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Lawrence v. State

United States District Court, N.D. New York

June 22, 2018

STATE OF NEW YORK, et. al., Defendants.





         The Clerk has sent to the Court for review a Complaint filed by pro se plaintiff Lincoln Lawrence ("Plaintiff") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, asserting claims arising out of his confinement in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"). Dkt. No. 1 ("Compl."). By Order filed on March 14, 2018, United States District Judge Ann M. Donnelly transferred this action from the Eastern District of New York to the Northern District of New York ("Northern District"). Dkt. No. 4 (the "Transfer Order"). Plaintiff, who is presently incarcerated at Bare Hill Correctional Facility ("Bare Hill C.F."), has not paid the filing fee for this action and seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Dkt. No. 11 ("IFP Application").


         "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). Upon review of Plaintiff's IFP Application, the Court finds that Plaintiff has demonstrated sufficient economic need and filed the inmate authorization form required in the Northern District of New York. Plaintiff's IFP application (Dkt. No. 11) is granted.[2]


         Having found that Plaintiff meets the financial criteria for commencing this action in forma pauperis, and because Plaintiff seeks relief from an officer or employee of a governmental entity, the Court must consider the sufficiency of the allegations set forth in the Complaint in light of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e) and 1915A. Section 1915(e) of Title 28 of the United States Code directs that, when a plaintiff seeks to proceed in forma pauperis, "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).[3]

         Similarly, under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, 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 Carr v. Dvorin, 171 F.3d 115, 116 (2d Cir. 1999) (per curiam) (noting that Section 1915A applies to all actions brought by prisoners against government officials even when plaintiff paid the filing fee).

         Additionally, when reviewing a complaint, the Court may also look to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a pleading which sets forth a claim for relief shall contain, inter alia, "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). The purpose of Rule 8 "is to give fair notice of the claim being asserted so as to permit the adverse party the opportunity to file a responsive answer, prepare an adequate defense and determine whether the doctrine of res judicata is applicable." Hudson v. Artuz, No. 95 Civ. 4768, 1998 WL 832708, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 1998) (quoting Powell v. Marine Midland Bank, No. 95-CV-0063 (TJM), 162 F.R.D. 15, 16 (N.D.N.Y. June 23, 1995) (other 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). While 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). Rule 8 "demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id. Thus, a pleading that contains only allegations which "are so vague as to fail to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them" is subject to dismissal. Sheehy v. Brown, 335 Fed.Appx. 102, 104 (2d Cir. 2009).


         On April 8, 2015, while in DOCCS' custody, Plaintiff underwent surgery for a cataract in his right eye. Compl. at 5. On June 23, 2015, defendant Gary Torbey, M.D. ("Torbey") examined Plaintiff and provided post-surgical care at Upstate Correctional Facility. Id. On April 25, 2016, defendant Sai Gandham, O.P.H. ("Gandham") examined Plaintiff and provided post-surgical care at Coxsackie Correctional Facility ("Coxsackie C.F."). Id. On May 25, 2016, June 22, 2016, and August 24, 2016, defendant Paul Phelps, O.P.H. ("Phelps") examined Plaintiff and provided post-surgical care at Coxsackie C.F. Id.

         While confined at Bare Hill C.F., Plaintiff submitted sick call requests on August 19, 2017, August 22, 2017, August 24, 2017, and August 29, 2017. Compl. at 6. Plaintiff asked for an appointment with an ophthalmologist and requested medical treatment to address complications that arose after surgery including significant pain and suffering caused by hair growing at the surgical site. Id. at 5-6. At each sick call, Plaintiff was examined by a member of the Bare Hill Nursing Staff (Nurses Jane Doe 1 through 5). Id. at 6.

         Construing the Complaint liberally, Plaintiff alleges defendants failed to adhere to DOCCS' Directives related to medical care and were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. See Compl. at 8-13. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that defendants: (i) failed to follow post-surgical instructions; (ii) failed to provide adequate post surgical care; (iii) failed to provide access to specialists for postoperative care of plaintiff's eye; and (iv) failed to respond to plaintiff's medical condition. Plaintiff also asserts that claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and state law claims for medical malpractice and negligence. See Id. Plaintiff seeks monetary damages. See Id. at 14.

