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Fulton v. Otisville F.C.I. Warden J. Baltazar

United States District Court, S.D. New York

January 11, 2018

JAMES FULTON, Petitioner,
v.
OTISVILLE F.C.I. WARDEN J. BALTAZAR, ET AL., Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          JOHN G. KOELTL, DISTRICT JUDGE

         James Fulton, proceeding pro se, brings this petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 against the respondents Juan Baltazar, former warden at Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York ("FCI Otisville"), John M. Banks, a Disciplinary Hearing Officer, Andrew Jones, a former correctional officer at FCI Otisville, and Ronald L. Rodgers, the Senior Counsel of the Administrative Remedy Branch in the Central Office of the Bureau of Prisons ("BOP"), [1] The petitioner alleges that a prison disciplinary proceeding, resulting from a physical altercation between the petitioner and another inmate, violated his right to due process. The petitioner requests that the sanctions imposed on him at the hearing be lifted. In lieu of filing a reply to the respondent's return to his petition for habeas corpus, the petitioner moved for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the petition for habeas corpus and the motion for summary judgment are denied.

         I.

         The petitioner was incarcerated at FCI Otisville from January 19, 2012, to September 29, 2016, after being convicted of federal counterfeit currency offenses and a firearms offense. Scannell-Vessella Decl. ¶¶ 4, 5. The petitioner was recently transferred to the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania pursuant to a federal writ for a resentencing. Id. at ¶ 5.

         This case arises from a physical altercation at FCI Otisville between the petitioner and another inmate, Kyle Bell. According to the report submitted by the Disciplinary Hearing Officer PDHO"), on the morning of October 8, 2015, the petitioner and Bell engaged in a verbal disagreement outside of the petitioner's cell. Banks Decl. Ex D, at 3.[2] After the verbal exchange, Bell went back to his cell and then entered the petitioner's cell with a weapon -- a combination lock attached to a belt. Id. A physical altercation between the two inmates ensued and both inmates suffered multiple injuries. Id.

         A corrections officer who was on duty that morning, Officer Andrew Jones, observed some of the incident. In a written statement provided to the Special Investigative Services Department (the "SIS") Department, Officer Jones stated that he heard the commotion coming from the petitioner's cell on the morning of October 8, 2015. Susney Decl. Ex. A. He then went to the cell and commanded both inmates to cease their fighting. Id. Before the inmates complied with his order, Jones witnessed the petitioner on top of Bell, striking him with the combination lock. (Id.)

         Both the petitioner and Bell sustained injuries. Banks Decl. Ex. D, at 3. The DHO report found that petitioner sustained "a shallow laceration to the left side of [his] scalp, swelling and abrasion to back of [his] scalp and [a] scratch on the back" and that "Bell sustained skin tears to his knuckles, bruising and swelling below his left eye and a small abrasion to the side of his face near his right eye." Id.

         At approximately 1:00 p.m. on the same day of the incident, the petitioner received an administrative detention order ("ADO") indicating that he was being placed in a Special Housing Unit based on fighting pending investigation of a violation of BOP Regulations. Scannell-Vessella Decl. Ex. C.

         On October 23, 2015, the SIS submitted an incident report charging the petitioner with violations of the BOP's Code 108[3](possession of a weapon) and Code 201 (fighting). Banks Decl. Ex. A, at 2, 4. The incident report stated, among other things, that the petitioner and Bell engaged in a verbal confrontation that escalated into a fight; that Bell brought a weapon to the fight which was ultimately obtained by the petitioner and used on Bell; and that Bell and Fulton both sustained injuries from the altercation. Id. at 2.

         On October 26, 2015, the Unit Disciplinary Committee (the "UDC"} held a hearing on the petitioner's charges. Banks Decl. Ex. A, at 2. The UDC determined that the charges against the petitioner as recommended by the SIS report were warranted based on Officer Jones's statement, photography evidence, medical reports, and the findings in the SIS report. Id. at 4. The UDC referred the case to a DHO for a further hearing because of the "high . . . severity" of the charges against petitioner. Banks Decl. ¶ 2, Ex. A, at 2. The petitioner was given notice of the DHO hearing on the same day, October 26, 2015, and informed of his rights. Banks Decl. ¶ 3, Exs. B, C.

         On November 12, 2015, the DHO held a hearing regarding the charges against the petitioner. Banks Decl. Ex. D. At the DHO hearing, the petitioner stated: "I was fighting, but I defended myself." Id. at 2. The petitioner also stated: "I took the belt from [Bell] and had the lock in my hand, but didn't use it." Id. The petitioner also requested to call Officer Jones as a witness at the DHO hearing. The DHO denied the request because Jones was an adverse witness and a written statement from Jones was offered. Id.

         The DHO ruled against the petitioner and imposed sanctions. Banks Decl. Ex. D, at 3. The sanctions imposed for the Code 104 violation were disciplinary segregation of sixty days, disallowance of twenty-seven days of good conduct time, forfeiture of fifty-three days of non-vested good conduct time, and five months loss of visiting. Id. at 3. The sanctions imposed for the Code 201 violation were disciplinary segregation of thirty days (suspended pending 180 days of clear conduct), disallowance of twenty-seven days of good conduct time, and four months loss of commissary. Id. The DHO notified the petitioner of his right to appeal the decision. Id. at 4.

         The petitioner appealed the DHO decision to the BOP's Regional Director on or about December 30, 2015. Scannell-Vessella Decl. ¶ 8, Ex. D, at 2. In his appeal, the petitioner reasserted that he was not in violation of Code 201 because he was defending himself against Bell and also asserted that Jones and other FCI administrators "lie[d], falsif[ied] and tamper[ed]" with the evidence relating to the incident. Id. at 2-3. The petitioner further contended that he was not in violation of Code 104, possession of a weapon, because "Mr. Bell . . . is the manufactor [sic] and owner of the weapon in question." Id. at 3.

         The Regional Director ruled against the petitioner. Scannell-Vessella Decl. Ex. D, at 4-5. The Regional Director found that the DHO decision was reasonable in light of the evidence. Id. Additionally, the Regional Director found that the petitioner's claims of falsification by Jones and the FCI administrators were not credible because nothing in the video surveillance or evidence undermined the officers' credibility or contradicted their findings. Id.

         The Regional Director also found that both of the petitioner's defenses to the substantive charges had no merit. Id. at 4-5. As to the Code 201 infraction (fighting), the Director determined that defending oneself with physical force is not a defense to the charge of fighting. Id. at 5. The Director stated that an inmate facing an assault should not engage in a fight but should instead report the incident to the prison staff. Id. As to the Code 104 infraction (possession of a weapon), the Director found that the fact that ...


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