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Patterson v. Ponte

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 30, 2017

JOSEPH PONTE Commissioner DOC, MAXOLAINE MINGO Warden, CAPTAIN JOHNSON Security/Programs, and CO. LEWIS Security, Defendants.




         The plaintiff, Trent Patterson, brings this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983 against Joseph Ponte, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction (the "DOC"); Maxolaine Mingo, warden of the Anna M. Kross Center ("AMKC"); "Captain Johnson"; and "CO. Lewis." He alleges claims arising from his conditions of confinement, and he also alleges violations of his right to access to the courts, right to free exercise of religion, right to freedom of association, and right to liberty from bodily restraint. He further asserts that he was unreasonably searched and sexually assaulted during a strip search. The defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint and the Amended Complaint.[1] For the reasons that follow, I recommend that the motion be granted.


         Mr. Patterson claims that while he was detained[2] at the AMKC, his cellblock was frequently locked down for long periods even when the reason for the lockdown was “not in [his] area” and despite “the problem area [being] secured.” (Complaint (“Compl.”) at 3). As a result, he has been “denied visits, counsel visits, law library, mail, packages, social service legal aid, timely medication, recreation, phone, commissary, showers, t.v., sick call, and barbershop.” (Compl. at 3). Furthermore, he has been denied recreation, sick call, and use of the law library because of understaffing. (Amend. Compl. at 2-3; Inmate Grievance and Request Program Statement Form dated Sept. 17, 2016 (“9/17/16 Grievance”), attached as an exhibit to Letter of Trent Patterson filed Sept. 27, 2016). He further alleges that he has been assigned a mattress that is “unfit for human usage, ” causing him pain. (Compl. at 3). He claims that “[t]he warden[] and commisser [sic] are aware of and responsible for all the above-mentioned constitutional violations.” (Compl. at 3).

         On March 4, 2016, the plaintiff was strip searched by C.O. Lewis in the pantry area of the facility. (Inmate Grievance and Request Program Statement Form dated March 11, 2016 (“3/11/16 Grievance”), attached as an exhibit to Amend. Compl.; Letter of Trent Patterson filed Dec. 28, 2016 (“12/28/16 Patterson Letter”), at 2).[3] The plaintiff claims that during the strip search, he was directed to “squat” several times, but after he was ed to do so for a fourth time, he refused; C.O. Lewis then “grabbed [his] buttocks and a verbal altercation erupted.” (3/11/16 Grievance). Captain Johnson arrived and ordered Mr. Patterson handcuffed, and he was escorted to the receiving room where he was searched and ordered to squat again. (3/11/16 Grievance). No contraband was found. (Notice of Intention to File a Claim, attached as an exhibit to Amend. Compl., ¶ 3).[4] The plaintiff claims that he “[d]idn't do anything to provoke the search or assault.” (Letter of Trent Patterson filed Feb. 2, 2017, at 2).

         Mr. Patterson states that he filed administrative grievances concerning these allegations and then appealed to the Warden, but received no responses to the appeals. (Compl. at 4; Amend. Compl. at 4).


         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter . . . to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The court's charge in ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss “is merely to assess the legal feasibility of the complaint, not to assay the weight of the evidence which might be offered in support thereof.” GVA Market Neutral Master Ltd. v. Veras Capital Partners Offshore Fund, Ltd., 580 F.Supp.2d 321, 327 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (quoting Eternity Global Master Fund Ltd. v. Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. of New York, 375 F.3d 168, 176 (2d Cir. 2004)). The court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, “taking its factual allegations to be true and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor.” Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 71 (2d Cir. 2009).

         This standard applies equally to pro se plaintiffs, but their pleadings are read more liberally and are construed as raising the strongest claims implied. See Triestman v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006) (per curiam). The court may also consider “materials outside the complaint to the extent that they are consistent with the allegations in the complaint.” Martinez v. Aycock-West, 164 F.Supp.3d 502, 508 (S.D.N.Y. 2016) (quoting Alsaifullah v. Furco, No. 12 Civ. 2907, 2013 WL 3972514, at *4 n.3 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 2, 2013)).

         To plead a claim properly under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that “(1) the challenged conduct was attributable at least in part to a person who was acting under color of state law and (2) the conduct deprived the plaintiff of a right guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States.” Snider v. Dylag, 188 F.3d 51, 53 (2d Cir. 1999); accord Thomas v. City of New York, No. 11 Civ. 0578, 2012 WL 4889257, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 16, 2012).

         The defendants have moved to dismiss the plaintiff's § 1983 claims, arguing that (1) the plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, (2) the constitutional claims are insufficiently pled, and (3) Warden Mingo and Commissioner Ponte were not personally involved in any of the constitutional deprivations.

