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Booker v. Griffin

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 31, 2018

AMIN DOSHA WN BOOKER, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS GRIFFIN, Superintendent of Green Haven Facility; E. DEMO, DOCCS Investigator, Paul Chappius, Jr., Superintendent Elmira Facility; G. KELLER, Captain at Elmira; M. KIRKPATRICK, Superintendent of Clinton; John Doe #1, Confidential Informant; JOHN DOES #2-3., Correction Officers at Green Haven; SGT. ISAACS, LT. SCRANTON; CORRECTION OFFICER SEARS; KAREN BELLAMY, Central Office Committee Director; DONAL VENNETTOZZI, Director of SHU, Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER

          NELSON S. ROMAN, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Amin Doshawn Booker commenced this pro se action pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, violations of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights in connection with his incarceration at Green Haven and Elmira Correctional Facilities. (See Compl., ECF No. 2.) Specifically, Plaintiff raises various challenges to his placement in administrative segregation, the suspension of his visitation privileges with his fiance, and the denial of appropriate medical care during certain period of his incarceration.

         Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim, and to sever and transfer any remaining claims arising out of Plaintiff s incarceration at Elmira Correctional Facility to the Western District of New York. (Mem. of Law in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss the Compl. (“Defs.' Mot.”) at 1, ECF No. 47.) Additionally, Defendants move under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for this Court refrain from adjudicating Plaintiff's due process claims relating to his administrative segregation, pursuant to the doctrine espoused in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). (Id.) Plaintiff opposes Defendants' motion and cross-moves for summary judgment on his due process claims. (Pl.'s Mem. Of Law in Opp. to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss and in Supp. of Cross-Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Opp.”), ECF No. 52.)

         For the reasons that follow, this Court finds abstention under Younger unwarranted and GRANTS Defendants' motion to dismiss in part and DENIES it in part. Defendants' motion to sever and transfer certain claims to the Western District of New York is DENIED. Finally, Plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment is also DENIED at this juncture.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Factual Background[1]

         A. Plaintiff's ILC Activities and the Administrative Segregation Recommendation

         Prior to April 22, 2015, Plaintiff was incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility. At Green Haven, Plaintiff served as an active member of the Inmate Liaison Committee (“ILC”), a group dedicated to recording and addressing inmates' concerns and grievances within the facility. (Compl. ¶ 18-21.) In March 2015, the ILC requested a meeting with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) Commissioner Anthony Annucci to address inmate complaints of inappropriate staff behavior and rumors that Defendant Griffin, a superintendent at the facility, was instructing other officers to harm inmates. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.) Once Defendant Griffin became aware of the ILC's request, he confronted Plaintiff, telling him: “I run things here, you don't question my authority.” (Id. ¶ 31.) Defendant Griffin further threatened to send Plaintiff to a facility in upstate New York, away from his family, and warned that he could have Plaintiff in the special housing unit (“SHU”)[2] “with a push of a button, ” adding that Plaintiff would “never get out.” (Id. ¶ 33.)

         The next day, on April 22, 2015, Plaintiff was abruptly transferred to Elmira Correctional Facility. (Id. ¶¶ 35-38.) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff was served with an administrative segregation recommendation, authored by Defendant Demo in conjunction with Defendant Griffin, accusing Plaintiff of attempting to organize an inmate demonstration and being influential within the Blood organization. (Id. ¶¶ 52-54.)

         B. The Administrative Segregation Hearing

         On May 1, 2015, the Deputy Superintendent of Elmira Correctional Facility, Defendant Kirkpatrick, commenced an administrative segregation hearing against Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 55.) After Plaintiff objected to the recommendation drafted by Defendant Demo and Defendant Griffin, both Defendants testified via telephone on May 7, 2015 and May 12, 2015, respectively. (Id. ¶ 56.) The testimony of each Defendant was inconsistent with Defendants' written recommendation, prompting Plaintiff to request an adjournment of the hearing in order to obtain documents and interview witnesses. (Id. ¶ 58.)

