New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

BUNTING v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-007-579, Claim No. 101954


Synopsis


Claimant, an inmate, alleged that he was unlawfully placed in restrictive confinement. Claim dismissed.

Case Information

UID:
2001-007-579
Claimant(s):
JOHNNIE BUNTING
Claimant short name:
BUNTING
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
101954
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
John L. Bell
Claimant's attorney:
JOHNNIE BUNTING, 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:
November 13, 2001
City:
Plattsburgh
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
Claimant alleges that he was unlawfully placed in restrictive confinement for 80 days at Clinton Correctional Facility (hereinafter Clinton).

On September 3, 1999, claimant was served with a misbehavior report alleging that during a pat frisk conducted on September 2 a substance was found in his possession that tested positive for marihuana. A Tier III hearing (7 NYCRR part 254) was held on September 8 and September 14, with Deputy Superintendent of Administration Paul Knapp acting as the hearing officer. Claimant's defense to the charge was premised upon an assertion that he had been framed by correction officers in retaliation for filing a grievance against a sergeant. Claimant alleges that errors occurred during the hearing, including that the hearing officer denied his request for certain witnesses and that the hearing officer purportedly conducted an independent investigation while the proceeding was pending.

Following the hearing, claimant was found guilty and received a penalty of 90 days in the special housing unit (hereinafter SHU). Claimant pursued an administrative appeal, which resulted in the disciplinary disposition being reversed on November 19, 1999. Claimant had been in SHU for 80 days when the disposition was reversed and he seeks compensation in the current claim for the time he was in SHU.

Claimant called the hearing officer, Knapp, as a witness at trial. Knapp explained that an inmate's request for witnesses can be denied upon the grounds of relevancy or the safety and security of the facility. Evidence produced at the trial reflected that claimant's requests were denied because the witnesses were determined by Knapp to be "not material" or "redundant" (Claimant's Exhibit 2).

Claimant asked Knapp whether he had an off-the-record discussion with Sergeant LaPier regarding the incident. Knapp acknowledged that he had such a conversation after the hearing had been adjourned on September 8 and before it recommenced on September 14. Claimant questioned Knapp regarding the propriety of a hearing officer speaking with someone off-the-record about a pending hearing. Knapp responded that he had been requested by claimant at the hearing to obtain some information and he believed that speaking to Sergeant LaPier fell within the context of seeking such information for claimant. Knapp added that, while conducting an independent investigation would not be proper conduct by a hearing officer, he felt that a hearing officer was permitted to attempt to obtain additional information when requested to do so by the inmate who was facing disciplinary charges.