         A. Administrative Exhaustion

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (the “PLRA”) provides 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). However, “failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense” and “is not a jurisdictional predicate.” Giano v. Goord, 380 F.3d 670, 675 (2d Cir. 2004), abrogated on other grounds by Ross v. Blake, __ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 1850 (2016). Thus, it need not be pled with particularity. Lopez v. Cipolini, 136 F.Supp.3d 570, 580 (S.D.N.Y. 2015). But a complaint may still be dismissed on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion if it is evident from the face of the complaint that administrative procedures were not followed and if none of the exceptions to the procedures are germane. See id. at 581.

         Mr. Patterson alleges that he filed grievances for all of his claims[5] and that he appealed those grievances to the Warden. (Compl. at 4; Amend. Compl. at 4). His appeals received no responses. (Compl. at 4). “It is well settled that an inmate who receives no response to his grievance must continue with the next steps in the grievance process.” Tyler v. Argo, No. 14 Civ. 2049, 2014 WL 5374248, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 10, 2014). However, the pleadings are silent regarding whether Mr. Patterson filed further appeals. Because it is unclear from the face of the Complaint and Amended Complaint whether administrative remedies have been fully exhausted, they should not be dismissed for failure to exhaust. See Shaw v. Ortiz, No. 15 Civ. 8964, 2016 WL 7410722, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2016).

         B. Liberty Interest Claim

         Mr. Patterson alleges that the lockdowns in the facility are excessive because the prison administration “continues to lockdown the entire facility because of violent incidents even after the problem area is secured, located and not in my area.” (Compl. at 3). The Second Circuit has stated that “[l]iberty from bodily restraint always has been recognized as the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause from arbitrary governmental action.” Benjamin v. Fraser, 264 F.3d 175, 188 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 316 (1982)). However, “a detainee's liberty interest in freedom from restraint is highly qualified and must be balanced against the state's reasons for restraining that liberty.” Id. “Thus, ‘[a]bsent a showing of an expressed intent to punish, ' courts in this circuit consider whether there is ‘an alternative purpose to which [the restriction] may rationally be connected . . . and whether [the restriction] appears excessive in relation to the alternative purpose.'” Williams v. Ramos, No. 13 Civ. 826, 2013 WL 7017674, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 23, 2013) (alterations in original) (quoting Benjamin, 264 F.3d at 188).

         The plaintiff has not alleged an express intent to punish. See id. Furthermore, he has failed to allege his liberty claim with sufficient specificity: he provided no facts with respect to the length, frequency, or reasons for the lockdowns. Absent such information, the court cannot engage in the requisite balancing of interests. Therefore, the plaintiff's liberty interest claim should be dismissed.

         C. Access to Counsel and to the Court

         “[T]he right to counsel and the right to access to the court are interrelated . . . [h]owever, the two rights are not the same.” Benjamin, 264 F.3d at 186. “[A]ccess claims . . . concern[] the ability of . . . prisoners to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and to challenge the conditions of their confinement. By contrast . . . the Sixth Amendment [confers the] right of a pretrial detainee, in a case brought against him by the state, to utilize counsel in his defense.” LaRock v. Amato, No. 12 CV 503, 2013 WL 5466410, at *6 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2013) (alterations in original) (quoting Benjamin, 264 F.3d at 186). The plaintiff claims that the lockdowns have restricted access to the court and to counsel, stating specifically that a legal telephone conference was postponed and that a paralegal was denied access to him. (Letter of Trent Patterson filed Feb. 1, 2017 (“2/1/17 Patterson Letter”), at 2-3).

         1. Sixth Amendment

         A pre-trial detainee needs “‘access to the courts and counsel . . . to defend against the charges brought against [him].' Accordingly, the Second Circuit has determined that a pretrial detainee's Sixth Amendment rights are infringed upon when prison regulations ‘unjustifiably obstruct', ‘infringe', ‘unreasonably burden', or ‘significantly interfered' with the detainee's access to counsel.” LaRock, 2013 WL 5466410, at *6 (first alteration in original) (citations omitted) (quoting Benjamin, 264 F.3d at 186-87). “[E]ven when an institutional restriction infringes a specific constitutional guarantee . . . the practice must be evaluated in the light of the central objective of prison administration, safeguarding institutional security.” Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 547 (1979).

         The plaintiff's allegations fail to show how the postponement of a single telephone conference and the inability to speak with a paralegal on a single occasion unreasonably burdened his right to counsel. See LaRock, 2013 WL ...

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