New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SANDERS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2005-015-516, Claim No. 104073


Synopsis


Claim seeking money damages resulting from inmate's removal from temporary work release program dismissed due to State's absolute immunity for decisions of a temporary release committee and bench warrant issued for non-payment of support may serve as a basis for removal pursuant to 7 NYCRR 1904.1 (c) (14).

Case Information

UID:
2005-015-516
Claimant(s):
VERNARD SANDERS
Claimant short name:
SANDERS
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
104073
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Claimant's attorney:
Vernard Sanders, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney:
Honorable Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General
By: Belinda A. Wagner, EsquireAssistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 14, 2005
City:
Saratoga Springs
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Decision
The claim herein was filed on April 2, 2001 and asserts causes of action for negligence and constitutional tort arising from the alleged improper removal of the claimant from participation in a temporary work release program. Claimant's constitutional tort claims were dismissed by Order of Presiding Judge Richard E. Sise in a Decision and Order dated July 23, 2001 and trial on the remaining negligence cause of action was held in Albany, New York on March 8, 2005.

In his brief direct testimony Mr. Sanders stated that he was removed from a temporary work release program when it was discovered that he was the subject of a Family Court warrant "dealing with paternity" which had been issued prior to his incarceration and subsequent acceptance into the temporary work release program. The claimant contended that the Department of Correctional Services should have been aware of the existence of the warrant prior to allowing his participation in the temporary work release program and that, in any event, it was his understanding that Family Court warrants pertaining to child support, paternity or alimony should not have prevented him from continued participation in the program. Claimant testified that the Family Court warrant was subsequently vacated and that he brought the instant action to secure repayment of monies he would otherwise have earned during the two-month period he was prohibited from participating in work release. Claimant offered no documentary proof at trial.

On cross-examination, claimant testified that he was incarcerated in 1998 and began participation in a work release program while an inmate at the Hudson Correctional Facility. According to Mr. Sanders, while on work release he was contacted by the New York City Sheriff's Office which informed him he was the subject of a warrant issued by the Kings County Family Court. Claimant was removed from work release after he informed his work release counselor of the warrant and the counselor confirmed the existence of the warrant with the New York City Sheriff. The claimant next reviewed defendant's Exhibit G which is composed of two pages. The first page is a facsimile transmittal cover sheet from the Warrant Division of the City of New York Sheriff dated January 27, 2000. Attached thereto is a copy of a warrant issued by the Kings County Family Court on December 12, 1996 authorizing the arrest of the claimant. The word "Support" is printed in the portion of the warrant in which the allegations justifying its issuance are to be inserted. The claimant agreed that the warrant contained within Exhibit G was the same warrant concerning which he testified on his direct examination and that he was removed from work release on January 27, 2000, the same day the facsimile transmission was received from the Sheriff's Office.

Claimant testified that he understood at the time he entered the work release program that his participation was a privilege and not a right. He identified Exhibit A as a copy of the New York State Department of Correctional Services rules and regulations governing temporary release which bears his signature and is dated December 7, 1999. He also identified Exhibit D, a Hudson Correctional Facility work release program orientation checkoff list which is signed by the claimant and dated December 6, 1999. Exhibits A and D were received in evidence. Exhibit C, which was also received in evidence, is a document relating the rules and regulations governing the day reporting program signed by the claimant on December 30, 1999.

Claimant next identified Exhibit E, a memorandum of agreement governing claimant's work release which he signed on January 24, 2000 and which recites "I understand that my participation in the program is a privilege which may be revoked at any time" on the final page. Mr. Sanders identified Exhibit B as a copy of a continuous temporary release program TRC review form which he received in February, 2000 and which reflects that he was referred to the temporary release committee on the basis of a "pending warrant in Brooklyn Family Court from 1996 - Failure to Appear". Exhibit B also reflects that on February 17, 2000 the Temporary Release Committee suspended claimant from work release providing that he would be reinstated if the warrant could be resolved within 30 days. That decision was concurred in by the facility superintendent on February 22, 2000. Claimant was in fact returned to work release on March 29, 2000 after it was determined that the warrant had been vacated.

Claimant testified that while on work release he was employed as a finisher at Diamond W Products in Albany, New York where he earned $7.00 per hour and worked a 40-hour work week. According to the claimant he returned to Diamond W Products once he was restored to work release and worked there until he was laid off on April 30, 2000.

