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Torres v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

May 17, 2017

JESSICA TORRES, as Administrator of the Estate of Edwin Junior Carrington, Plaintiff,


          LORNA G. SCHOFIELD, District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jessica Torres, in her capacity as Administrator of the Estate of Edwin Junior Carrington, brings this action against Defendant City of New York (the “City”). Following an earlier motion for summary judgment, Plaintiffs federal claim and state false imprisonment claim were dismissed, leaving state claims for negligence and wrongful death. Defendant City now files a supplemental motion for summary judgment claiming that it is immune from liability on Plaintiffs remaining claims. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Familiarity with the facts and procedural history of this case is assumed. See Torres v. City of New York, No. 09 Civ. 9357, 2016 WL 3748492 (S.D.N.Y. July 11, 2016). In support of its supplemental motion for summary judgment, Defendant City provides the deposition transcript of Deputy Warden Emilio Pennes, who testified that, based on an order from the Warden, the C-Block of Queens Central Booking (“QCB”) is opened only when more than 100 prisoners are in custody, unless the officers on duty use their discretion to give the prisoners more space.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the record before the court establishes that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to a material fact exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); accord Apotex Inc. v. Acorda Therapeutics, Inc., 823 F.3d 51, 59 (2d Cir. 2016).

         The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis for the summary judgment motion and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); see also, e.g., Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Victory v. Pataki, 814 F.3d 47, 58-59 (2d Cir. 2016). All evidence must be construed, and all reasonable inferences must be drawn, in favor of the non-moving party. See Young v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1338, 1347 (2015). “[A] party may not rely on mere speculation or conjecture as to the true nature of the facts to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Hicks v. Baines, 593 F.3d 159, 166 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted); accord Process Am., Inc. v. Cynergy Holdings, LLC, 839 F.3d 125, 141 (2d Cir. 2016). Instead, a party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed “must support the assertion” by citing to the record or showing that “the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute.” Fed. R Civ. P. 56(c)(1).


         The City argues that Plaintiff's remaining claims should be dismissed because (1) it did not owe a special duty to Carrington and (2) it is entitled to governmental immunity on its decision not to open additional holding cells.

         A. Applicability of Governmental Immunity to Claims Against Municipalities

         When a plaintiff asserts a negligence claim against a municipality for which the municipality seeks immunity, the court undertakes a multistep analysis to determine whether dismissal of the claim is appropriate. First, the court must decide whether the municipality or relevant municipal entity was acting in a proprietary or governmental capacity at the time the claim arose. A municipality is engaged in a proprietary capacity when its activities “essentially substitute for or supplement traditionally private enterprises, ” and is engaged in a governmental capacity when it acts “for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to [its] general police powers.” Applewhite v. Accuhealth, Inc., 995 N.E.2d 131, 134 (N.Y. 2013). If the court determines that the municipality acted in a proprietary capacity, the municipality is not entitled to immunity, and the claim may move forward. See id.

         If, however, the court determines that the municipality was acting in a governmental capacity, the municipality may be entitled to dismissal of the claim based on either of “two separate but well-established grounds” for dismissal of a tort claim: (1) that it did not owe the plaintiff a special duty or (2) the “governmental function immunity defense.” Valdez v. City of New York, 960 N.E.2d 356, 361 (N.Y. 2011). The New York Court of Appeals directs courts to undertake this analysis by determining the “extent to which the municipality owed a ‘special duty' to the injured party, ” Applewhite, 995 N.E.2d at 135, and then, if necessary, addressing whether the municipality “can rely upon the defense of governmental immunity.” Metz v. State, 982 N.E.2d 76, 79 (N.Y. 2012).

         A municipality can owe a special duty to an injured party if “(1) the [injured party] belonged to a class for whose benefit a statute was enacted; (2) the government entity voluntarily assumed a duty to the [injured party] beyond what was owed to the public generally; or (3) the municipality took positive control of a known and dangerous safety condition.” Applewhite, 995 N.E.2d at 135; accord Velez v City of New York, 730 F.3d 128, 135 n.10 (2d Cir. 2013) (applying New York law). The burden of establishing the existence of a special duty lies with the claimant. See Metz, 982 N.E.2d at 79. “As Applewhite holds, whether a special relationship exists is ordinarily a jury question.” Velez, 730 F.3d at 135 (citing Applewhite, 995 N.E.2d at 143-44).

         In situations where a plaintiff claims the existence of a special duty because the municipality voluntarily assumed a “special relationship” with the injured party beyond the duty owed to the general public, the plaintiff must establish the presence of four elements: (1) “an assumption by the municipality, through promises or actions, of an affirmative duty to act on behalf of the party who was injured, ” (2) “knowledge on the part of the municipality's agents that inaction could lead to harm, ” (3) “some form of direct contact between the municipality's agents and the injured party” and (4) “that party's justifiable reliance on the municipality's affirmative undertaking.” Applewhite, 995 N.E.2d at 138. It is well established that the government undertakes a duty of care to prisoners in its custody with regard to foreseeable risks of harm. See, e.g., Sanchez v. State, 784 N.E.2d 675, 678 (N.Y. 2002) (“Having assumed physical custody of inmates, who cannot protect and defend themselves in the same way as those at liberty can, the State owes a duty of care to safeguard inmates . . . ...

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