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Thomas v. Pingotti

United States District Court, N.D. New York

September 6, 2017

L. PINGOTTI; et al., Defendants. WILLIAM D. THOMAS, Plaintiff,
POLIZZI;et al., Defendants.

          WILLIAM D. THOMAS Plaintiff, pro se.




         The Clerk of the Court has sent to the Court for review two complaints filed pro se by plaintiff William D. Thomas in the above-captioned actions.[1] Plaintiff, who is confined at Downstate Correctional Facility, asserts claims arising out of his confinement at Shawangunk Correctional Facility ("Shawangunk C.F.") in 2016. Plaintiff has not paid the filing fee in either action, and seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP").

         II. Duplicative Actions

         A court reviewing a complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) and 28 U.S.C. § 1915A may properly consider whether the claims asserted by the plaintiff are duplicative of claims asserted in another action.[2] As the Second Circuit has recognized, "plaintiffs have no right to maintain two actions on the same subject in the same court, against the same defendant at the same time." Curtis v. Citibank, N.A., 226 F.3d 133, 138-39 (2d Cir. 2000). The principles which guide courts addressing duplicative and repetitive claims rest on considerations of "(w)ise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation." Kerotest Mfg. Co. v. C-O-Two Fire Equip. Co., 342 U.S. 180, 183 (1952). The doctrine is also meant to protect parties from "the vexation of concurrent litigation over the same subject matter." Adam v. Jacob, 950 F.2d 89, 93 (2d Cir. 1991). Thus, "[c]ourts generally look to the identity of the parties, legal claims, factual allegations including temporal circumstances, and the relief sought to determine if the complaint is repetitive or malicious." Hahn v. Tarnow, No. 06-CV-12814, 2006 WL 2160934, at *3 (E.D. Mich. July 31, 2006).

         In managing the litigation in its court, there are several approaches to the proper disposition of duplicative actions, including dismissal without prejudice, and consolidation. Curtis, 226 F.3d at 138. The district court has broad discretion in making this determination, and the exercise of its power is reviewed by the Court of Appeals for abuse of discretion. Id.; see also Lopez v. Ferguson, 361 Fed. App'x 225, 226 (2d Cir. 2010) ("We review a district court's dismissal of claims as duplicative for abuse of discretion."); Johnson v. Celotex Corp., 899 F.2d 1281, 1284-85 (2d Cir. 1990) ("The trial court has broad discretion to determine whether consolidation is appropriate.").

         The pleading submitted by plaintiff in Thomas I is styled as a "Complaint under [New York] Civil Service Law Section 75." See Dkt. No. 1 at 5.[3] While nominally directed towards Shawangunk C.F. Acting Supt. Pingotti, the pleading identifies sixteen additional corrections and medical staff as "respondents" and alleges numerous claims of misconduct by those individuals during plaintiff's confinement at Shawangunk C.F. in 2016. Id. at 5-9. Liberally construed, plaintiff claims that he has been subjected to adverse actions in retaliation for his having filed grievances and complaints (related primarily to his participation in the Sex Offender Treatment Program ("SOTP")), disciplined without due process, denied proper and adequate mental health care, and denied proper investigation of and redress for the misconduct complained of his grievances.

         In Thomas II, plaintiff submitted a twenty-five page complaint utilizing the form civil rights complaint available to litigants in the Northern District of New York. See Dkt. No. 1 ("Compl."). All seventeen of the defendants named in Thomas I are defendants in this complaint. Id. at 1-7. The complaint in Thomas II sets forth, with some additional factual support, the instances of misconduct complained of in Thomas I, as well as additional claims and three additional defendants. Id. at 9-23.[4] Plaintiff seeks an award of compensatory and punitive damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief. Id. at 24-25.

         Upon review of the two pleadings, the Court finds that there is considerable duplication and repetition of claims and defendants in these two actions, as to which common questions of law and fact exist. To the extent that these actions differ in any significant way, the differences arise only from the additional claims and defendants in Thomas II. The Court also finds that the pleading in Thomas II sets forth plaintiff's claims in a more comprehensive and well-organized manner than does the pleading in Thomas I which, as noted, purports to be a state court petition under Civil Service Law Section 75.

         Based upon the foregoing, and in order to conserve judicial resources and avoid duplicative litigation, the Court hereby dismisses Thomas I without prejudice in favor of Thomas II.[5]

         III. IFP STATUS

         "28 U.S.C. § 1915 permits an indigent litigant to commence an action in a federal court without prepayment of the filing fee that would ordinarily be charged." Cash v. Bernstein, No. 09-CV-1922, 2010 WL 5185047, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 26, 2010).[6] "Although an indigent, incarcerated individual need not prepay the filing fee at the time of filing, he must subsequently pay the fee, to the extent he is able to do so, through periodic withdrawals from his inmate accounts." Id. (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b) and Harris v. City of New York, 607 F.3d 18, 21 (2d Cir. 2010)).

