be discussed below.
It bears noting that courts examining sexual harassment claims sometimes decide first whether the alleged conduct rises to a level of actionable harassment, before deciding whether this harassment can be attributed to the defendant employer or school, as this court does here. See, e.g., Distasio v. Perkin Elmer Corp., 157 F.3d 55 (2d Cir.1998). Sometimes, however, courts first examine whether the defendant can be held liable for the conduct, and only then consider whether this conduct is actionable. See, e.g., Quinn v. Green Tree Credit Corp., 159 F.3d 759, 767 n. 8 (2d Cir.1998). As noted in Quinn, the Circuit has not instructed that the sequence occur in either particular order. See id.
*6 In Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21-22 (1993), the Supreme Court stated that in order to succeed, a hostile environment claim must allege conduct which is so "severe or pervasive" as to create an "objectively' hostile or abusive work environment, " which the victim also "subjectively perceive[s]... to be abusive." Richardson v. New York State Dept of Corr. Servs., 180 F.3d 426, 436 (alteration in original) (quoting Harris, 510 U.S. at 21-22). From this court's review of the record, there is no dispute that plaintiff viewed her environment to be hostile and abusive; hence, the question before the court is whether the environment was "objectively" hostile. See id. Plaintiff's allegations must be evaluated to determine whether a reasonable person who is the target of discrimination would find the educational environment "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victim['s] educational experience, that [this person is] effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities." Davis, 119 S.Ct. at 1675.
Conduct that is "merely offensive" but "not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment-an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive" is beyond the purview of the law. Harris, 510 U.S. at 21. Thus, it is now clear that neither "the sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional testing, " nor "intersexual flirtation, " accompanied by conduct "merely tinged with offensive connotations" will create an actionable environment. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 787 (1998). Moreover, a plaintiff alleging sexual harassment must show the hostility was based on membership in a protected class. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 77 (1998). Thus, to succeed on a claim of sexual harassment, a plaintiff "must always prove that the conduct at issue was not merely tinged with offensive sexual connotations, but actually constituted discrimina[tion] because of... sex." Id. at 81 (alteration and ellipses in original).
The Supreme Court has established a non-exclusive list of factors relevant to determining whether a given workplace is permeated with discrimination so severe or pervasive as to support a Title VII claim. See Harris, 510 U.S. at 23. These include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with plaintiff's work, and what psychological harm, if any, resulted from the conduct. See id. ; Richardson, 180 F.3d at 437.
Although conduct can meet this standard by being either "frequent" or "severe, " Osier, 47 F.Supp.2d at 323, "isolated remarks or occasional episodes of harassment will not merit relief [ ]; in order to be actionable, the incidents of harassment must occur in concert or with a regularity that can reasonably be termed pervasive.'" Quinn, 159 F.3d at 767 (quoting Tomka v. Seiler Corp., 66 F.3d 1295, 1305 n. 5 (2d Cir.1995)). Single or episodic events will only meet the standard if they are sufficiently threatening or repulsive, such as a sexual assault, in that these extreme single incidents "may alter the plaintiff's conditions of employment without repetition." Id. Accord Kotcher v. Rosa and Sullivan Appliance Ctr., Inc., 957 F.2d 59, 62 (2d Cir.1992) ("[t]he incidents must be repeated and continuous; isolated acts or occasional episodes will not merit relief.").
*7 The University quite properly argues that the conduct plaintiff alleges is not severe and pervasive. As discussed above, she claims that she was subjected to behavior by Roopnarine that consisted primarily of his yelling at her, being rude to her, and not responding to her requests as she felt he should. This behavior is insufficient to state a hostile environment claim, despite the fact that it may have been unpleasant. See, e.g., Gutierrez v. Henoch, 998 F.Supp. 329, 335 (S.D.N.Y.1998) (disputes relating to job-related disagreements or personality conflicts, without more, do not create sexual harassment liability); Christoforou v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., 668 F.Supp. 294, 303 (S.D.N.Y.1987) ("there is a crucial difference between personality conflict... which is unpleasant but legal... [and sexual harassment]... which is despicable and illegal."). Moreover, the court notes that plaintiff has failed to show that this alleged behavior towards her was sexually related-an especially important failing considering plaintiff's own testimony that Roopnarine treated some males in much of the same manner. See, e.g., Pl.'s Dep. at 298 ("He said that Dr. Roopnarine screamed at him in a meeting"). As conduct that is "equally harsh" to both sexes does not create a hostile environment, Brennan v. Metropolitan Opera Ass'n, Inc., 192 F.3d 310, 318 (2d Cir.1999), this conduct, while demeaning and inappropriate, is not sufficiently gender-based to support liability. See Osier, 47 F.Supp.2d at 324.
The more detailed allegations brought forth for the first time in May of 1998 are equally unavailing. These allegations are merely of two specific, isolated comments. As described above, Roopnarine told plaintiff of his sexual interaction(s) with other women, and made a single, non-sexual comment about a dream in which plaintiff, plaintiff's husband, and Roopnarine were all present. Accepting as true these allegations, the court concludes that plaintiff has not come forward with evidence sufficient to support a finding that she was subject to abuse of sufficient severity or pervasiveness that she was "effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities." Davis, 119 S.Ct. at 1675.