Claimant concluded his testimony by stating his contention that the Department of Correctional Services should have been aware of the warrant prior to allowing him to participate in work release. Furthermore, claimant contends that pursuant to DOCS rules and regulations the existence of a Family Court warrant should not have prohibited him from continuing his participation in the program.

Defense counsel moved to dismiss the claim at the conclusion of claimant's testimony for failure to prove a prima facie case. The Court reserved decision on the motion.

The defendant called Ms. Deborah Joy to the witness stand. Ms. Joy testified that she has served as the Director of Temporary Release Programs for the New York State Department of Correctional Services since 2000. She described temporary release as including various programs designed to transition an inmate into general society, primarily through work release. An inmate must be eligible and approved for participation in temporary work release programs which are governed by the provisions of the New York Codes Rules and Regulations (NYCRR). An inmate approved for participation in temporary work release is transferred to a work release facility closest to the place where he is likely to be paroled and must agree in writing through various documents including a contract and memorandum of agreement that he will abide by specified conditions while participating in the program. A violation of any of the conditions imposed upon the inmate may result in a review of his continued participation in the program.

The witness reviewed Exhibit G, the Family Court warrant issued for the claimant as well as a fax transmittal sheet dated January 27, 2000 from the City of New York Office of the Sheriff and addressed to correction counselor Vincent Nadeau. Ms. Joy testified that Mr. Nadeau was employed at the Albany Day Reporting Center and was involved in overseeing claimant's participation in the temporary work release program. Ms. Joy testified that regulations governing temporary work release provide that an inmate's participation in the program may be reviewed under various circumstances including those in which an outstanding warrant or charge against the inmate becomes known by the Department. She stated that following receipt of the Family Court warrant an investigation of the matter was initiated by the Department and the claimant was taken into custody and returned to Hudson Correctional Facility.

The witness next reviewed Exhibit B which is a continuous temporary release program TRC review form. Section I of the document relates that claimant was referred to the temporary release committee due to a "pending warrant in Brooklyn Family Court from 1996 - Failure to Appear". In section II there is an indication that claimant's adjustment to work release was positive prior to discovery of the warrant. Section III dated February 17, 2000 indicates the following:
Since you are currently noted for a pending warrant in Brooklyn Family Court (Kings County), TRC has suspended you from Hudson Work Release Program. If you can resolve this warrant within a thirty day period, TRC will reinstate you to work release. Otherwise, if not, then you will reapply for temporary release.

Section IV of Exhibit B is dated February 22, 2000 and notes the concurrence of the facility superintendent or director with regard to the determination of the temporary release committee noted in Section III.

Exhibit J, which was received in evidence without objection, is a copy of correspondence dated February 24, 2000 from Kathleen E. Heath, a correction counselor at Hudson Correctional Facility, to the Kings County Family Court noting the Family Court warrant regarding Mr. Sanders and requesting information necessary to clarify or resolve the charges. Ms. Joy testified that her office was notified by the facility sometime following the correspondence between Correction Counselor Heath and the Kings Family Court that a disposition had been received from the Court and that the claimant was reinstated for participation in the temporary work release program on March 30, 2000.

On cross-examination by the claimant, the witness described the eligibility requirements applicable to an inmate's participation in temporary work release. Prior to accepting an eligible inmate into the temporary work release program the witness related that the inmate's background is investigated. This process includes a review of available records to determine the existence of outstanding charges or warrants which, according to the witness, is primarily obtained through a review of the inmate's rap sheet and pre-sentence report.

On re-direct examination Ms. Joy testified that should outstanding charges or warrants be discovered during the time an inmate is participating in the work release program governing rules and regulations require that the charges and/or warrants be investigated.

During re-cross examination the witness testified that Family Court warrants pertaining to paternity, alimony or support would not disqualify an inmate from being accepted into the work release program. However, should such warrants be discovered while the inmate is participating in the program, rules and regulations require that the warrants be investigated to determine the appropriateness for his or her continuation in the program.