         V. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which establishes a cause of action for &uot; 'the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws' of the United States." German v. Fed. Home Loan Mortgage Corp., 885 F.Supp. 537, 573 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) (citing Wilder v. Virginia Hosp. Ass'n, 496 U.S. 498, 508 (1990) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983)) (footnote omitted); see also Myers v. Wollowitz, No. 6:95-CV-0272 (TJM/RWS), 1995 WL 236245, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. Apr. 10, 1995) (stating that "§ 1983 is the vehicle by which individuals may seek redress for alleged violations of their constitutional rights." (citation omitted)). "Section 1983 itself creates no substantive rights, [but] . . . only a procedure for redress for the deprivation of rights established elsewhere." Sykes v. James, 13 F.3d 515, 519 (2d Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). The Court will construe the allegations in the Complaint with the utmost leniency. See, e.g., Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972) (holding that a pro se litigant's complaint is to be held "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.").

         A. Eleventh Amendment

         The Eleventh Amendment has long been construed as barring a citizen from bringing a suit against his or her own state in federal court, under the fundamental principle of "sovereign immunity." U.S. Const. amend. XI ("The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State."); see also Idaho v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 U.S. 261, 267 (1997); Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984); Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10-21 (1890). Eleventh Amendment immunity is lost only if Congress unequivocally abrogates states' immunity or a state expressly consents to suit. Gollomp v. Spitzer, 568 F.3d 355, 365-66 (2d Cir. 2009). It is well-settled that Congress did not abrogate states' immunity through Section 1983, see Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 343-45 (1979), and that New York State has not waived its immunity from suit on the type of claims asserted in plaintiff's complaint. See generally Trotman v. Palisades Interstate Park Comm'n, 557 F.2d 35, 38-40 (2d Cir. 1977); see also Dawkins v. State of New York, No. 93-CV-1298 (RSP/GJD), 1996 WL 156764 at *2 (N.D.N.Y. 1996). Actions for damages against a state official in his or her official capacity are essentially actions against the state. See Will v. Mich. Dep't. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989).

         Plaintiff's claims for money damages pursuant to Section 1983 against Annucci in his "representative" capacity (see Compl. at 2) are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and are dismissed with prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b). Plaintiff's claims for money damages pursuant to Section 1983 against the State of New York are also dismissed as Plaintiff seeks relief from a defendant immune from suit under section 1983. See LeGrand v. Evan, 702 F.2d 415, 417 (2d Cir. 1983).

         B. Eighth Amendment

         Claims that prison officials have intentionally disregarded an inmate's medical needs fall under the umbrella of protection from the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment afforded by the Eighth Amendment. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102, 104 (1976). The Eighth Amendment prohibits punishment that involves the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" and is incompatible with "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Id.; see also Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986) (citing, inter alia, Estelle). While the Eighth Amendment does not mandate comfortable prisons, neither does it tolerate inhumane treatment of those in confinement. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (citing Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337, 349 (1981)).

         "In order to establish an Eighth Amendment claim arising out of inadequate medical care, a prisoner must prove 'deliberate indifference to [his] serious medical needs.'" Chance v. Armstrong, 143 F.3d 698, 702 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104). "First, the alleged deprivation must be, in objective terms, sufficiently serious." Chance, 143 F.3d at 702 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Addressing the objective element, to prevail a plaintiff must demonstrate a violation sufficiently serious by objective terms, "in the sense that a condition of urgency, one that may produce death, degeneration, or extreme pain exists." Hathaway v. Coughlin, 99 F.3d 550, 553 (2d Cir. 1996). "Second, the defendant must act with a sufficiently culpable state of mind," Chance, 143 F.3d at 702 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); that is, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant "kn[ew] of and disregard[ed] an excessive risk to inmate health or safety." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837; see also Blyden v. Mancusi, 186 F.3d 252, 262 (2d Cir. 1999) (With respect to the subjective element, a plaintiff must also demonstrate that defendant had "the necessary level of culpability, shown by actions characterized by 'wantonness.'").

         The protections afforded by the Eighth Amendment do not extend to remedy harms which may be inflicted as a result of conduct amounting to negligence or medical malpractice but not encompassing conscious disregard of an inmate's health. An "inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care" does not constitute "deliberate indifference." Estelle, 429 U.S. at 105-06. Moreover, "a complaint that a physician has been negligent in diagnosing or treating a medical condition does not state a valid claim . . . under the Eighth Amendment." Id. Stated another way, "medical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner." Id.; see also Smith v. Carpenter, 316 F.3d 178, 184 (2d Cir. 2003) ("Because the Eighth Amendment is not a vehicle for ...

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