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Houghtaling v. Eaton

United States District Court, W.D. New York

January 19, 2018

DEBORAH EATON, Senior C.C. Gowanda, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Jeffrey Blane Houghtaling ("Plaintiff), proceeding pro se, filed this action on July 24, 2014, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a "constitutional due process violation" against Brian Fischer ("Fischer"), the former Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Deborah Eaton, a senior correctional counselor ("Defendant"), and Dale Artus ("Artus"), the Superintendent of Gowanda Correctional Facility (hereinafter, "the original complaint"). (Dkt. 1). On December 5, 2014, Plaintiff filed a motion for an extension of time to serve the original complaint (Dkt. 2), and, on December 12, 2014, filed an amended complaint against only Fischer (hereinafter, "the first amended complaint") (Dkt. 3). On April 10, 2015, United States District Judge William M. Skretny granted Plaintiffs motion for an extension of time, allowing an additional 90 days from the date of the Court Order to serve the first amended complaint, and made the first amended complaint against Fischer the operative pleading. (Dkt. 4).

         Subsequently, Plaintiff indicated that he had mistakenly named only Fischer in the first amended complaint while operating under a misapprehension of the law, namely, that Fischer could be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for his supervisory role over those who Plaintiff alleges personally violated his rights. (Dkt. 7 at 2; Dkt. 8 at 3). Plaintiff stated that upon realizing that Fischer enjoyed qualified immunity, he sought to amend the first amended complaint to name only Defendant, the correctional counselor allegedly personally responsible for Plaintiffs grievances. (See Dkt. 7 at 2). In doing so, he both filed his new amended complaint (hereinafter, "the second amended complaint") on July 6, 2015 (Dkt. 5), and served it upon Defendant on July 7, 2015 (Dkt. 6).

         On August 7, 2015, Plaintiff filed a motion requesting leave from the Court to make the second amended complaint the operative pleading, and for the Court to find that his claims against Defendant be deemed timely filed through the doctrines of relation back or equitable tolling. (Dkt. 7; Dkt. 8). Plaintiff also requested the appointment of counsel. (Dkt. 8 at 6). On June 8, 2016, the undersigned granted Plaintiffs request for leave to amend and made the second amended complaint the operative pleading, and denied Plaintiffs motion for the appointment of counsel. (Dkt. 10). On October 27, 2016, Defendant filed an answer to the second amended complaint. (Dkt. 17). On the same day, the case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Jonathan W. Feldman pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) for supervision of pretrial non-dispositive matters. (Dkt. 18).

         On January 18, 2017, Plaintiff filed "a motion to Amend Caption and add [Corrections Officer] Zmuda as a named defendant" in this action. (Dkt. 31). Plaintiff argued that Corrections Officer Zmuda's ("CO. Zmuda") "unlawful actions have always been clearly documented in all pleadings, " that CO. Zmuda was "acting under color of state law" at the time the allegedly wrongful conduct occurred, and that this amendment would not cause him any prejudice. (Id. at 2-3). Plaintiff also appeared to suggest that the statute of limitations should be tolled because he initially retained a law firm that was unresponsive to his needs for fifteen months. (Id. at 3). Notably, Plaintiff alleges that the incident occurred on July 24, 2011, and Plaintiffs original complaint was filed on July 24, 2014. (SeeDkt. 1).

         Defendant filed papers in response to the motion for leave to amend. (Dkt. 33). Defendant argues that Plaintiff did not comply with Local Rule 15 because he failed to attach a third amended proposed pleading to his motion. (Dkt. 33-1 at 3-4). Defendant then asserts that, in any event, the proposed amendment is futile because it does not relate back to the original complaint and is not subject to equitable tolling, and thus, it is time-barred by the applicable statute of limitations. (Id. sit 5-21). Finally, Defendant contends that Plaintiff was dilatory in seeking to add CO. Zmuda to this action, and that CO. Zmuda would be unfairly prejudiced if he was added as a defendant. (Id. at 21-23).

         Plaintiff filed reply papers in support of his motion where he reiterated many of the same arguments asserted in his initial motion papers. (See Dkt. 35). On April 24, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion to supplement his motion to amend, indicating that he plans to assert claims of assault and battery against CO. Zmuda, in his individual capacity, in violation of Plaintiffs rights under the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. (Dkt. 42 at 2).