         On June 4, 2015, Plaintiff alleges he was “lured” by Defendant Scranton, a Lieutenant at Elmira Correctional Facility, to a room with a telephone. (Id. ¶ 64.) Defendant Scranton dialed a number, asked for a “Commissioner Gore, ” and handed the receiver to Plaintiff. (Id.) The individual on the phone identified himself as “Commissioner Gore” and asked Plaintiff about his grievances against Defendant Griffin. (Id. ¶ 65.) Specifically, the individual sought information regarding who had informed Plaintiff that Defendant Griffin was authorizing officer assaults on inmates as well as information regarding Plaintiff's administrative segregation hearing. (Id. ¶ 66.) Plaintiff then discussed his grievances relating to the administrative hearing with the individual he believed to be “Commissioner Gore.” (Id. ¶ 67.) Plaintiff later wrote to Commissioner Gore in Albany and learned that he had not actually spoken to Commissioner Gore over the phone. (Id.)

         While the administrative segregation hearing was adjourned, Defendant Kirkpatrick was transferred to another DOCCS facility. (Id. ¶ 68.) The hearing was eventually reconvened on July 7, 2015, with Defendant Keller as the new hearing officer. (Id. ¶ 69.) The testimony given at the hearings before Defendant Kirkpatrick was thrown out. (Id.) Defendant Keller denied Plaintiff's request for documents, did not allow Plaintiff to question witnesses, and relied on the testimony of a confidential source, without making an independent assessment of the source's reliability. (Id. ¶ 70-73.) Defendants Griffin and Demo, who again testified at the hearing, provided testimony that was significantly different than their previous statements before Defendant Kirkpatrick. (Id. ¶ 69.) Defendant Keller eventually reached a disposition on August 21, 2015, agreeing with Defendant Demo's recommendation and sentencing Plaintiff to indefinite administrative segregation. (Id. ¶ 74.) Defendant Keller's determination was not based on any reliable evidence. (Id.)

         Plaintiff repeatedly voiced his concern about possible due process violations in his segregation hearing to Defendant Chappius, a Superintendent at Elmira. (Id. ¶ 82.) Defendant Chappius, however, did not address Plaintiff's concerns, telling him: “I am going with Griffin, whatever he wants. . . I am not reversing the determination. These are your problems, I sleep well at night.” (Id. ¶ 82.) Plaintiff then appealed the disposition of his administrative hearing to the DOCCS Director of Special Housing, Defendant Venettozzi, who affirmed the disposition on November 6, 2015. (Id. ¶ 83.)

         C. Transfer of Plaintiff's Medical Records

         After Plaintiff was transferred from Green Haven Correctional Facility to Elmira, Defendants failed to ensure the transfer of his medical records. (Id. ¶ 99-103.) Indeed, Plaintiff's medical records were not transferred until August 12, 2015. (Id. ¶ 99, 103.) Because he could not receive medical attention until his new facility acquired his records, Plaintiff's various ailments were left completely untreated for nearly three months (Id. ¶ 101-03.) During that time, Plaintiff suffered severe swollen glands, swollen eyes, nasal congestion, sneezing, nosebleeds, nose sores, blisters, and severe constipation as a result of his untreated allergies. (Id.) Moreover, Plaintiff began to experience dental complications, which also went untreated, leading to the deterioration and eventual dislodgement of one of his teeth. (Id.)

         D. Plaintiff's Incarceration at Elmira Correctional Facility

         On May 29, 2015, Defendant Sears, a corrections officer at Elmira, confiscated and read Plaintiff's incoming legal mail. (Id. ¶ 105.) Plaintiff immediately notified the area sergeant and a lieutenant of Defendant Sears's actions. (Id.) Defendant Sears then threatened plaintiff, saying “I'm going to fix you Booker, you wanna be an ass-hole and cry to brass?” (Id.)

