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Williams v. Annucci

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 27, 2018


          OPINION & ORDER


         Plaintiff Alexander Williams ("Plaintiff), an inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, [1] commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of his constitutional rights, by filing a complaint (the "Complaint") on August 31, 2016. (See Compl. (ECF No. 1).) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Anthony Annucci ("Annucci"), Acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"), Sergeant Maria Velardo ("Velardo"), an employee of DOCCS, and Administrative Hearing Officer Eric Gutwein ("Gutwein") (collectively, "Defendants"), [2] violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process during the course of his October 2015 disciplinary hearing ("Tier III Hearing"), [3] which resulted in his continued confinement in the Special Housing Unit. (See Compl. at 5-11.) Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1) ("Defendants' Motion"). (See Defendants' Brief in Support of their Motion to Dismiss (“Defs. Br.”) (ECF No. 27), at 1-4.) For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED.[4]


         The following facts are derived from the Complaint and the documents appended thereto; their truth is assumed for purposes of this motion only. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); see also Nicosia v., Inc., 834 F.3d 220, 230 (2d Cir. 2016).

         Plaintiff is a pro se inmate who was housed at Green Haven Correctional Facility (“Green Haven”) at the time of the alleged constitutional violations.[5] (See Compl. at 1.)[6] Plaintiff originally resided in general population until he was allegedly involved in a physical altercation with another inmate on October 6, 2015. (Id. at 6.) Immediately thereafter, Plaintiff was committed to the Special Housing Unit (“SHU”). (Id.) The claims asserted in this lawsuit stem from the hearings following his SHU confinement.

         On October 8, 2015, while Plaintiff was confined in the SHU for his alleged physical altercation with another inmate, he was served with a misbehavior report charging various violations of prison rules (the “Misbehavior Report”). (See Id. at 6, 9.) The Misbehavior Report charges Plaintiff with violations of correctional facility conduct rules, specifically sections 104.11-Violent Conduct, 104.13-Creating a Disturbance, 100.10-Assault on an Inmate, 100.13-Fighting, and 113.10-Weapon. (Id. at 9.) Thereafter, Plaintiff was provided an “Assigned Assistant”, Defendant Velardo, (id. at 6), to help him develop a defense for his upcoming Tier III Hearing. Plaintiff alleges that Velardo was wholly ineffective in that she failed to perform investigatory tasks, explain the charges to him, interview witnesses, and obtain documentary evidence or written statements as requested by him. (See id.)

         Plaintiff's Tier III Hearing was comprised of a series of sessions conducted on three separate dates: October 9, 2015, October 22, 2015, and October 26, 2015. (See Compl. at 6, 7.) Defendant Gutwein presided over all three sessions. (Id. at 6-8.) During the first session, on October 9, 2015, Plaintiff informed Defendant Gutwein that his Assigned Assistant did not provide him “with all documentation needed to prepare” his defense. (Id. at 6.) Although Defendant Gutwein took note of Plaintiff's concerns, he did not provide him with a new Assigned Assistant and adjourned the hearing. (Id. at 6, 7.)

         During the second session, Plaintiff's “requested witness” Officer Ernst[7] appeared to “present his chain of events.” (Id. at 7.) Before Officer Ernst testified, Defendant Gutwein “slid a piece of paper” to Ernst “to read”, to which Plaintiff “objected on [the] record.” (Id.) Thereafter, Defendant Gutwein prohibited Plaintiff from questioning Officer Ernst, deeming Plaintiff's questions irrelevant; a finding that Plaintiff now contests. (See id.) Plaintiff contends that this conduct violated his right to due process. (See id.) After “cross examination was completed” the second session was then adjourned and Plaintiff was returned to his cell. (Id.)

         Without notifying Plaintiff, on October 26, 2015, Defendant Gutwein commenced the third session. (See Compl. at 7.) Plaintiff, therefore, was not present for this session, during which time he alleges his witnesses gave testimony. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that proceeding with the final session in his absence constitutes a violation of his due process rights. (See id.) Furthermore, the third session occurred after the allotted time given to Defendant Gutwein to complete the Tier III Hearing, which Plaintiff alleges further violated his rights. (See id.) At the conclusion of the Tier III Hearing sessions, Gutwein found Plaintiff guilty on the charges in the Misbehavior Report (the “Tier III Decision”). (See Id. at 8.) As a consequence, Plaintiff remained in the SHU for approximately 301 days and lost other privileges, such as good time credit.[8] (See id at 10.)