Quinn, a recent Second Circuit hostile work environment case, illustrates the court's conclusion well. There, plaintiff complained of conduct directed towards her including sexual touching and comments. She was told by her supervisor that she had been voted the "sleekest ass" in the office and the supervisor deliberately touched her breasts with some papers he was holding. 159 F.3d at 768. In the Circuit's view, these acts were neither severe nor pervasive enough to state a claim for hostile environment. See id. In the case at bar, plaintiff's allegations are no more severe than the conduct alleged in Quinn, nor, for that matter, did they occur more often. Thus, without more, plaintiff's claims fail as well.
*8 Yet, plaintiff is unable to specify any other acts which might constitute sexual harassment. When pressured to do so, plaintiff maintained only that she "knew" what Roopnarine wanted "every time [she] spoke to him" and that she could not "explain it other than that's the feeling [she] had." Pl.'s Dep. at 283-85, 287, 292. As defendant properly points out, these very types of suspicions and allegations of repeated, but unarticulated conduct have been shown to be insufficient to defeat summary judgment. See Meiri, 759 F.2d at 998 (plaintiff's allegations that employer "conspired to get of [her];' that he misconceived [her] work habits because of his subjective prejudice against [her] Jewishness;' and that she heard disparaging remarks about Jews, but, of course, don't ask me to pinpoint people, times or places.... It's all around us, '" are conclusory and insufficient to satisfy the demands of Rule 56) (alterations and ellipses in original); Dayes v. Pace Univ., 2000 WL 307382, at *5 (S.D.N.Y.2000) (plaintiff's attempts to create an appearance of pervasiveness by asserting "[t]he conduct to which I was subjected... occurred regularly and over many months, " without more "is conclusory, and is not otherwise supported in the record [and] therefore afforded no weight"); Quiros v. Ciba-Geigy Corp., 7 F.Supp.2d 380, 385 (S.D.N.Y.1998) (plaintiff's allegations of hostile work environment without more than conclusory statements of alleged discrimination insufficient to defeat summary judgment); Eng v. Beth Israel Med. Ctr., 1995 U.S. Dist. Lexis 11155, at *6 n. 1 (S.D.N.Y.1995) (plaintiff's "gut feeling" that he was victim of discrimination was no more than conclusory, and unable to defeat summary judgment). As plaintiff comes forward with no proper showing of either severe or pervasive conduct, her hostile environment claim necessarily fails.
B. Actual Knowledge/Deliberate Indifference
Even if plaintiff's allegations were sufficiently severe or pervasive, her hostile environment claim would still fail. As previously discussed, see supra note 5, the Supreme Court recently departed from the framework used to hold defendants liable for actionable conduct under Title VII. See Davis, 119 S.Ct. at 1671; Gebser, 118 S.Ct. at 1999. Pursuant to these new decisions, it is now clear that in order to hold an educational institution liable for a hostile educational environment under Title IX, it must be shown that "an official who at minimum has authority to address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures on the [plaintiff's] behalf has actual knowledge of [the] discrimination [.]" Gebser, 118 S.Ct. at 1999 (emphasis supplied). What's more, the bar is even higher: after learning of the harassment, in order for the school to be liable, its response must then "amount to deliberate indifference to discrimination[, ]" or, "in other words, [ ] an official decision by the [school] not to remedy the violation. " Id. (Emphasis supplied). Accord Davis, 119 S.Ct. at 1671 ("we concluded that the [school] could be liable for damages only where the [school] itself intentionally acted in clear violation of Title IX by remaining deliberately indifferent to acts of teacher-student harassment of which it had actual knowledge."). This requires plaintiff to show that the school's "own deliberate indifference effectively cause[d]' the discrimination." Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Gebser, 118 S.Ct. at 1999). The circuits that have taken the question up have interpreted this to mean that there must be evidence that actionable harassment continued to occur after the appropriate school official gained actual knowledge of the harassment. See Reese v. Jefferson Sch. Dist., 208 F.3d 736, 740 (9th Cir.2000); Soper v. Hoben, 195 F.3d 845, 855 (6th Cir.1999); Murreel v. School Dist. No. 1, Denver Colo., 186 F.3d 1238, 1246 (10th Cir.1999); Wills v. Brown Univ., 184 F.3d 20, 26-27 (1st Cir.1999). There is no serious contention that plaintiff can satisfy this requirement.
*9 By the time plaintiff complained to Dean Crockett of sexual harassment in August of 1997, it is uncontested that her alleged harasser had no contact with her. Nor, for that matter, did he ultimately have any involvement in the third retake of her exam. She had a new advisor, exam committee and exam coordinator. Quite simply, by that point, Roopnarine had no involvement with her educational experience at all.FN6 This undisputed fact is fatal to plaintiff's claim. As discussed above, the Supreme Court now requires some harm to have befallen plaintiff after the school learned of the harassment. As there have been no credible allegations of subsequent harassment, no liability can be attributed to the University.FN7 See Reese, 208 F.3d at 740 ("There is no evidence that any harassment occurred after the school district learned of the plaintiffs' allegations. Thus, under Davis, the school district cannot be deemed to have subjected' the plaintiff's to the harassment.").
