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Cuffee v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 3, 2017




         In this action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, pro se plaintiff Hiawatha Cuffee, Jr. (“Plaintiff”) alleges that his constitutional rights were violated by the actions of two New York City correction officers, defendant Officers Squillaro and Gonzalez (together, the “Correction Officer Defendants”), in connection with their conduct during and in the immediate aftermath of a motor vehicle collision that occurred while Plaintiff was being transported on a New York City Department of Correction (“DOC”) bus. Plaintiff also names the City of New York (the “City”) as a defendant, alleging that the circumstances give rise to municipal liability.

         Currently before this Court for a report and recommendation is a motion brought by the Correction Officer Defendants and the City (collectively, “Defendants”) to dismiss the Complaint, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Dkt. 16.) For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that the motion be granted in part and denied in part.


         A. Factual Background

         For purposes of this motion to dismiss, the factual allegations in Plaintiff's Complaint must be taken as true. (See Discussion, infra, at Section I(A).) Furthermore, as Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the allegations of his Complaint must be liberally construed, and any additional facts that he has alleged in opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss may be considered by the Court as supplementing those pleaded in the Complaint. (See id.) Accordingly, the facts summarized herein are derived from this Court's liberal construction of Plaintiff's Complaint, dated October 17, 2016 (“Compl.”) (Dkt. 2), as well as from his various opposition submissions (see Letter to the Court from Plaintiff (containing Plaintiff's “Rebuttal” to Defendants' pre-motion letter), dated May 21, 2016 (“Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr.”) (Dkt. 14); Letter to the Court from Plaintiff (containing an “Addendum” to his prior letter), dated May 24, 2016 (“Pl. 5/24/16 Ltr.”) (Dkt. 15); Plaintiff's opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss (titled “Notice of Motion”), dated Sept. 19, 2016 (“Pl. Opp.”) (Dkt. 23); and Plaintiff's supplemental opposition to Defendants' motion (titled “Motion in Opposition”), dated Sept. 27, 2016 (“Pl. Supp. Opp.”) (Dkt. 26)).

         Based on Plaintiff's submissions, the DOC transported him on July 31, 2015, by bus, from Rikers Island (“Rikers”), where he was being detained, to Bellevue Hospital Center, [1] where he had a prostate examination and biopsy. (Compl., at 9.[2]) During the return trip to Rikers, Plaintiff was handcuffed, shackled, and locked inside a three-and-a-half-foot-wide steel cage situated directly behind the driver's seat of the bus. (Id.) He did not have a seatbelt. (Id., at 12.)

         On that return trip, defendant Officer Gonzalez was driving the bus, and defendant Officer Squillaro was also on board. (Id., at 9.) Plaintiff alleges that, soon after leaving Bellevue, he observed Officer Gonzalez “pull out into traffic . . . at an unusually high rate of speed.” (Id.) The bus then collided with another vehicle, causing Plaintiff to be “thrown forward” into the steel cage. (Id.; Pl. Opp., at 2.) The force of the impact allegedly caused injury to Plaintiff's knees, back, and neck, resulting in severe pain, and Plaintiff “immediately began screaming to Officer Gonzalez” for medical attention. (Compl., at 9; Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr., at 3.) Plaintiff states that he was also bleeding from his rectum as a result of the biopsy that he had received at Bellevue, and that, after the collision, he told the Correction Officer Defendants “over and over” that he was bleeding. (Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr., at 3; see also Compl., at 9.) Plaintiff also maintains that the Correction Officer Defendants knew that he had gone to Bellevue to obtain the biopsy because they had escorted him to that operation. (Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr., at 3.)

         After the collision, the Correction Officer Defendants exited the bus, while, according to Plaintiff, he and the other detainees screamed for help, “complaining about their various injuries and pleading for medical assistance.” (Compl., at 9.) The detainees “were told to hold on, ” as the Correction Officer Defendants got off of the bus, with their hands on their weapons, in order to confront the driver of the other vehicle involved in the accident. (Id.) Plaintiff did not receive medical attention on the scene. (Id., at 10.) Instead, while correction officials completed their investigation of the collision, he and the other detainees sat on the bus for an extended period of time, claimed by Plaintiff, in the Complaint, to be about an hour and a half (id., at 9), but then described in one of his subsequent submissions as three-and-one-half hours, plus another half hour “to be ‘shackled in chain[s]' and loaded to another bus” (Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr., at 1). Eventually, Plaintiff was transported back to Rikers, where he received an X-ray and medical personnel gave him an ice pack, some pain medication, and a cane for his injuries. (Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr., at 1; see also Compl. ¶ 4(C); id. at 10.)