         The next day, Defendant Sears and Sergeant Isaacs terminated Plaintiff's visit with his fiancé without any explanation. (Id. ¶ 106.) Subsequently, on June 1, 2015, Defendant Chappius sent Plaintiff a notice of a one-year termination of his fiancés visitation privileges. (Id. ¶ 107.) The notice falsely alleged that Plaintiff's fiancé had exposed her genitals to him on May 29, 2015. (Id.) Sometime after, Defendants Isaacs and Sears taunted plaintiff, saying “You don't cry to lieutenant around here, this is our house here, my officer was going to give your papers when he was good [and] ready, but since you wanna be an asshole, you have to feel the heat.” (Id. ¶ 108.) Defendant Sears further threatened that if Plaintiff tried to go over his head again, he would lose all of his visiting privileges. (Id.)

         II. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff commenced the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, various violations of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights by officials at Green Haven Correctional Facility and Elmira Correctional Facility. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint on January 06, 2017, arguing that the Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Plaintiff's due process claims pursuant to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and that Plaintiff had failed to state a claim for any other constitutional violation. (ECF No. 46.) Plaintiff opposed Defendants' motion to dismiss and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on his due process claims. (ECF No. 52.) The Court now considers the parties' arguments in turn.

         DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS[3]

         I. Applicable Legal Standards

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must plead “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 is facially plausible when the factual content pleaded allows a court “to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Id. at 679. In considering a 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must take all material factual allegations as true and draw reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor, but the Court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Id. at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted). Nor must the Court credit “mere conclusory statements” or “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action.” Id.

         Further, a court is generally confined to the facts alleged in the complaint for the purposes of considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to 12(b)(6). Cortec Indus. v. Sum Holding L.P., 949 F.2d 42, 47 (2d Cir. 1991). A court may, however, consider documents attached to the complaint, statements or documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, matters of which judicial notice may be taken, public records, and documents that the plaintiff either possessed or knew about, and relied upon, in bringing the suit. Kleinman v. Elan Corp., plc. 706 F.3d 145, 152 (2d Cir. 2013).

         As to a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(1), “[a] case is properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it.” Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000).

         “In resolving a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), the district court must take all uncontroverted facts in the complaint (or petition) as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party asserting jurisdiction.” Tandon v. Captain's Cove Marina of Bridgeport, Inc., 752 F.3d 239, 243 (2d Cir. 2014). “[T]he court may resolve the disputed jurisdictional fact issues by referring to evidence outside of the pleadings, such as affidavits, and if necessary, hold an evidentiary hearing.” Zappia Middle E. Const. Co. v. Emirate of Abu Dhabi, 215 F.3d 247, 253 (2d Cir. 2000). Though a court “may consider affidavits and other materials beyond the pleadings to resolve the jurisdictional issue, [it] may not rely on conclusory or hearsay statements contained in the affidavits.” J.S. ex rel. N.S. v. Attica Cent. Sch., 386 F.3d 107, 110 (2d Cir. 2004).

         Finally, “where, as here, a plaintiff proceeds pro se, the court must ‘construe [] [his] [complaint] liberally and interpret[] [it] to raise the strongest arguments that [it] suggest[s].' ” Askew v. Lindsey, No. 15-CV-7496 (KMK), 2016 WL 4992641, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 2016) (alterations in original) (citing Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013)). Yet, “‘the liberal treatment afforded to pro se litigants does not exempt a pro se party from compliance with relevant rules of procedural and substantive law.'” Id. (quoting Bell v. Jendell, 980 F.Supp.2d 555, 559 (S.D.N.Y. 2013)).

         II. Discussion

         A. Younger Abstention

         Defendants first contend that, under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), the Court should abstain from exercising jurisdiction over Plaintiff's due process claims for injunctive and declaratory relief relating to his administrative segregation and stay his claims for monetary damages. This Court disagrees.

         i. Applicable law

          Under the Younger abstention doctrine, “federal courts should generally refrain from enjoining or otherwise interfering in ongoing state proceedings.” Spargo v. New York State Comm'n on Judicial Conduct, 351 F.3d 65, 74 (2d Cir. 2003). This doctrine of federal abstention “is grounded in principles of comity and federalism and is premised on the belief that a state proceeding provides a sufficient forum for federal constitutional claims.” Jordan v. Bailey, 570 F. App'x 42, 44 (2d Cir. 2014) (summary order) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Schlanger v. Phillips, 166 F.3d 439, 442 (2d Cir. 1999)).