FN6. Of course, plaintiff contends that the University had notice of the harassment prior to this time, through her complaints to Burgess that she no longer could work with Roopnarine, because he yelled at her, was rude to her, and refused to assist her with various requests. But it is undisputed that she never mentioned sexual harassment, and provided no details that might suggest sexual harassment. Indeed, as pointed out by defendant, plaintiff herselfadmits that she did not consider the conduct sexual harassment until another person later told her that it might be, in June of 1997. See Pl.'s Dep. at 258-59, 340. As a result, plaintiff can not seriously contend that the University was on notice of the alleged harassment before August of 1997.
FN7. As mentioned previously, see supra note 3, plaintiff maintains without any evidentiary support that Roopnarine played a role in her third exam. This allegation is purely conclusory, especially in light of the record evidence the University puts forward which demonstrates that he was not, in fact, involved in the examination.
As plaintiff's allegations of harassment are not severe or pervasive enough to state a claim, and in any event, this conduct can not be attributed to the University, her hostile environment claim is dismissed.
Plaintiff's retaliation claim must be dismissed as well. She cannot establish an actionable retaliation claim because there is no evidence that she was given failing grades due to complaints about Roopnarine. See Murray, 57 F.3d at 251 (retaliation claim requires evidence of causation between the adverse action, and plaintiff's complaints of discrimination). The retaliation claim appears to be based exclusively on plaintiff's speculative and conclusory allegation that Roopnarine was involved in or influenced the grading of her third research methods exam.FN8 In any event, the adverse action which plaintiff claims to be retaliation must be limited to her failing grade on the third research methods exam, since plaintiff made no complaints of sexual harassment until August of 1997, long after plaintiff failed her second examination. See Murray, F.3d at 251 (retaliation claim requires proof that defendant had knowledge of plaintiff's protected activity at the time of the adverse reaction); Weaver v. Ohio State Univ., 71 F.Supp.2d 789, 793-94 (S.D.Ohio) ("[c]omplaints concerning unfair treatment in general which do not specifically address discrimination are insufficient to constitute protected activity"), aff'd, 194 F.3d 1315 (6th Cir.1999).
FN8. As properly noted by defendant, see Def. Mem. of Law at 28 n. 14, plaintiff's complaint alleges that a number of individuals retaliated against her, but in her deposition she essentially conceded that she has no basis for making a claim against anyone other than Roopnarine and those who graded her third exam. See Pl.'s Dep. at 347-53.
The undisputed evidence establishes that Roopnarine had no role in the selection of who would grade plaintiffs' exam. Nor, for that matter, did he grade the exam; this was done by three other professors. Each of these professors has averred that they graded the exam without any input or influence from Roopnarine. More importantly, it is undisputed that none of the three had any knowledge that a sexual harassment complaint had been asserted by plaintiff against Roopnarine, not surprising since two of the three did not even know whose exam they were grading. Plaintiff's inability to show that her failure was causally related in any way to her complaint of harassment is fatal to her retaliation claim.FN9
FN9. Plaintiff's claim also fails to the extent that the school's refusal to let her take the research methods exam for a fourth time was the retaliatory act she relies upon. It is undisputed that the University's policies for CFS department students only allow a comp. exam to be given three times. See Gaal Aff. Ex. 53. Plaintiff cannot claim that the University's refusal to depart from its own policies was retaliation without some concrete showing that its refusal to do so was out of the ordinary, i.e., that it had allowed other students to take the exam a fourth time without a remedial course, when these other students had not engaged in some protected activity. See Murray, 57 F.3d at 251 (there is "no allegation either that NYU selectively enforced its academic standards, or that the decision in [plaintiff's] case was inconsistent with these standards.").
*10 For the aforementioned reasons, Syracuse University's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED; plaintiff's claims of hostile environment and retaliation are DISMISSED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Jason A. Ketchuck, Endicott, NY, pro se.
Roger W. Kinsey, Office of Attorney General, Albany, NY, for Defendant.
DECISION & ORDER
THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior District Judge.
*1 Plaintiff Jason A. Ketchuck commenced this action pro se asserting claims of false arrest, malicious prosecution, and abuse of process pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Compl., dkt. # 1. Defendant moves for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the action in its entirety. See Motion, dkt. # 15. In opposition, Plaintiff filed only affidavits from himself and his father. See Opp., dkt. # 18.FN1 Defendant has filed a reply. See Reply, dkt. # 19. The Court has determined to decide the motion based upon the submissions alone. See N.D.N.Y.L.R. 7.1(h) ("In the district court judge's discretion..., the district court judge may dispose of a motion without oral argument. Thus, the parties should be prepared to have their motion papers serve as the sole method of argument on the motion.").