         Plaintiff asserts that this incident put his life in danger. (Id.) He alleges that DOC buses are not equipped with seatbelts, airbags, or other means to protect passengers from injury in the event of an accident, and that it is dangerous for detainees to be “shackled and handcuffed” on such a bus because they “fly out of their seats.” (Id., at 12.) Plaintiff further asserts that Officer Gonzalez caused the collision by driving recklessly (see id., at 11) and that, after the collision, both Correction Officer Defendants knew that Plaintiff needed urgent medical care, but maliciously disregarded the injuries he had sustained. (Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr., at 1, 3.) He contends that these officers acted with “malicious intent” and “intent to cause duress, ” when they failed to obtain medical assistance for him in the immediate aftermath of the collision (Pl. Opp., at 2), and that their failure to return to Bellevue or to call emergency medical services to respond to the scene “caused [him] further harm” (Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr., at 3).

         Plaintiff complains that, as a result of the incident, he is now in constant and extreme pain and “walking with a cain [sic, cane] and stomach belt.” (Compl., at 10-12; see id., at 11 (stating that, although he was, “at the age of 60 year[s, ] in walking and running condition” and had “come into jail healthy, ” he would “leave by the will of God, twisted”).) He also maintains that the injuries that he sustained to his neck, lower back, knees, and pelvic area caused a loss of mobility that will prevent him from performing his job as a “certified plant maintenance electrician.” (Id., at 12.)

         B. Procedural Background

         1. Plaintiff's Complaint

         Plaintiff commenced this action in this Court on October 17, 2015, by filing his pro se Complaint.[3] In his Complaint, Plaintiff purports to assert three separate claims for relief under Section 1983: First, he claims that “being placed in a dangerous situation and position” violated his “rights under the [Fourth] Amendment to be secure in his person and not be denied life and liberty.” (Compl., at 11.) Second, he claims that Correction Officer Defendants, by their reckless conduct, subjected him to “cruel and unusual punishment, ” in violation of the Eighth Amendment (id.) - a claim that, consistent with Plaintiff's opposition papers (see Pl. Opp., at 2) and this Court's assumption that Plaintiff was likely a pretrial detainee at the time of the incident, this Court construes as alleging deliberate indifference to Plaintiff's safety and to his serious medical needs, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.[4] Third, again invoking the language of the Eighth Amendment, Plaintiff claims that the City should be held liable for his injuries, apparently because of its failure to equip DOC buses with safety features (Compl., at 12); this Court construes this as a claim for municipal liability under Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages and an order requiring the DOC to re-train its transportation officers in emergency procedures. (Compl., ¶ V; id., at 11-12.)

         2. Defendants' Motion To Dismiss

         On May 16, 2016, Defendants filed a letter request for leave to move to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). (Letter to the Court from Evania Englert, Esq., dated May 16, 2016 (Dkt. 12).) Defendants' letter included arguments and points of law, to which Plaintiff responded, by letter dated May 21, 2016. (Pl. 5/21/16 Ltr.) Three days later, Plaintiff submitted an addendum to his May 21 letter, informing this Court that a separate claim that he had lodged against the City (apparently arising out of the same incident) had been settled, and arguing that the settlement by the New York City Comptroller's Office “validat[ed] points of contention[]” on Plaintiff's federal Section 1983 claims. (Pl. 5/24/16 Ltr.)

         On June 30, 2016, Defendants proceeded to file their motion to dismiss the Complaint (Dkt. 16), together with a copy of a Local Civil Rule 12.1 Notice[5] to Plaintiff (Dkt. 17), an attorney Declaration (Dkt. 18 (attaching a copy of the Complaint)), and a supporting memorandum of law (Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants' Motion To Dismiss the Complaint Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), dated June 30, 2016 (“Def. Mem.”) (Dkt. 19)). Plaintiff responded to the motion with opposition papers dated September 19, 2016 (Pl. Opp.) and September 27, 2016 (Pl. Supp. Opp.).

         In his September 19 opposition, Plaintiff referred the Court to Smith v. City of New York, No. 15cv7910 (GHW) (“Smith”), a Section 1983 case similar to his, filed in this Court by another Rikers detainee (or inmate) who was apparently transported on the same bus from Bellevue, at the same time as Plaintiff, and who was also allegedly injured in the collision. (Pl. Opp., at 1-2.) Plaintiff asked the Court to consider the “amended complaint”[6] in Smith as a “witness” affidavit in this action. (See id.)