         However, “abstention is generally disfavored, and federal courts have virtually unflagging obligation to exercise their jurisdiction.” Niagra Mohawk Power Corp. v. Hudson River-Black River Regulating Dist., 673 F.3d 84, 100 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S.Ct. 584, 591(2013) (“Jurisdiction existing, this Court has cautioned, a federal court's obligation to hear and decide a case is virtually unflagging.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Thus, “only exceptional circumstances justify a federal court's refusal to decide a case in deference to the States.” New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 368 (1989).

         Indeed, the Supreme Court has recently reiterated Younger's narrow scope, cautioning that abstention is only warranted for three kinds of state proceedings: “(1) pending state criminal proceedings; (2) civil enforcement proceedings that are akin to criminal prosecutions; and (3) civil proceedings that implicate a State's interest in enforcing the orders and judgments of its courts.” Schorr v. DoPico, 686 F. App'x 34, 36 (2d Cir. 2017) (summ. order) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Sprint, 134 S.Ct. at 588, 591). In addition, courts may also consider other, non-dispositive, factors such as whether the ongoing state proceeding “implicates important state interests, ” and whether “it provide[s] an adequate opportunity to raise [federal] challenges.” Sprint, 134 S.Ct. at 593.

         ii. Analysis

         Here, Defendants contend that this Court should abstain from hearing Plaintiff's due process claims to avoid interfering with the Article 78 proceeding[4] pending in New York state court. Plaintiff commenced that proceeding to challenge the administrative segregation hearing that resulted in his continuous and indefinite confinement in the SHU. (See Decl. of Yan Fu in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Fu Decl.”) at ¶¶ 2-3, Ex. A, Ex. B.)

         Plaintiff's Article 78 proceeding, however, fails to satisfy any of the “exceptional circumstances” that warrant abstention; it is clearly neither a criminal proceeding, nor a proceeding implicating the State's interest in enforcing the orders and judgments of its courts. Moreover, the Article 78 proceeding does not constitute a civil enforcement proceeding akin to a criminal prosecution. Indeed, the Second Circuit has explained that civil enforcement proceedings are akin to criminal prosecutions only when (1) “they are initiated to sanction the federal plaintiff for some wrongful act”; (2) a state actor is a party and often initiates the action, and (3) investigations are involved and result in the filing of formal complaint or charges. Neroni v. Becker, 595 F. App'x 94, 95 (2d Cir. 2015) (summ. order) (internal quotation marks omitted). None of those characteristics are satisfied by the Article 78 proceeding presently at issue.

         First, the Article 78 hearing was commenced by Plaintiff-not any state actor. Further, the hearing is intended to protect Plaintiff's rights rather than sanction him in any way. Although state actors are parties to the suit, they were not the initiating parties, nor were there investigations that culminated in the filing of a formal complaint in this suit. The Article 78 hearing, alone, clearly does not warrant Younger abstention. The only remaining question, then, is whether the underlying administrative segregation hearing warrants abstention until the state review process-including Plaintiff's Article 78 hearing-has concluded.

         As an initial matter, the underlying segregation hearing could ostensibly fall under the second Younger category. Indeed, the proceeding is akin to a criminal prosecution in a number of ways: it was both initiated by state actors and involves some form of investigation that ultimately results in a segregation recommendation. (See Compl. ¶¶ 52-54.) However, while Younger has been expanded “beyond criminal proceedings, and even beyond proceedings in courts, ” it does not apply to “proceedings that are not ‘judicial in nature.'” New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc., 491 U.S. at 370. While the Supreme Court has recognized that prison officials do, in a sense, perform “an adjudicatory function” during prison disciplinary hearings-in that they determine whether the accused inmate is guilty of the charged leveled against him, hear testimony and receive documentary evidence, evaluate credibility and weigh evidence, and render a decision- their function is not a “classic adjudicatory one.” Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 203 (1985). Rather, as the Supreme Court has explained, prison disciplinary officials:

unlike a federal or state judge, are not ‘independent' . . . . They are not professional hearing officers, as are administrative law judges. They are, instead, prison officials . . . diverted from their usual duties. . . . They work with the fellow employee who lodges the charge against the inmate upon whom they sit in judgment. The credibility determination they make often is one between a co-worker and an inmate They thus are under obvious pressure to resolve a disciplinary dispute in favor of the institution and their fellow employee. It is the old situational problem of the relationship between the keeper and the kept, a relationship that hardly is conducive to a truly adjudicatory performance.