FN1. Plaintiff was served with the Northern District's standard summary judgment notification for pro se litigants, see dkt. # 15-1. This notification provided, inter alia, Pursuant to Local Rule 7.1 of the Northern District of New York, you are required to submit the following papers in opposition to this motion: (I) a memorandum of law (containing relevant factual and legal argument); (ii) one or more affidavits in opposition to the motion and (iii) a short and concise statement of material facts as to which you claim there are genuine issues in dispute. These papers must be filed and served in accordance with the time set by Local Rule 7.1.
If you do not submit a short and concise statement of material facts as to which you claim there are genuine issues in dispute, all material facts set forth in the statement filed and served by the defendant(s) shall be deemed admitted.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court may grant summary judgment where "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine if the relevant evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for the motion and of identifying those portions of the record that the moving party believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact as to a dispositive issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).
If the movant is able to establish a prima facie basis for summary judgment, the burden of production shifts to the party opposing summary judgment who must produce evidence establishing the existence of a factual dispute that a reasonable jury could resolve in his favor. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). The nonmoving party must show, by affidavits or other evidence, admissible in form, that there are specific factual issues that can only be resolved at trial. Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 872 (2d Cir.1995). "[P]roceeding pro se does not otherwise relieve a litigant from the usual requirements of summary judgment." Viscusi v. Proctor & Gamble, 2007 WL 2071546, at * 9 (E.D.N.Y. July 16, 2007).
In determining whether to grant summary judgment, the Court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, but "only if there is a genuine' dispute as to those facts." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1776, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007). The nonmoving party cannot defeat summary judgment by "simply show[ing] that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, " Matsushita., 475 U.S. at 586, or by a factual argument based on "conjecture or surmise." Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir.1991). In this regard, a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon "mere allegations or denials" asserted in the pleadings, Rexnord Holdings, Inc. v. Bidermann, 21 F.3d 522, 525-26 (2d Cir.1994), or on conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated speculation. Scotto v. Almenas, 143 F.3d 105, 114 (2d Cir.1998).
*2 The Local Rules of the Northern District require a party moving for summary judgment to submit a "Statement of Material Facts" which sets forth, with citations to the record, each material fact about which the moving party contends there exists no genuine issue. N.D.N.Y.L.R. 7.1(a)(3). Once a properly supported Local Rule 7.1(a)(3) Statement is submitted, the party opposing the motion must
file a response to the [movant's] Statement of Material Facts. The non-movant's response shall mirror the movant's Statement of Material Facts by admitting and/or denying each of the movant's assertions in matching numbered paragraphs. Each denial shall set forth a specific citation to the record where the factual issue arises. The non-movant's response may also set forth any additional material facts that the non-movant contends are in dispute in separately numbered paragraphs. Any facts set forth in the Statement of Material Facts shall be deemed admitted unless specifically controverted by the opposing party. Id. (underscoring in original).
The responding Statement of Material Facts is not a mere formality, and the courts apply this rule strictly. See N.Y. Teamsters Conference Pension & Ret. Fund v. Express Servs., Inc., 426 F.3d 640, 648-49 (2d Cir.2005) (upholding grant of summary judgment where "[t]he district court, applying Rule 7.1(a)(3) strictly, reasonably deemed [movant's] statement of facts to be admitted" because the non-movant submitted a responsive Rule 7.1(a) (3) statement that "offered mostly conclusory denials of [movant's] factual assertions and failed to include any record citations."); Gubitosi v. Kapica, 154 F.3d 30, 31 n. 1 (2d Cir.1998) (per curiam) (accepting as true material facts contained in unopposed local rule statement of material facts); Meaney v. CHS Acquisition Corp., 103 F.Supp.2d 104, 108 (N.D.N.Y.2000) (deeming movant's Rule 7.1(a)(3) Statement admitted where non-movant's response "set forth no citations-specific or otherwise-to the record") (emphasis in original); McKnight v. Dormitory Auth. of State of N.Y., 189 F.R.D. 225, 227 (N.D.N.Y.1999) (McAvoy, J.) ("deem[ing] the portions of Defendants' 7.1(a)(3) statement that are not specifically controverted by Plaintiff to be admitted"); Osier v. Broome County, 47 F.Supp.2d 311, 317 (N.D.N.Y.1999) (McAvoy, J.) (deeming admitted all facts in defendants' Rule 7.1(a) (3) statement where "plaintiff submitted thirteen pages of purported facts without any indication where those facts can be located in the record").
While the Court must construe a pro se litigant's pleadings and papers liberally and interpret them to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest, Govan v. Campbell, 289 F.Supp.2d 289, 295 (N.D.N.Y.2003);FN2 Veloz v. New York, 339 F.Supp.2d 505, 513 (S.D.N.Y.2004), the application of this lenient standard does not relieve a pro se litigant of the requirement to follow the procedural formalities of Local Rule 7.1(a)(3). Govan, 289 F.Supp.2d at 295; see also Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 2541 n. 46, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975) ("The right of self-representation is not a license... not to comply with relevant rules of procedural and substantive law."); Edwards v. INS, 59 F.3d 5, 8 (2nd Cir.1995) ("While a pro se litigant's pleadings must be construed liberally, ... pro se litigants generally are required to inform themselves regarding procedural rules and to comply with them.").