         On September 29, 2017, Magistrate Judge Feldman issued a thorough and comprehensive Report and Recommendation, recommending that Plaintiffs motion to amend be denied. (Dkt. 47). Judge Feldman construed Plaintiffs motion as both a motion to amend the caption of the second amended complaint to reflect that CO. Zmuda was a named defendant in the original complaint, and as a motion for leave to amend the second amended complaint. (Id. at 1). Specifically, Judge Feldman recommended that Plaintiff s motion be denied in the former respect because Plaintiffs allegations in the original complaint did not indicate that CO. Zmuda was personally involved in Plaintiffs alleged constitutional due process violation. (Id. at 7-9). Judge Feldman also recommended that Plaintiffs motion be denied in the latter respect because Plaintiffs proposed claims against CO. Zmuda did not relate back to the filing of the original complaint since Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that there was any "mistake" in the identity of CO. Zmuda as a potential party defendant. (See Id. at 9-17). Plaintiff filed objections to those portions of Judge Feldman's Report and Recommendation that determined that Plaintiffs original complaint did not sufficiently allege CO. Zmuda's personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violation, and that found that Plaintiff did not satisfy the strictures of Rule 15(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Dkt. 48). Defendant filed papers in response on October 26, 2017. (Dkt. 50).

         On November 13, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply to Defendant's response to his objections. (Dkt. 51). In this reply, Plaintiff withdrew his request to add CO. Zmuda to the caption, "as it is not relevant to the body of the complaint." (Id. at l).[1] In addition, Plaintiff, for the first time, claims that CO. Zmuda "was clearly involved in the Due Process violations at the Tier III hearing" because he was "in collusion with [Defendant] when he submitted false testimony at the hearing." (Id. (emphasis omitted)). Plaintiff also states, for the first time, that CO. Zmuda "violated [his] Due Process [rights] by resorting to First Amendment Retaliation" by engaging in physical contact after Plaintiff complained that his '"dinner is out of sight [and] around other inmates.'" (Id. (emphasis omitted)). Plaintiff further argues that the New York State Office of the Attorney General was "always" aware of CO. Zmuda's allegedly wrongful actions against Plaintiff. (Id. at 2). For the reasons set forth below, Judge Feldman's Report and Recommendation is adopted in its entirety.


         I. Standard of Review

         Because Judge Feldman's Report and Recommendation concludes that leave to amend should be denied because any amendment would not relate back to the filing of the original complaint, and thus would be futile since the claims are barred by the applicable statutes of limitation, this Court reviews that determination under a de novo standard of review. See HCC, Inc. v. RH&MMach. Co., 39 F.Supp.2d 317, 321 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) ("This Court is of the view that denial of leave to amend is a dispositive decision at least in situations where the denial is premised on futility."); Ezeh v. McDonald, 13-CV-6563, 2016 WL 1254012, at *4 n.3 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 14, 2016) ("Because my findings and conclusions regarding the futility of plaintiffs motion operate as a dispositive determination that [proposed defendants] may not be joined as defendants in this case, my determinations are made as part of a Report and Recommendation and not a Decision and Order."), report and recommendation adopted, 2016 WL 1271513 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2016); cf. Fielding v. Tollaksen, 510 F.3d 175, 178 (2d Cir. 2007) (suggesting, in dicta, that a motion to amend is a nondispositive motion that may be referred to a magistrate judge without the parties' consent and that a magistrate judge's order on such a motion is to be set aside only if it is clearly erroneous or contrary to law); Steuben Foods, Inc. v. GEA Process Engineering, Inc., l:12-CV-00904 EAW JJM, 2016 WL 3876644, at *l-2 (W.D.N.Y. July 12, 2016) (concluding that the standard of review for a magistrate judge's denial of leave to amend based on procedural grounds, as opposed to futility of proposed amendment, was "clearly erroneous or contrary to law").

         Of course, this de novo standard of review applies to only those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which objections were filed. See Mario v. P & C Food Mkts., Inc.,313 F.3d 758, 766 (2d Cir. 2002) ("Where parties receive clear notice of the consequences, failure [to timely] object to a magistrate's report and recommendation operates as a waiver of further judicial review of the magistrate's decision."); see L.R. Civ. P. 72(b) ("Written objections to proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition submitted by a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) shall specifically identity the portions of the proposed findings and recommendations to which objection is made and the basis for each objection, and shall be supported by legal authority."). In the absence of a specific objection, the district court reviews for clear error or manifest injustice. Singh v. NY. State Dep't of Taxation & Fin.,865 F.Supp.2d 344, 348 ...

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