New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

WILLIAMS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-017-011, Claim No. 98736


The Court dismissed claimant's claim for negligent handling of his legal mail on the ground that he failed to establish that he suffered any cognizable damages.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant's attorney:
David Williams, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer
Attorney General of the State of New YorkBY: Dewey Lee, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 19, 2000
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant, an inmate proceeding
pro se, seeks compensation for the alleged negligent mishandling of incoming mail, by Fishkill Correctional Facility (hereinafter "FCF") staff members, in their failure to open privileged legal mail in his presence. Claimant alleges a violation of his Fundamental Right to Privacy protected under the Constitution. The trial of this matter was held at FCF on May 25, 2000. Claimant was the sole witness who testified at trial. Defendant called no witnesses.
Claimant testified that on May 16, 1998 he was called for legal mail and went to the mail office to retrieve it.[1]
He stated that he signed for the mail and subsequently discovered that the legal mail had been opened, its contents had been examined, and the envelope had been resealed. Claimant testified that written on the envelope were the words "Opened in Error." Claimant testified that, after an initial inquiry on the opening of the letter, he filed a grievance with FCF and subsequently discovered who was responsible for opening the mail. At this point, Claimant introduced Claimant's Exhibit 1 into evidence. Claimant's Exhibit 1 was identified by the court as being; a letter from the Legal Action Center at 153 Waverly Place, New York, N.Y., addressed to David Williams with the words "Legal Mail" in bold letters, and containing the words "Opened in Error" written on its face. Claimant testified that as a result of the grievance the administration came together and accepted responsibility on the opening of the letter and admitted it had been opened in error. Claimant testified that this was the only occurrence of such an incident and that they have been more careful ever since.
Clearly, claimant's mail, a letter from a legal services organization, is privileged correspondence under New York Codes, Rules and Regulations (herein "7 NYCRR") §721.2 (b).[2]
Being of a privileged nature, FCF is required to abide by the rules of incoming privileged correspondence set forth in 7 NYCRR §721.3 (b) (1)(iii) (a).[3] This court is convinced, and the evidence clearly shows, that this mail was erroneously opened in the absence of the claimant. The writing "Opened in Error" on the face of the envelope, coupled with the evidence presented in the Investigation Report from the Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee accepting responsibility, is sufficient to find that the mail was in fact opened in the absence of the claimant by mistake. Claimant has succeeded in making a valid claim up to this point.
However, in making a
prima facie case for negligence, claimant must also meet his burden of proof on the issue of damages. Claimant failed to introduce any evidence on his alleged claim of "conscious pain" or any other damages that he may have suffered as a result of this incident. As a result, this court finds that claimant has failed to demonstrate that he sustained any compensable damage or measurable injury as a result thereof. If it is any consolation, claimant's actions have at least resulted in increased awareness and have caused FCF staff to be more careful with the handling of legal mail. Accordingly, the Clerk is directed to enter judgment dismissing the claim.

June 19, 2000
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] All references to testimony are from the Court's review of the audiotape of the trial unless otherwise indicated.
[2] 7 NYCRR §721.2(b) includes as privileged correspondence "Any attorney, approved legal representative, representative employed or supervised by an attorney, or any legal services organization;"
[3] 7 NYCRR §721.3 (b)(1)(iii)(a) requires: "All incoming privileged correspondence shall be opened and inspected, in the presence of the inmate to whom it is addressed * * * "