FN2. To construe pleadings liberally means the Court must view the submissions by a more lenient standard than that accorded to "formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Govan, 289 F.Supp.2d at 295.
*3 Because Plaintiff has not submitted an opposing Statement of Material Facts, the properly supported facts set forth in Defendant's Statement of Material Facts are deemed admitted for purposes of this motion. N.D.N.Y.L.R. 7.1(a)(3). Except where indicated otherwise, the following facts are taken from Defendant's Statement of Material Facts.
Defendant Brad A. Boyer is a uniformed New York State Trooper assigned to the Owego Barracks of Troop C of the New York State Police, headquartered in Sidney, New York. On October 22, 2008, he responded to a call from an individual named Carol A Smith who complained that Plaintiff Jason Ketchuck, one of the sons of her next door neighbor, had repeatedly driven his vehicle through her yard, and that the most recent occasion on which this had occurred was at approximately 7:38 AM on October 22, 2008. She complained that this course of conduct had caused rutting and damage to her front lawn.
Upon responding to the call, Trooper Boyer observed the rutting and damage to Ms. Smith's lawn alongside the roadway in front of her house, and took a series of photographs of the lawn. Trooper Boyer took a sworn statement from Ms. Smith on October 22, 2008, and she signed a Complaint against Jason A. Ketchuck on the same date accusing him of Trespass, in violation of New York Penal Law § 140.05. Based upon the information provided by Ms. Smith and the property damage that he observed and photographed on October 22, 2008, Trooper Boyer also prepared and signed an Information charging Jason A. Ketchuck with Criminal Mischief in the Fourth Degree.
On October 31, 2008, Trooper Boyer requested that Plaintiff come to the Owego Barracks to meet with him concerning Ms. Smith's complaint, which he did. Mr. Ketchuck admitted that he had been the driver of the small grey car on the date and time that had been the subject of Ms. Smith's complaint; however, he denied that he had driven the car on her lawn. Mr. Ketchuck also contended that the ruts near the road were on property that was abandoned by the Town of Owego in 1934 and that, although Ms. Smith "extended the landscaping of her property onto the abandoned road without the Town's permission" seven (7) years prior, his father was claiming ownership of this property in a quite title action in New York State Supreme Court. Jason Ketchuck Aff., ¶ 9; see James Ketchuck Aff., ¶¶ 2, 8. Ketchuck's father also contends that, prior to charges being levied against his son, he met with Trooper Boyer and attempted to show Trooper Boyer "property maps, surveys, deeds, and town records which set forth the property lines and boundaries of the property owned by [Ms.] Smith, " but Trooper Boyer "refused to look at them." James Ketchuck ¶¶ 6-7.
Trooper Boyer issued Plaintiff an appearance ticket charging him with Trespass in violation of Penal Law § 140.05 and Criminal Mischief in the Fourth Degree in violation of Penal Law § 145. After issuing the appearance ticket to Jason A. Ketchuck on October 31, 2008, Trooper Boyer did not have any further involvement in the prosecution of this case. The charges were Dismissed in the Interest of Justice in the Owego Town Court on May 27, 2009.
a. False Arrest
*4 Plaintiff claims that he was falsely arrested by Defendant. A false arrest claim, whether brought under federal or state law, FN3 will fail if, at the time of the seizure, the arresting officer had probable cause to make an arrest. Jocks v. Tavernier, 316 F.3d 128, 135 (2d Cir.2003); Smith v. Edwards, 175 F.3d 99, 105 (2d Cir.1999); Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir.1996); see Jaegly v. Couch, 439 F.3d 149, 152 (2d Cir.2006) ("Under New York law, the existence of probable cause is an absolute defense to a false arrest claim."). "Whether probable cause exists depends upon the reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the facts known to the arresting officer at the time of the arrest." Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 125 S.Ct. 588, 593, 160 L.Ed.2d 537 (2004) (citing Marvland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371, 124 S.Ct. 795, 157 L.Ed.2d 769 (2003)).
FN3. Plaintiff asserts claims only under federal law pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, given Plaintiff's pro se status, the Court examines the potential supplemental state law claims that might be asserted.
"Probable cause exists if at the time of the arrest the facts and circumstances within th[e officer's] knowledge and of which [he] had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the [suspect] had committed or was committing an offense.'" Amore v. Novarro, 624 F.3d 522, 536 (2d Cir.2010 (citing Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S.Ct. 223, 13 L.Ed.2d 142 (1964)); see Posr v. Court Officer Shield No. 207, 180 F.3d 409, 414 (2d Cir.1999). The relevant inquiry is whether "probable cause existed to arrest a defendant" and "it is not relevant whether probable cause existed with respect to each individual charge, or, indeed, any charge actually invoked by the arresting officer at the time of arrest." Jaegly, 439 F.3d at 154; see Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 125 S.Ct. 588, 160 L.Ed.2d 537 (2004) (probable cause to arrest can exist even if offense relied upon is not even "closely related" to offense charged). "A probable cause determination does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt; it is the mere probability of criminal activity, based on the totality of the circumstances, that satisfies the Fourth Amendment." Hahn v. County of Otsego, 820 F.Supp. 54, 55 (N.D.N.Y.1993), aff'd, 52 F.3d 310 (2d Cir.1995). "[T]he eventual disposition of the criminal charges is irrelevant to the probable cause determination." Hahn, 820 F.Supp. at 55 (citing Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 555, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967)).