         Plaintiff appealed the Tier III Decision to Defendant Annucci, [9] who affirmed the decision on December 22, 2015. (See id. at 8.) Subsequently, on July 1, 2016, Plaintiff filed an Article 78 petition in New York State Supreme Court, Albany County (the “Article 78 Court”) challenging the Tier III Decision and its affirmance. (See id at 9.) The Article 78 Court ordered that the Tier III Decision be annulled without costs and directed respondents to conduct a rehearing on the matter because portions of the transcript from the Tier III Hearing were inaudible. (See id.) Plaintiff further states, “I have exhausted all remedies, ” but provides no further detail regarding whether he had any additional hearings. (Id.)

         Though he makes no mention of additional hearings in his Complaint, Plaintiff was afforded a second hearing in August 2016 (the “Rehearing”), which produced the same sentence as the Tier III Hearing with credit for time served. (See Declaration of Donald Venettozzi in Support of Defendants' Motion dated April 18, 2017 (“Venettozzi Decl.”) (ECF No. 28), ¶11, Ex. K.)[10] After Plaintiff commenced this action, he appealed the Rehearing determination, which was ultimately affirmed. (See Id. ¶¶13, 14, Exs. M, N.)


         I. Rule 12(b)(6)

         On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a court must assess whether the complaint “contain[s] sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Id. at 679. 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, ”' or to credit “mere conclusory statements”, or “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action.” Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         In determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief, a district court must consider the context and “draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. A claim is facially plausible when the factual content pled allows a court “to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678.

         Complaints of pro se Plaintiffs are to be treated with great solicitude and should be construed in a particularly liberal fashion. Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2009). They must be read “to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.” Harris v. City of N.Y., 607 F.3d 18, 24 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Nevertheless, a pro se plaintiff's pleading must contain factual allegations that sufficiently “raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Jackson v. N.Y.S. Dep't of Labor, 709 F.Supp.2d 218, 224 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), and the Court's duty to construe the complaint liberally is not “the equivalent of a duty to re-write it, ” Geldzahler v. New York Medical College, 663 F.Supp.2d 379, 387 (S.D.N.Y. 2009).

         II. Rule 12(b)(1)

         “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. Constr. 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).

         III. Section 1983 Claims

         “Section 1983 itself creates no substantive rights; it provides only a procedure for redress for the deprivation of rights established elsewhere.” Sykes v. James, 13 F.3d 515, 519 (2d Cir. 1993) (citing City of Okla. City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 816 (1985)). “To state a claim under Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege facts indicating that some official action has caused the plaintiff to be deprived of his or her constitutional rights.” Zherka v. Amicone, 634 F.3d 642, 644 (2d Cir. 2011) (citing Colombo v. O'Connell, 310 F.3d 115, 117 (2d Cir. 2002) (per curiam)); see also Ross v. Westchester Cnty. Jail, No. 10-CV-3937(DLC), 2012 WL 86467, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 11, 2012). A defendant's conduct must therefore be a proximate cause of the claimed violation in order to find that the individual defendant deprived the plaintiff of his constitutional rights. Ross, 2012 WL 86467, at *9 (citing Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 285 (1980)). Additionally, a plaintiff seeking monetary damages against the defendant must show personal involvement on the part of the defendant in the alleged constitutional deprivation as a prerequisite to recovery under § 1983. Farid v. Ellen, 593 F.3d 233, 249 (2d Cir. 2010) (citing Farrell v. Burke, 449 F.3d 470, 484 (2d Cir. 2006)).


         I. Exhaustion

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff's Complaint is ripe for dismissal for failure to exhaust. (See Defs. Br. at 13-16.) Specifically, Defendants contend that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies because he was provided a Rehearing after the Article 78 Court's determination, and had an opportunity, but failed, to ...

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