         Upon review, the Court finds that plaintiff has submitted a completed IFP application which has been certified by an appropriate official at his facility, see Dkt. No. 10, and which demonstrates economic need. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(2). Plaintiff has also filed the inmate authorization required in the Northern District. Dkt. No. 3.

         Accordingly, plaintiff's application to proceed with this action IFP is granted.


         Having found that plaintiff meets the financial criteria for commencing this action in forma pauperis, and because plaintiff seeks relief from officers and employees of a governmental entity, the Court must consider the sufficiency of the allegations set forth in his complaint in light of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) and 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Section 1915(e)(2)(B) directs that, when a plaintiff seeks to proceed in forma pauperis, "(2) . . . the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that-. . . (B) the action . . . (i) is frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2)(B).[7]Similarly, Section 1915A(b) directs that a court must review any "complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity" and must "identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint . . . is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or . . . seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b); see also Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007) (stating that both Sections 1915 and 1915A are available to evaluate prisoner pro se complaints).

         In reviewing a complaint, the Court has a duty to show liberality toward pro se litigants, see Nance v. Kelly, 912 F.2d 605, 606 (2d Cir. 1990) (per curiam), and should exercise "extreme caution . . . in ordering sua sponte dismissal of a pro se complaint before the adverse party has been served and both parties (but particularly the plaintiff) have had an opportunity to respond, " Anderson v. Coughlin, 700 F.2d 37, 41 (2d Cir. 1983) (internal citations omitted). A court should not dismiss a complaint if the plaintiff has stated "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." 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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation omitted). Although the court should construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions." Id. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Thus, "where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not 'show[n]' - 'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         Plaintiff seeks relief in this action pursuant to Section 1983, which establishes a cause of action for "'the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws' of the United States." Wilder v. Virginia Hosp. Ass'n, 496 U.S. 498, 508 (1990) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983)); see also Myers v. Wollowitz, No. 95-CV-0272, 1995 WL 236245, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Apr. 10, 1995) (McAvoy, C.J.) (finding that Section 1983 "is the vehicle by which individuals may seek redress for alleged violations of their constitutional rights"). To be held liable for damages in a Section 1983 action, a defendant must have been personally involved in the alleged violation. McKinnon v. Patterson, 568 F.2d 930, 934 (2d Cir. 1977). Thus, to set forth a cognizable claim under Section 1983, a "plaintiff must 'allege a tangible connection between the acts of the defendant and the injuries suffered.'" Austin v. Pappas, No. 04-CV-7263, 2008 WL 857528, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2008) (quoting Bass v. Jackson, 790 F.2d 260, 263 (2d Cir. 1986)).

         Plaintiff asserts numerous claims for the violation of his rights protected under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The sufficiency of those claims, as set forth in the complaint in seven causes of action, is addressed below.

         A. First Cause of Action - Retaliation

         To state a claim of retaliation under the First Amendment, a plaintiff must allege facts plausibly suggesting the following: (1) the speech or conduct at issue was "protected;" (2) the defendants took "adverse action" against the plaintiff - namely, action that would deter a similarly situated individual of ordinary firmness from exercising his or her constitutional rights; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected speech and the adverse action - in other words, the protected conduct was a "substantial or motivating factor" in the defendant's decision to take action against the plaintiff. Gill v. Pidlypchak, 389 F.3d 379, 380 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing Dawes v. Walker, 239 F.3d 489, 492 (2d. Cir. 2001), overruled on other grounds, Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506 (2002)).

         The Second Circuit has long instructed that because virtually any adverse action taken against a prisoner by a prison official can be characterized as a constitutionally proscribed retaliatory act, courts must examine claims of retaliation with "skepticism and particular care." Davis v. Goord, 320 F.3d 346, 352 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Dawes, 239 F.3d at 491). Analysis of retaliation claims thus requires thoughtful consideration of the protected activity in which the inmate plaintiff has engaged, the adverse action taken against him or her, and the factual allegations tending to link the two. "[A] complaint which alleges retaliation in wholly conclusory terms may safely be dismissed on the pleadings alone." Flaherty v. Coughlin, 713 F.2d 10, 13 (2d Cir. 1983).

         Here, plaintiff alleges that he was retaliated against "for filing grievances and voicing opinion. And filing the 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit." Compl. at 10.[8] Plaintiff identifies the following instances in which defendants took allegedly adverse action against him: C.O. Bertone threatened plaintiff with physical harm if he "continue[d] to make complaints;" C.O. Cutler and C.O. Stefanik wrote false reports against plaintiff "due to plaintiff voicing his opinion, and views;" and C.O. Clayburn issued a false misbehavior report to plaintiff after learning that plaintiff had written several inmate grievances against "fellow employees." Id. at 12.