"It is well-established that a law enforcement official has probable cause to arrest if he received his information from some person, normally the putative victim or eyewitness." Martinez v. Simonetti, 202 F.3d 625, 634 (2d Cir.2000) (quoting Miroslaysky AES Eng'g Soc'y, 808 F.Supp. 351, 355 (S.D.N.Y.1992), aff'd 993 F.2d 1534 (2d Cir.1993)). "If policemen arrest a person on the basis of a private citizen's complaint that if true would justify the arrest, and they reasonably believe it is true, they cannot be held liable... merely because it later turns out that the complaint was unfounded." Lee v. Sandberg, 136 F.3d 94, 103 (2d Cir.1997); see Calderola v. Calabrese, 298 F.3d 156, 165 (2d Cir.2002) ("[W]hen an average citizen tenders information to the police, the police should be permitted to assume that they are dealing with a credible person in the absence of special circumstances suggesting that might not be the case."). Once a police officer has probable cause, he need not explore "every theoretically plausible claim of innocence before making an arrest." Ricciuti v. New York City Transit Authority, 124 F.3d 123, 128 (2d Cir.1997); see Coons v. Casabella, 284 F.3d 437, 441 (2d Cir.2002) ("[P]olice officers are not required to explore and eliminate every theoretically plausible claim of innocence before making an arrest"); Hotaling v. LaPlante, 67 F.Supp.2d 517, 522 (N.D.N.Y.2001) (valid probable cause to arrest rested upon information supplied by an identified witness, and even though a further investigation by the Trooper would have led to a contradictory conclusion, Trooper's conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances).
*5 Where the facts surrounding the arrest are uncontroverted, the determination as to whether probable cause existed may be made by the Court as a matter of law. Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir.1996). Even where factual disputes exist, a § 1983 claim may fail if the plaintiff's version of events is sufficient to establish probable cause to arrest. Mistretta v. Prokesch, 5 F.Supp.2d 128, 133 (E.D.N.Y.1998).
Here, the alleged victim provided Defendant with a sworn statement that Plaintiff repeatedly drove his vehicle over a portion of her lawn causing damage to it. The victim's statement was corroborated by the tire marks and the ruts in the lawn which Defendant observed and photographed; and by Plaintiff's admission that he was the driver of the car alleged to have caused damage to the lawn. These facts provided more than ample probable cause for Defendant to believe that Plaintiff committed the offense of Trespass under Section 140.05 of the New York Penal Law.FN4 In this regard, the facts provided probable cause to believe that Plaintiff had intentionally driven his car across Ms. Smith's lawn on October 22, 2008; that she did not consent to his doing so; and that Plaintiff's conduct on his neighbor's property, which had caused observable damage to the lawn, was not conduct that Plaintiff was licensed or privileged to engage in. See Caidor v. Harrington, 2009 WL 174958 (N.D.N.Y.2009) (Suddaby, J.) (granting summary judgment dismissing § 1983 false arrest claim based on arrest for violation of P.L. § 140.05). Moreover, these same facts provided ample probable cause to believe that Plaintiff had committed the offense of Criminal Mischief in the Fourth Degree in violation of N.Y. Penal Law § 145FN5 in that the facts, including the allegation that Plaintiff's car was repeatedly driven on the lawn, provided probable cause to believe that Plaintiff intentionally damaged Ms. Smith's property by driving his car on it.
FN4. Section 140.05 of New York Penal Law provides that "[a] person is guilty of trespass when he knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in or upon premises. Trespass is a violation." "Premises" is defined to include any "building" or "real property." Penal Law 140.00(1). Penal Law § 140.00(5) provides that a person "enters or remain(s) unlawfully upon premises when he is not licensed or privileged to do so."
FN5. In relevant part, Penal Law § 145 provides:
A person is guilty of criminal mischief in the fourth degree when, having no right to do so nor any reasonable ground to believe that he or she has such right, he or she:
1. Intentionally damages property of another person[.]
"While no statutory definition of damages' is provided, it is commonly recognized that the term contemplates injury or harm to property that lowers its value or involves loss of efficiency' and that only slight' damage must be proved" to establish a violation of Penal Law § 145. People v. Collins, 288 A.D.2d 756, 758, 733 N.Y.S.2d 289 (3d Dept.2001).