Defendant called Sergeant Mark Reif as a witness. He testified that in September 1999 he was a correction officer at Clinton. On September 2, 1999, he found a "green, leafy substance"[1]
on claimant while conducting a frisk on him. Reif stated that he "took control" of the substance and that it later tested positive for marihuana. Reif denied that he planted the substance on claimant.
An inmate who is allegedly unlawfully removed from a prison's general population and placed in punitive segregation such as SHU or keeplock may have a cause of action for monetary damages (
see, e.g., Wilkinson v Skinner, 34 NY2d 53). The development of such a cause of action has roots in due process considerations (see, Wilkinson v Skinner, supra; Edmonson v State of New York, 132 Misc 2d 452, 455; see also, Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212, 221).[2] Absolute immunity from claims for monetary damages attaches, however, to disciplinary proceedings conducted consistent with the procedures provided in the relevant rules of the Department of Correctional Services, even if the underlying disciplinary charges are later reversed administratively or via a successful proceeding pursuant to CPLR article 78 (Arteaga v State of New York, supra; Davis v State of New York, 262 AD2d 887, lv denied 93 NY2d 819).
While complying with the relevant rules provides defendant with absolute immunity, failing to follow a rule does not necessarily result in absolute liability of defendant (
Edmonson v State of New York, supra; Bonacorsa v State of New York, Ct Cl, May 31, 1994 [Claim No. 86522], Bell, J.; see, Holloway v State of New York, AD2d , 728 NYS2d 567 [violation of a directive while obtaining evidence later used at a disciplinary hearing does not give rise to a viable claim for money damages]). In some circumstances, reversal of the disciplinary determination and expungement of all references to the matter from an inmate's record are a sufficient remedy (see, Edmonson v State of New York, supra, at 456). Monetary damages may be appropriate, however, where defendant's violations of its rules are so egregious as to implicate due process considerations (see, Arteaga v State of New York, supra, at 221)[3] or, more commonly, where the proof reveals a breach of a rule that involves a mere ministerial act (see, e.g., Gayle v State of New York, 135 Misc 2d 570). Examples of ministerial acts include failing to serve a misbehavior report (Best v State of New York, Ct Cl, Oct. 25, 1993 [Claim No. 86570-A], Bell, J.), incorrectly calculating the period of restrictive confinement (Perez v State of New York, Ct Cl, Feb. 14, 2001 [Claim No. 99839], Sise, J.), omitting to release an inmate from restrictive custody in a timely fashion (Minieri v State of New York, 204 AD2d 982), or neglecting to commence a timely hearing (Plair v State of New York, Ct Cl, Sept. 28, 2000 [Claim No. 95693], Mignano, J.).
Claimant alleges that defendant committed compensable errors at the hearing by failing to call witnesses requested by him and by the off-the-record actions of the hearing officer. The court will first address the failure to call witnesses. The pertinent rule provides that an inmate may call witnesses "provided their testimony is material, is not redundant, and doing so does not jeopardize institutional safety or correctional goals" (7 NYCRR 254.5[a]). When a request for witnesses is denied, a written reason for the denial must be provided (
id). Claimant requested four witnesses. The hearing officer determined that the testimony of three of the witnesses was not material and that the other's testimony would be redundant (Claimant's Exhibit 2). The reasons for denying the request for witnesses were provided in writing (id). Defendant thus complied with the germane rule regarding the request for witnesses. The decision not to produce the inmates may have been ill-advised and, indeed, perhaps such reason provided a ground for the administrative reversal. It is not the role of this court, however, to second-guess or review a determination by a hearing officer regarding witnesses when the officer followed the relevant rule. Indeed, the court recently held that "[i]f a hearing officer relies upon one of the grounds set forth in the rule, the officer's decision would be covered by absolute immunity from any claims for monetary compensation" (Moreno v State of New York, Ct Cl, Apr. 10, 2001 [Claim No. 100335], Bell, J.).
Claimant further premises his request for a monetary recovery upon the hearing officer's conduct in eliciting information regarding the incident from Sergeant LaPier during an adjournment of the hearing. The rules of the Department provide that a person shall not be appointed a hearing officer if, among other things, the person has investigated the incident (7 NYCRR 254.1). There is no evidence before the court indicating that at the time Knapp was appointed a hearing officer he had conducted any independent investigation of the incident. Review of the transcript of the hearing (Claimant's Exhibit 1) reflects that during the hearing claimant requested Knapp to ascertain certain information for him and Knapp agreed to do so. Such requests by claimant reflect an acknowledgment of a relative informality of the proceedings and an approval by claimant of Knapp seeking additional information during an adjournment of the hearing. Claimant alleges, however, that Knapp elicited information beyond what he had requested. Knapp testified that he believed he was obtaining information consistent with claimant's request. Knapp's interpretation of claimant's request, even if erroneous, does not constitute a mere ministerial act devoid of any discretion. Moreover, the proof before the court fails to reflect a denial of due process. Therefore, the court is not convinced that monetary compensation is appropriate.

The court is not condoning the conduct during the hearing. Indeed, one reasonable interpretation of the evidence is that Knapp's actions were beyond the scope of claimant's request and perhaps such reason was a basis for the administrative reversal. The court is not, however, persuaded by the proof presented that a viable claim for monetary compensation has been established.

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

November 13, 2001
Plattsburgh, New York

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




[1] All quotes are from the court's trial notes unless otherwise indicated.
[2] Interestingly, the underlying requirements to establish a violation of procedural due process under the United States Constitution have changed in recent years with respect to inmates placed in punitive segregation (see, Sandin v Connor, 515 US 472; cf., Hewitt v Helms, 459 US 460).
[3] Showing that defendant violated its own procedural rules in a disciplinary hearing does not compel the conclusion that a violation of due process has occurred (see, e.g., Sandin v Connor, 515 US 472; Frazier v Coughlin, 81 F3d 313, 317).