         I. RULE 12(b)(6)

         A complaint may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure where it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court must “accept as true all factual statements alleged in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.” McCarthy v. Dun & Bradstreet Corp., 482 F.3d 184, 191 (2d Cir. 2007); accord Jaghory v. New York State Dep't of Educ., 131 F.3d 326, 329 (2d Cir. 1997). The issue is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether the plaintiff's claim, as pleaded, is sufficient to afford him or her the opportunity to proceed on the evidence. See Chance v. Armstrong, 143 F.3d 698, 701 (2d Cir. 1998).

         The court's function on a motion to dismiss is “not to weigh the evidence that might be presented at trial but merely to determine whether the complaint itself is legally sufficient.” Kopec v. Coughlin, 922 F.2d 152, 155 (2d Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). At the same time, “conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to defeat a motion to dismiss.” Achtman v. Kirby, McInerney, & Squire, LLP, 464 F.3d 328, 337 (2d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Starr v. Sony BMG Music Entm't, 592 F.3d 314, 321 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 666), cert. denied, 131 S.Ct. 901 (2011).

         Additionally, “[i]t is well established that the submissions of a pro se litigant must be construed liberally and interpreted ‘to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'” Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006) (collecting cases; emphasis in original); see also Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9-10 (1980) (noting that a pro se party's pleadings must be liberally construed in his favor and are held to a less stringent standard than the pleadings drafted by lawyers); Lerman v. Bd. of Elections in the City of New York, 232 F.3d 135, 139-40 (2d Cir. 2000) (“Since most pro se plaintiffs lack familiarity with the formalities of pleading requirements, [a court] must construe pro se complaints liberally, applying a more flexible standard to evaluate their sufficiency.”). This is especially true in the context of civil rights complaints. See Weinstein v. Albright, 261 F.3d 127, 132 (2d Cir. 2001); see also Gregory v. Daly, 243 F.3d 687, 691 (2d Cir. 2001) (noting that a court must be “mindful of the care exercised in this Circuit to avoid hastily dismissing complaints of civil rights violations”).

         On a motion to dismiss a complaint, a court is generally constrained to look only to the pleadings. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b); Calcutti v. SBU, Inc., 273 F.Supp.2d 488, 492 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). Nonetheless, the mandate that a pro se plaintiff's complaint be construed liberally makes it appropriate for the court to consider the factual allegations in a pro se plaintiff's opposition materials to supplement the allegations in the complaint. See Johnson v. Wright, 234 F.Supp.2d 352, 356 (S.D.N.Y. 2002); see also Sommersett v. City of New York, No. 09cv5916 (LTS) (KNF), 2011 WL 2565301, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 28, 2011) (“[W]here a pro se plaintiff has submitted other papers to the [c]ourt, such as legal memoranda, the [c]ourt may consider statements in such papers to supplement or clarify the plaintiff's pleaded allegations.”). A court may also consider certain additional materials, including documents attached to the complaint as exhibits or incorporated therein by reference, matters of which judicial notice may be taken, and documents that are “integral” to the complaint. See Goel v. Bunge, Ltd., 820 F.3d 554, 558-59 (2d Cir. 2016); see also, e.g., Samuels v. Fischer, 168 F.Supp.3d 625, 645 n.11 (S.D.N.Y. 2016) (finding that, in resolving motion to dismiss, it was “appropriate to consider allegations contained in [p]laintiff's [o]pposition”); Goldson v. Kral, Clerkin, Redmond, Ryan, Perry & Van Etten, LLP, No. 13cv2737 (GBD) (FM), 2014 WL 4061157, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. July 11, 2014) (amended report and recommendation) (“When a plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the Court also may rely on any opposition papers in assessing the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff's claims”), adopted, 2014 WL 3974584 (Aug. 13, 2014).

         Although courts have not followed this approach in every case, see, e.g., Brunson v. Duffy, No. 12cv9465 (KBF), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29015, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 6, 2015) (citing pro se cases where courts declined to consider new facts included in opposition), it is certainly true that the papers submitted by a pro se plaintiff in opposition to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion may offer clarification or context that can aid the Court in understanding the plaintiff's pleading and in affording it a liberal construction, see id., at n.4 (noting that “a district court needs to assess each case on an individual basis”). Applying the pleading rules permissively is particularly appropriate when, as here, a pro se plaintiff alleges civil rights violations. See Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 191 (2d Cir. 2008). Moreover, where the addition of allegations ...

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