Because a police officer need not explore every theoretically plausible claim of innocence before making an arrest, and because the existence of probable cause is determined by a standard far less burdensome than determining guilt, Defendant's probable cause determination is not negatively affected by Plaintiff's assertion of innocence or by Defendant's failure to review the property maps or surveys.FN6 A police officer is not required to conduct an investigation if the facts demonstrate that probable cause exists that an offense has been committed. Accordingly, Defendant was not required to conduct independent research into who actually owned the property claimed by Ms. Smith as her front lawn before issuing the appearance ticket. This is especially so in light of the undisputed facts that the tire marks were on property abutting Ms. Smith's front lawn and on a piece of property over which Ms. Smith purportedly "extended the landscaping of her property" some seven (7) years prior to the incident. These facts provided reasonable corroboration for Ms. Smith's sworn statement that the tire marks and ruts were on her property.
FN6. Defendant denies that the purported property dispute regarding the subject portion of Ms. Smith's front yard was ever articulated to him. Regardless, even if a property dispute regarding the subject property was articulated to Defendant, he was not required to a perform a title search or make additional inquiry to resolve the dispute in light of the sworn statement by Ms. Smith that the property in question belonged to her.
*6 Even assuming, arguendo, that actual probable cause did not exist such to satisfy the demands of the Fourth Amendment, arguable probable cause existed such to entitle Defendant to qualified immunity. See Zellner v. Summerlin, 494 F.3d 344, 369-70 (2d Cir.2007) (discussing "arguable probable cause" as basis for qualified immunity). Arguable probable cause exists if either (a) it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that probable cause existed, or (b) officers of reasonable competence could disagree on whether the probable cause test was met." Amore, 624 F.3d at 536 (citing Walczvk v. Rio, 496 F.3d 139, 163 (2d Cir.2007)). To determine whether an officer had arguable probable cause, the objective information he possessed at the time of the arrest is examined, not the "subjective intent, motives or beliefs" of the officer. Id. Here, the information Defendant possessed at the time he issued the appearance ticket provided an objectively reasonable basis for him to believe that probable cause existed for the two offenses with which Plaintiff was charged. Accordingly, Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity on the false arrest claim because it was objectively reasonable for him to believe that his acts did not violate Plaintiff's clearly established rights under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 530 [Q]ualified immunity... is sufficient to shield executive employees from civil liability under § 1983 if either (1) their conduct did not violate clearly established rights of which a reasonable person would have known, or (2) it was objectively reasonable [for them] to believe that their acts did not violate these clearly established rights."). For these reasons, the false arrest claim is dismissed.
b. Malicious Prosecution
Based on the undisputed facts that supplied Defendant with actual probable cause to believe that Plaintiff committed the two offenses for which he was charged, the malicious prosecution claim also fails as a matter of law. See Rohman v. New York City Transit Auth., 215 F.3d 208, 215 (2d Cir.2000) (an element of a malicious prosecution claim is that the defendant lacked probable cause to believe the proceeding could succeed).
Moreover, to state a claim for malicious prosecution under either § 1983 or New York state common law, Plaintiff must establish, inter alia, "termination of the proceeding in [the accused's] favor." Green v. Mattingly, 585 F.3d 97, 104 (2d Cir.2009). Whether termination is deemed favorable to the accused is determined in accordance with applicable state law, here, New York law. Hygh v. Jacobs, 961 F.2d 359, 367 (2d Cir.1992). Proceedings are "terminated in favor of the accused" when their final disposition is such as to indicate the accused is not guilty. DiBlasio v. City of New York, 102 F.3d 654, 657 (2d Cir.1996). "Where a prosecution did not result in an acquittal, it is generally not deemed to have ended in favor of the accused, for purposes of a malicious prosecution claim, unless its final disposition is such as to indicate the accused's innocence." Fulton v. Robinson, 289 F.3d 188, 196 (2d Cir.2002). A dismissal "in the interest of justice" under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 170.40 "cannot provide the favorable termination required as the basis for a claim of malicious prosecution." Hygh, 961 F.2d at 368 (citing Ryan v. N.Y. Tel. Co., 62 N.Y.2d 494, 478 N.Y.S.2d 823, 467 N.E.2d 487, 493 (1984)). Thus, Plaintiff cannot establish the "favorable termination" element of his malicious prosecution claim.
*7 Further, the undisputed facts are that Trooper Boyer never had any prior contact with either Mr. Ketchuck or Ms. Smith before this incident. He attested that he harbored no improper motive in instituting the charges, and that he issued the appearance ticket and filed the accusatory instruments in the Town Court only because of his good faith belief that there was the probable cause to pursue such charges. See Boyer Aff. In ¶¶, 13. There are no facts from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude that Trooper Boyer instituted the underlying proceeding with a malicious motive or intent such to state a viable malicious prosecution claim. See Manganiello v. City of New York, 612 F.3d 149. 161 (2d Cir.2010) (to prevail on a malicious prosecution claim, a plaintiff must establish, inter alia, that the proceeding was begun with malice); Lowth v. Town of Cheektowaga, 82 F.3d 563, 573 (2d Cir.1996) (malice may be proven by showing that the prosecutor had "a wrong or improper motive, something other than a desire to see the ends of justice served") (internal quotation marks omitted).
