New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

TOWLES v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-007-550, Claim No. 100384


Synopsis


Claimant alleged, inter alia, that DOCS wrongfully refused to allow him to take showers he asserted he needed for religious purposes. Claim dismissed.

Case Information

UID:
2001-007-550
Claimant(s):
RENE TOWLES
Claimant short name:
TOWLES
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
100384
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
John L. Bell
Claimant's attorney:
Rene Towles, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General (Michael C. Rizzo, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, of Counsel)
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
March 15, 2001
City:
Plattsburgh
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
In his claim, claimant alleges several different acts of purported negligence by defendant. His proof at trial focused primarily upon three incidents. Claimant contended that defendant wrongfully refused to allow him to take showers that he asserted he needed to take for religious purposes. He alleged that he was unlawfully placed on restrictive confinement from November 2, 1998 to April 5, 1999. Claimant also sought damages for personal property that was allegedly lost by defendant.

The court will first address claimant's contention that from May 7, 1998 to April 5, 1999, while in the custody of the Department of Correctional Services (hereinafter DOCS), he was not permitted access to a shower on Fridays and thus he was unable to properly clean himself for Jumah,[1]
an Islamic religious service. Claimant testified that his religious beliefs required that he take a "full bath"[2] after sunset on Thursday and before the Jumah service on Friday afternoon. During the germane period of time, claimant was confined to disciplinary keeplock and, according to claimant, he was permitted only one shower per week. He stated that he was not permitted to decide when to take the shower and thus the shower did not occur when he wished to take it in order to comply with his religious beliefs. He further complained that there were no bathtubs at Clinton Correctional Facility (hereinafter Clinton) and that his interpretation of Islamic tenets indicated that a full bath was preferable.
Claimant filed a grievance regarding his desire to be permitted to take a shower every Friday while on keeplock. The grievance was unanimously rejected by the Central Office Review Committee, which held as follows:
"Upon full hearing of the facts and circumstances in the instant case, the action requested herein is hereby denied.


"CORC sustains the Superintendent, i.e.:


"Grievant is advised that this issue was addressed in prior CORC, GH-25320-92. It stated in part ‘although ritual cleaning is mandated, it is not mandated that a full bath or a shower be taken.'


"CORC cites its prior decision in GM-22755-95, rendered on 4/19/95, which states, in part, i.e.:


"Upon full hearing of the facts and circumstances in the instant case, and upon recommendation of the Division of Ministerial and Family services which advises that the present procedure of washing in the cell satisfies the religious requirement for the Jumah Services and is consistent with the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. In addition, CORC notes it would be an unnecessary burden on limited staff resources to accommodate an additional shower for the Muslim inmate population." (Claimant's Exhibit 1.)

Claimant acknowledged on cross-examination that during the time he was housed on keeplock he had water in his cell and was permitted to possess a washcloth. He stated, however, that the water in the cell was cold and he asserted that he should have been permitted to take a bath or a shower.

The Muslim Chaplain at Clinton, Imam Shahani, was called as a witness at trial. Imam Shahani explained some of the various cleansing requirements for the Islamic religion. He stated that it was part of Islamic "tradition" to take a shower before Friday services, but he acknowledged that a shower was "not absolutely necessary." He stated that if a shower was not available, a Muslim could be properly cleaned by,
inter alia, washing with water and he stated that there was no prohibition on using cold water.[3]
In order to establish that a prison policy violates an inmate's right to exercise his or her religious beliefs, the inmate must show that the policy substantially burdens the exercise of religion (
Muhammad v Umar, 98 F Supp 2d 337, 343; see, Jolly v Coughlin, 76 F 3d 468, 475). In Abdul-Malik v Goord (1997 US Dist Lexis 2047, SDNY 1997), a class action by Muslim inmates, the plaintiffs argued that DOCS violated their religious rights by not providing Halan meat to Muslim inmates in general population three to fives times a week. The court disagreed, holding "[a]ll that is required for a prison diet not to burden an inmate's free exercise of religion is ‘the provision of a diet sufficient to sustain the prisoner in good health without violating [his religion's] dietary laws'" (id.). The claim before the court is analogous. Here, claimant, an inmate on keeplock status, desired to take a warm shower or bath each Friday. The evidence before the court, however, reflects that he could comply with his religion by washing himself with the water available in his cell. Claimant has failed to establish a violation of his religious rights.
Claimant also contended at trial that he was unlawfully placed on restrictive confinement from November 2, 1998 to April 5, 1999. Claimant's argument is premised primarily upon the fact that his Tier III disposition was reversed and expunged in an article 78 proceeding (
see, Claimant's Exhibit 4). The actions of prison personnel involving inmate disciplinary matters are generally quasi-judicial and, unless they exceed the scope of their authority or violate applicable rules, are afforded absolute immunity (Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212; Davis v State of New York, 262 AD2d 887, lv denied 93 NY2d 819). The fact that the disposition from a disciplinary hearing is later reversed does not necessarily remove the matter from the blanket of immunity (Arteaga v State of New York, supra; Bonacorsa v State of New York, Ct Cl, May 31, 1994 [Claim No. 86522], Bell, J.). At the disciplinary hearing, claimant contended that he had not been afforded proper prior notice of the rule he was charged with violating. While the hearing officer was unpersuaded by such argument, the court that considered the article 78 proceeding credited claimant's contention. The court observed, however, that the "fatal flaw which precluded the finding of guilt * * * occurred before the hearing was conducted * * * " (Claimant's Exhibit 4, at 6 [emphasis supplied]). There has been no showing that the actual disciplinary hearing was conducted in violation of the relevant rules and therefore the disposition at such hearing cannot give rise to a claim for monetary compensation. Claimant was sufficiently vindicated by the retroactive dismissal of the charges and expungement of the incident from his prison record (Bonacorsa v State of New York, supra; see, Edmonson v State of New York, 132 Misc 2d 452, 456).
Claimant further alleged that DOCS lost some of his personal property. Claimant failed to present proof of culpable conduct by defendant that the court found convincing and, significantly, claimant failed to present any proof of the value of the purportedly lost property. Claimant thus did not satisfy his burden of proving all elements of his lost property claim by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence.

To the extent claimant attempted to prove any other theories of liability at trial, the proof was inadequate and unconvincing.

The claim is dismissed and the Chief Clerk of the Court of Claims is directed to enter judgment accordingly.


March 15, 2001
Plattsburgh, New York

HON. JOHN L. BELL
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1] Also spelled "Juma'ah" in some of the papers before the court. For purposes of consistency, the spelling Jumah will be used in this decision.
[2] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from the court's trial notes.
[3] Indeed, Imam Shahani noted that showers were not generally available to most people until relatively recent times.