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Bertrand v. Demmon

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 26, 2017

JAMES BERTRAND, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CRAIG DEMMON, et al., Defendants. JAMEL WEAVER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CRAIG DEMMON, et al., Defendants. SHANE GORDON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CRAIG DEMMON, et al., Defendants. JONATHAN HINES, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CRAIG DEMMON, et al., Defendants.

         APPEARANCES:

          LAW OFFICES OF ELMER R. KEACH Plaintiffs

          HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN Attorney General for the State of New York Counsel for Defendants The Capitol Albany

         OF COUNSEL:

          ELMER R. KEACH, III, ESQ., MARIA K. DYSON, ESQ., TIMOTHY P. MULVEY, ESQ. Assistant Attorney General

          DECISION AND ORDER

          GLENN T. SUDDABY, Chief United States District Judge

         Currently before the Court, in these consolidated prisoner civil rights actions filed by ten inmates (“Plaintiffs”) against ten individuals (“Defendants”) employed by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) at Bare Hill Correctional Facility in Malone, New York, is Defendants' motion for an Order staying the upcoming trial of Plaintiffs' consolidated actions, which is currently scheduled to commence on July 17, 2017, pursuant to the Colorado River abstention doctrine. (Dkt. No. 59.) For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' motion is granted.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         Because this Decision and Order is intended primarily for the review of the parties, the Court will assume the reader's familiarity with the particular nature of the Complaints' claims and supporting factual allegations, and will respectfully refer the reader to Part I.B. of the Court's Decision and Order of August 5, 2015, in Pierce v. Demmon, 14-CV-1028 (N.D.N.Y.) (Suddaby, J.), which accurately summarizes those claims and allegations. For purposes of this motion, however, the Court notes the following procedural developments that are relevant to the issue of abstention under Colorado River.

         All ten Plaintiffs in the present matter brought suit in the New York State Court of Claims asserting largely identical factual allegations and claims for intentional tort and negligence against the State of New York (“the State action”). (Dkt. No. 59, Attach. 1, ¶¶ 2, 5 [Mulvey Aff.]; Dkt. No. 60, at 4-5 [Pls.' Opp'n Mem. of Law].) The State action was brought to trial from February 6 through February 16, 2017, before the Honorable Frank P. Milano. (Id., ¶ 2.) During the trial, nine of the ten Plaintiffs testified, all of whom presented substantially similar accounts of the factual events supporting their claims. (Id., ¶ 5.) The trial was not bifurcated and Plaintiffs were represented by the same counsel that is representing them in the present matter. (Id., ¶ 3.) At the close of trial, Judge Milano reserved decision on all claims, pending submission of post-trial briefs by the parties. (Id., ¶ 10.) The remaining claims in this case (i.e., the federal action before this Court) are Plaintiffs' claims for cruel-and-unusual punishment and supervisory liability under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Dkt. No. 48, at 21-22 [Decision and Order].)

         II. THE PARTIES' BRIEFINGS ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION

         A. Defendants' Memorandum of Law

         Generally, in their memorandum of law, Defendants assert seven arguments. (Dkt. No. 59, Attach. 34 [Defs.' Mem. of Law].)

         First, Defendants argue that, in evaluating whether Colorado River abstention is appropriate, the Court must consider the following six factors: (1) whether the controversy involves a res or property over which one of the courts has assumed jurisdiction; (2) whether the federal forum is less inconvenient for the parties than is the other forum; (3) whether staying or dismissing the federal action would avoid piecemeal litigation; (4) the order in which the actions were filed, and whether proceedings have advanced more in one forum than in the other; (5) whether federal law provides the rule of decision; and (6) whether the state procedures are adequate to protect the plaintiff's federal rights. (Id. at 12.)[1] As an initial matter, Defendants argue that this action and the State action are parallel because both are virtually identical with respect to the allegations made against them as state employees in this action and the allegations asserted against the State of New York in the Court of Claims. (Id. at 11-12.)

         Second, with respect to the first Colorado River factor, Defendants concede that, because this is not an in rem action, and because neither this Court nor the Court of Claims has assumed jurisdiction over any res or property, the first factor, while neutral and/or inapplicable, effectively weighs against abstention. (Id. at 13-14.)

         Third, with respect to the second Colorado River factor, Defendants once again concede that, because the fora are both located within the Northern District of New York (i.e., that this Court's forum is just as convenient as the one in the State action), this factor also effectively weighs against abstention. (Id. at 14.) However, Defendants argue that, while the neutrality of this factor weighs against abstention, it does so only “slightly” under case precedent. (Id.)

         Fourth, with respect to the third Colorado River factor, Defendants argue that this is “by far the most important factor” in the analysis and weighs heavily in favor of abstention because most, if not all, of the evidence Plaintiffs offered during the recent trial in the State action will be the same in this action should it proceed to trial. (Id. at 14-15.) Specifically, during the trial in the State action, Defendants argue that the following evidence was considered: (1) testimony from nine of the ten Plaintiffs as well as four of the Defendants; (2) testimony from the parties' respective medical experts; (3) testimony from at least ten witnesses regarding DOCCS pat-frisk procedure, including how DOCCS officers are trained to conduct pat-frisks, what alternative pat-frisk positions can be employed in any given situation, and how Plaintiffs were pat-frisked on the night in question; (4) testimony from the Bare Hill Superintendent, the Deputy Superintendent for Security, and former DOCCS Captain John Rourke about the procedure for investigating an incident where an inmate is “slashed” with a weapon, (5) all of Plaintiffs' respective medical records; and (6) all of Plaintiffs' respective inmate grievances as well as testimony from Lt. Terrance White who investigated and interviewed Plaintiffs about the incident in question. (Id.)

         Fifth, with regard to the fourth Colorado River factor, Defendants argue that the sequence of litigation has generally consisted of Plaintiffs having filed their respective state law actions approximately one year or more before commencing the present action. (Id. at 16.) Defendants further argue that the most compelling consideration under this factor should be the fact that the trial in the State action has already been completed. (Id.)

         Sixth, with regard to the fifth Colorado River factor, Defendants argue that this factor is neutral because the nature of Plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claims and state law claims are exactly the same. (Id. at 17.) Indeed, if anything, Defendants argue that this consideration weighs in favor of abstention. (Id.) Furthermore, Defendants argue that, although the Court of Claims cannot consider federal constitutional causes of action, many federal district courts in the State of New York have held that, in the context of collateral estoppel, a plaintiff may not bring a civil rights claim when he/she has already lost their case in the Court of Claims on state law claims arising out of the identical alleged incident. (Id.)

         Seventh, and finally, with regard to the sixth Colorado River factor, Defendants argue that the parallel litigation in the Court of Claims has adequately protected Plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment rights and now offers a “complete and prompt” resolution of this dispute because the trial in the State Action has been ...


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