Id. 203-04. Moreover, prisoners facing administrative segregation have no lawyer or independent representative, no right to compel witnesses' attendance or to cross-examine, and no absolute right to be present at the hearing. See 7 NYCRR §§ 254, 301.4. Under such circumstances, the concerns of comity animating the Younger doctrine are less compelling and are better addressed through the Prison Litigation Reform Act's requirement for exhaustion of administrative remedies. See Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass'n, Inc. v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100, 122 n.5 (1981) (recognizing that “[t]he doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies, while based primarily on concerns of judicial administration, and which reflects principles of avoidance of unnecessary litigation, deference to administrative expertise, and notions of administrative autonomy, is surely broad enough to encompass comity concerns as well” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).

         Even assuming the administrative segregation hearing is the sort of proceeding entitled to Younger treatment, the inquiry does not end there. Abstention would only be appropriate if this Court also found that the hearing and Plaintiff's subsequent Article 78 challenge constitute a “unitary process that should not be disrupted, [such that] that federal intervention is no more permitted at the conclusion of the [hearing] than during it.” New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc., 491 U.S. at 369. Defendants have failed to advance a single argument why the Court should make this finding. The Court need not linger on this unsettled question, however, because it decides the issue of Younger abstention on different grounds.

         Ultimately, this Court finds abstention inappropriate in the present action for two primary reasons. First, it is not clear from the record whether Plaintiff's Article 78 proceeding is actually pending in state court. Although Plaintiff admits he initiated such a proceeding, he has submitted letters from the state court reflecting that as of July 7, 2017, his appeal had remained unperfected and the deadline by which he was directed to perfect the proceeding had passed. (Pl.'s July 17th, 2017 Letter, Attachment C, Letter from Second Judicial Department, ECF No. 79.) While it remains unclear whether the action has actually been dismissed for failure to prosecute, Plaintiff has represented that he never substantively pursued the Article 78 proceeding.[5] Thus, nothing has actually been litigated, nor does it appear that the issues will ever be litigated, in the state court. (Id.) The comity and federalism concerns of the Younger doctrine are inapplicable where, as here, there is no risk of actually interfering with a state action that is, at best, pending only in name and not in substance.

         Second, the Second Circuit has cautioned that abstention is generally inappropriate where, as here, a litigant seeks money damages for constitutional violations. See Kirschner v. Klemons, 225 F.3d 227, 238 (2d Cir. 2000). In such cases, “it is less likely that unacceptable interference with the ongoing state proceeding, the evil against which Younger seeks to guard, would result from the federal court's exercise of jurisdiction.” Id.

         Although a federal court may nevertheless stay a plaintiff's claims for monetary damages pending the resolution of the state court proceeding, see Giulini v.Blessing, 654 F.2d 189, 193 (2d Cir. 1981), a stay is not presently warranted. Generally, courts will impose such stays “with a view to avoiding wasteful duplication of judicial resources and having the benefit of the state court's views.” Id. However, because it appears the underlying state proceeding has either been dismissed or, at the very least, is not being actively litigated, such considerations are inapplicable here. Indeed, this Court refuses to indefinitely stay Plaintiff's present claims in favor of a state action that may never actually reach resolution.

         As it currently stands, therefore, this Court finds no reason to delay addressing Plaintiff's due process allegations. See Chittenden v. Connors, 460 F.Supp.2d 463, 468 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (recognizing that “[a]bstention is a narrow exception to the generally broad duty on the part of federal courts to exercise jurisdiction, ” and is therefore “the exception, not the rule”); Homere v. Inc. Vill. of Hempstead, No. 17-CV-3173 (JFB) (AKT), 2018 WL 679408, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2018) (same). Accordingly, Defendants request to stay Plaintiff's due process claims is denied.

         B. Due Process Claims-Administrative ...


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