Correction Law § 855 (9) provides as follows:
Participation in a temporary release program shall be a privilege. Nothing contained in this article may be construed to confer upon any inmate the right to participate, or to continue to participate, in a temporary release program. The superintendent of the institution may at any time, and upon recommendation of the temporary release committee or of the commissioner or of the chairman of the state board of parole or his designee shall, revoke any inmate's privilege to participate in a program of temporary release in accordance with regulations promulgated by the commissioner.
In the case of
Rivera v State of New York, 169 AD2d 885, the Appellate Division, Third Department held with regard to a refusal to grant an inmate leave to make a deathbed visit, a form of temporary release (Correction Law § 855 [3]), that "such participation is a privilege and not a right. . . . Therefore, the Court of Claims properly determined that the refusal to grant claimant leave to visit his mother prior to her death could not form a basis for a claim against the State" (citations omitted). Similarly, it has been held that the removal of an inmate from participation in a work release program does not constitute "a violation of any cognizable legal right" (People ex rel. Feliciano v Waters, 99 AD2d 850). For this reason alone the claim must be dismissed.
The principle of absolute immunity applicable to decisions made by State employees which are quasi-judicial in nature further compels dismissal. Claimant's continued participation in work release was formally suspended by the Temporary Release Committee at Hudson Correctional Facility on February 17, 2000. It is settled that the State is absolutely immune from liability for the decisions of a Temporary Release Committee respecting whether to grant or deny temporary release which require the exercise of "reasoned judgment in balancing the welfare of the applicant and the possible risks to the community" (
Santangelo v State of New York, 101 AD2d 20, 29; see Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212, 217; see also Gress v State of New York, 157 AD2d 479). As these considerations are present in decisions regarding revocation or suspension of an inmate's participation in a work release program the Court finds that the defendant is absolutely immune from liability for the decision of the Temporary Release Committee to suspend claimant's participation in the Hudson Correctional Facility work release program. While these types of decisions are not immune from judicial review (People ex rel. Adler v Beaver, 12 AD3d 1136; Matter of Caban v New York State Dept. of Correctional Servs., 308 AD2d 661; Matter of Young v Temporary Release Comm. of Albion Correctional Facility, 122 AD2d 606), the State is immune from liability in a claim for money damages premised upon such determinations. The defendant's failure to assert the doctrine of absolute immunity does not preclude its application by the Court since "[t]he State's absolute immunity has been regarded as akin to subject matter jurisdiction" (Topal v State of New York, 263 AD2d 414, 415) which may be raised sua sponte by the Court (Lublin v State of New York, 135 Misc 2d 419, affd 135 AD2d 1155, lv denied 71 NY2d 802; Adebambo v State of New York, 181 Misc2d 181; see also Matter of Fry v Village of Tarrytown, 89 NY2d 714).
An analysis of the proof submitted at trial reveals that dismissal is also appropriate on the merits of this case.

7 NYCRR 1900.4 requires that an interviewer shall ensure that an inmate seeking to participate in a temporary release program is not the subject of any outstanding warrants/detainers including Family Court warrants, except those pertaining to alimony, child support or paternity (7 NYCRR 1900.4 [c] [6] [i] [a]). Claimant argues that because the Family Court warrant at issue herein was issued prior to the time that his eligibility for participation in work release was reviewed and determined the warrants should have been discovered and resolved prior to his acceptance into the work release program. However, the warrant at issue here specifically references "support" as the basis for its issuance. There is no proof that the existence of the warrant was unknown to the DOCS employees reviewing claimant's eligibility and it is as likely upon this record that it was known but rightly viewed as not constituting a basis for disqualification under 7 NYCRR 1900.4 (c) (6) (i) (a). With regard to claimant's removal from work release following discovery of the warrant, Exhibit B makes clear that the removal proceeding was based upon a "pending warrant in Brooklyn Family Court from 1996 - Failure to Appear". Although the warrant cites "support" as the basis for its issuance DOCS acted to suspend claimant's participation on the basis of his failure to appear as required in the relevant Family Court proceedings. A bench warrant issued for a failure to appear is not an exception from the provisions of 7 NYCRR 1900.4 (c) (6) and may serve as a basis for an inmate's removal from work release pursuant to 7 NYCRR 1904.1 (c) (14).

As noted above, the Court reserved decision on the defendant's trial motion to dismiss the claim for claimant's failure to prove a prima facie case, that motion is now denied.

For the reasons set forth above the claim is dismissed. The Clerk of the Court shall enter judgment in accord with this decision.


June 14, 2005
Saratoga Springs, New York

HON. FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Judge of the Court of Claims