         It is well-settled that "verbal harassment, or even threats, are generally held not to rise to the level of adverse action that will support a First Amendment retaliation claim." Rosales v. Kikendall, 677 F.Supp.2d 643, 648 (W.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing Cabassa v. Smith, No. 08 Civ. 480 (LEK/DEP), 2009 WL 1212495, at *7 (N.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2009)); see Bartley v. Collins, No. 95 Civ. 10161, 2006 WL 1289256, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. May 10, 2006) ("[V]erbal threats such as 'we going to get you, you better drop the suit, ' do not rise to the level of adverse action."); Kemp v. LeClaire, No. 03 Civ. 844, 2007 WL 776416, at *15 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 12, 2007) (threats such as "your day is coming, " "you'll be sent to your mother in a black box, " and "you'll get your black ass kicked" are indistinguishable from those that have been found insufficient to establish a constitutional violation).

         Upon review, the Court finds that C.O. Bertone's statement that he would "make something happen" to plaintiff if he continued to make complaints, without more, does not suffice to state a cognizable First Amendment retaliation claim against this defendant.

         Plaintiff does not enjoy a protected constitutional right "to be free from false and inaccurate information" in his prison records. The creation of a false report in a prisoner's file is not, on its own, a due process violation. See Boddie v. Schnieder, 105 F.3d 857, 862 (2d Cir.1997) ("a prison inmate has no general constitutional right to be free from being falsely accused in a misbehavior report"); Hollman v. Bartlett, No. 08-CV-1417, 2011 WL 4382191, at *12 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 26, 2011) (the placement of a false report in an inmate's file, without more, is not a due process violation). The only way that false accusations contained in a misbehavior report can rise to the level of a constitutional violation is when there has been more such as "retaliation against the prisoner for exercising a constitutional right." Boddie, 105 F.3d at 862.

         Here, while plaintiff alleges that C.O. Cutler and C.O. Stefanik created false reports about plaintiff which were retaliatory in nature, plaintiff has not provided any facts regarding the type of records or reports that were created, the manner in which these records were falsified, or how such falsity harmed plaintiff. Upon review, the Court finds that plaintiff has not alleged facts sufficient to plausibly suggest that these defendants took actions against him which were sufficiently "adverse" for purposes of the First Amendment. As a result, plaintiff's claims against C.O. Cutler and C.O. Stefanik do not survive initial review and are dismissed without prejudice. Sheehy v. Brown, 335 Fed.App'x 102, 104 (2d Cir. 2009) (summary order) (allegations that "are so vague as to fail to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them" are subject to dismissal.).

         The Court also considered the sufficiency of plaintiff's claim that C.O. Clayburn issued a false misbehavior report in retaliation for grievances plaintiff had filed against other corrections officers. See Compl. at 12.[9] "Generally, alleged retaliation motivated by an action the prisoner took which did not personally involve the prison officials is insufficient for a retaliation claim." Ortiz v. Russo, No. 13 CIV. 5317, 2015 WL 1427247, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2015) (citing Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 274 (2d Cir. 2009) (dismissing a pro se prisoner's claim that he was assaulted by the defendant in retaliation for an earlier letter he wrote which did not name or address defendant)); see also Guillory v. Ellis, No. 9:11-CV- 0600 (MAD/ATB), 2014 WL 4365274, at *18 (N.D.N.Y. Aug. 28, 2014) ("it is difficult to establish one defendant's retaliation for complaints against another defendant"); Roseboro v. Gillespie, 791 F.Supp.2d 353, 369 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (plaintiff "failed to provide any basis to believe that [defendant] retaliated for a grievance that she was not personally named in"). Here, because plaintiff has not alleged facts sufficient to plausibly suggest that grievances he wrote against other officers were a "substantial or motivating factor" in C.O. Clayburn's decision to issue the challenged misbehavior report, this claim does not survive initial review.

         Based upon the foregoing, plaintiff's retaliation claims against C.O. Bertone, C.O. Cutler, C.O. Stefanik, and C.O. Clayburn set forth in the First Cause of Action are dismissed without prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 28 U.S.C. § 19215A(b)(1).

         B. Second Cause of Action - Equal Protection

         The Equal Protection Clause requires that the government treat all similarly situated people alike. City of Cleburne, Tex. v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985). Specifically, the Equal Protection Clause "bars the government from selective adverse treatment of individuals compared with other similarly situated individuals if 'such selective treatment was based on impermissible considerations such as race, religion, intent to inhibit or punish the exercise of constitutional rights, or malicious or bad faith intent to injure a person.'" Bizzarro v. Miranda, 394 F.3d 82, 86 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting LeClair v. Saunders, 627 F.2d 606, 609-10 (2d Cir. 1980)). To state a viable Equal Protection claim, a plaintiff generally must allege "purposeful discrimination . . . directed at an identifiable or suspect class." Giano v. Senkowski, 54 F.3d 1050, 1057 (2d Cir. 1995). In the alternative, under a "class of one" theory, plaintiff must allege that he has been ...

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