Finally, for the reason discussed above with regard to Trooper Boyer's entitlement to qualified immunity on the false arrest charge, he is also entitled to qualified immunity on the malicious prosecution claim. That is, under the circumstances it was objectively reasonable for reasonable officers to believe that there was probable cause to commence the prosecution for the offenses charged. Accordingly, the malicious prosecution claim is dismissed.
c. Abuse of Process
Plaintiff's third claim against Trooper Boyer is for malicious abuse of process in connection with the institution of the Town Court proceeding. "In the criminal context, malicious abuse of process is by definition a denial of procedural due process.... Procedural due process forbids the use of legal process for a wrongful purpose." Abreu v. Romero, 2010 WL 4615879, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Nov.9, 2010) (citation omitted). To state a claim for the malicious abuse of process, Plaintiff must prove that the Defendant (1) employed regularly issued legal process to compel performance or forbearance of some act, (2) with intent to do harm without excuse or justification (3) in order to obtain a collateral objective that is outside the legitimate ends of the process. Savino v. City of New York, 331 F.3d 63, 76 (2d Cir.2003). "The pursuit of a collateral objective must occur after the process is issued; the mere act of issuing process does not give rise to a claim." Lopez v. City of New York, 901 F.Supp. 684, 691 (S.D.N.Y.1995) (citing PSI Metals v. Firemen's Ins. Co., 839 F.2d 42, 43 (2d Cir.1988)). In other words, Plaintiff "must claim that [Defendant] aimed to achieve a collateral purpose beyond or in addition to his criminal prosecution." Savino, 331 F.3d at 77. "In New York, such wrongful purposes have included economic harm, extortion, blackmail, and retribution." Abreu, 2010 WL 4615879, at *8 (citing Bd. of Educ. of Farmingdale Union Free Sch. Dist. v. Farmingdale Classroom Teachers Ass'n, 38 N.Y.2d 397, 404, 380 N.Y.S.2d 635, 343 N.E.2d 278 (1975)).
*8 Plaintiff's malicious abuse of process claim fails as the facts are devoid of any allegations concerning any "collateral objective" that Defendants may have had in instituting criminal charges against Plaintiff. There is no factual basis upon which a reasonable fact finder could conclude that the issuance of the appearance tickets to Plaintiff was motivated by anything other than Trooper Boyer's good-faith belief that he had probable cause to conclude that Plaintiff had engaged in conduct that constituted trespass and/or criminal mischief. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Trooper Boyer had any involvement in the prosecution of the case against Plaintiff after he issued the appearance tickets on October 31, 2008. Under these uncontested facts, the claim fails as a matter of law.
Finally, and assuming arguendo that a viable malicious prosecution claim existed, Trooper Boyer is entitled to qualified immunity on the claim in that there existed, at the least, arguable probable cause to commence the criminal proceeding. This arguable probable cause provides an objectively reasonable justification for issuing process commencing the underlying proceeding. Cf. Abreu, 2010 WL 4615879, at *8 ("While probable cause is not an element of an abuse of process claim, under New York law, a showing of probable cause at the time process issued suffices... to establish excuse or justification for the purposes of a defense to abuse of process.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, the abuse of process claim is dismissed.
For the reasons discussed above, Defendant's motion for summary judgment [dkt. # 15] is GRANTED and all claims in this case are DISMISSED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Wayne Hargrove, Ossining, NY, pro se.
Alexander V. Sansone, Troy & Troy, Lake Ronkonkoma, NY, Joseph Carney, Mineola, NY, for Defendants.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
*1 Inmate Wayne Hargrove ("Hargrove" or "plaintiff") brings this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Nassau County Sheriff, Nassau County Correctional Facility ("NCCF") and NCCF's medical staff, (collectively, "defendants"), seeking damages for injuries allegedly caused by defendants while he was incarcerated at NCCF. Defendants now move for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 arguing, inter alia, that Hargrove's claims should be dismissed because he failed to exhaust administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. For the following reasons, defendants' motions for summary judgment are granted.
On August 27, 2004, FN1 Hargrove filed a complaint, alleging that defendants violated his civil rights when they forcibly administered purified protein derivative skin tests ("PPD test") to test for latent tuberculosis ("TB") in April 2002, 2003 and 2004 while he was incarcerated at NCCF. Complaint, Ex. C; Aff. in Opp. at 1-4, Ex. A. Hargrove named Nassau County Sheriff Edward Reilly ("Reilly"), NCCF and Nassau County University Medical StaffFN2 as defendants.FN3 On November 22, 2004, after discovery, County Defendants and NHCC Defendants filed separate motions for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Both defendants properly filed a Local Rule 56.1 Statement and served Hargrove a Notice to Pro Se Litigant Opposing Motion for Summary Judgment, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 56.2.
FN1. Hargrove signed the complaint August 27, 2004. The pro se clerk's office received and filed the complaint on September 20, 2004. Under the prison mail-box rule, a pro se prisoner's complaint is deemed filed when it is delivered to prison authorities. See, e.g., Walker v. Jastremski, 430 F.3d 560, 562 (2d Cir.2005)(deeming pro se prisoner's § 1983 action filed on date complaint was handed to prison officials). There is no evidence in the record as to when Hargrove handed the complaint to prison officials. However, it is clear the operative date is between August 27, 2004 and ...