New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

DOUGAL v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2005-031-530, Claim No. 102893


Synopsis


Claimant failed to demonstrate that assault by correction officers occurred, or that he was injured during the alleged assault. Claim dismissed

Case Information

UID:
2005-031-530
Claimant(s):
ROBERT M. DOUGAL
Claimant short name:
DOUGAL
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
102893
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Claimant's attorney:
ROBERT M. DOUGAL, PRO SE
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
New York State Attorney General
BY: WILLIAM D. LONERGAN, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
April 13, 2005
City:
Rochester
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

.
Decision
Claimant, Robert Dougal, filed claim number 102893 on August 11, 2000 against the State of New York, alleging that he was assaulted by a correction officer, an employee of the Defendant. I conducted a trial on this matter on March 8 and 9, 2005, in Buffalo, New York.

Claimant alleges that on June 30, 1999, at Gowanda Correctional Facility ("Gowanda"), Correction Officer Salvatore Evans assaulted him while he was in the ground floor hallway of the A block, South Tower. Claimant alleges that inmates receiving prescription medication at the infirmary during the 9:00 p. m. movement were held there after the five-minute movement period had ended. Claimant stated that the inmates were then instructed to leave the infirmary in groups of two or three. Claimant alleges that, as he proceeded through the foyer of A Block en route to his cell, he was grabbed from behind by Correction Officer Salvatore Evans and that, at that hour, the hallway was empty, except for Officer James O'Neill, whom Claimant believed to be stationed farther down the hall.

Claimant alleges that, at approximately 9:12 p.m., Officer Evans grabbed his throat and made a statement similar to this: "You know what this is all about." Claimant testified that Officer Evans began roundhouse punching his ribs and then put on gloves, which Claimant believed to be weighted, and continued to hold Claimant's throat with his left hand and to throw punches with his right hand, striking Claimant in the kidney/rib area. In sum, Claimant believed that he was hit 20-25 times. Claimant testified that he heard movement in the empty hallway and saw three other officers whom Evans waved to the scene. According to Claimant, these other officers drew their night sticks and one brandished a can of mace. Claimant stated that, at this point, Officer Evans intensified his beating and allegedly said, "You better say yes if you know what is good for you." Officer Evans then allegedly hit Claimant's head repeatedly against the steel casing of the Parole Office doorway 5 to 11 times. During the alleged beating, Claimant said that his glasses fell to the ground and Officer Evans stepped on them. Claimant stated that the alleged altercation ended when he finally said "Yes" to Officer Evans. He was then allowed to pick up his glasses and go to his cell.

Claimant stated that he proceeded to his cell located on the second floor, south end of A Block, and told Inmate Mauer and his cellmate, Inmate Brown, what had happened. Claimant also used the phone to call his girlfriend. The next morning, Claimant reported the incident to the Chaplain, for whom he worked, and was directed to the medical facility where pictures of him were taken (Exhibit A). Claimant was taken to the Special Housing Unit ("SHU") at 3 p.m. where he allegedly told a female correction officer, identified as Officer Steel, that he was in pain because of the incident. However, Defendant's witness, Lieutenant Karen Howard, pointed out that no female officer named Steel worked at Gowanda at the time of the incident, and that the only officer named Steel employed by the Department of Correctional Services at Gowanda was male, balding and wore glasses.

Claimant testified that, prior to this incident, he had encountered difficulties with Correction Officers Evans, McCormack, O'Donnell, and O'Neill. According to Claimant, these officers harassed him in the days immediately preceding the assault. Specifically, Claimant alleged that the officers improperly went through his legal mail and asked him to get a new name tag for his pants. Claimant also argued that an Inmate Misbehavior Report ("IMR") issued by Officer McCormack for disobeying movement procedure was given to him maliciously (Exhibits C and D). Officers Evans, McCormack, O'Donnell, and O'Neill each testified that they did not harass Claimant in any way.

Officer McCormack and Lieutenant Howard testified that an IMR is automatically issued if an inmate is signed out to a specific location and is found not to be present at that location. Officer McCormack testified that he did not use abusive language or behave maliciously when issuing the IMR. None of the officers recalled the specific incidents that Claimant offered, but explained that it is common procedure to stop inmates who have envelopes in areas other than their cells because they may be transporting contraband. The officers contend that, if they stopped Claimant, they did not read his mail, but rather followed proper procedure which involves scanning the material for an official legal heading and the appropriate name. This is done for security reasons, not harassment, as an inmate is not allowed to possess another's legal mail.

With regard to the name tag, the officers stated that inmates are required to have their names on their clothes for identification and for laundry, offering that it was in the inmates' interest to remind them to secure their name tags so that clothing is not misplaced. The officers stated that they often remind inmates when it is time to receive new iron-on name tags.

In any event, Claimant construed these incidents as harassment and expressed his concerns to his girlfriend, one Susan Yerry. Ms. Yerry wrote letters on Claimant's behalf to the Superintendent at Gowanda (Exhibit 5). In her letters, Ms. Yerry went so far as to say that the officers called Claimant names and that Claimant feared for his life. Ms. Yerry wrote another letter on the night of June 30, 1999, notifying the Commissioner of Claimant's alleged assault. Claimant testified that he called Ms. Yerry right away and told her what had happened.

With regard to the alleged assault itself, each officer testified that they did not recognize or recall Claimant, and that they did not participate in any assault upon him. The officers and Lieutenant Howard all suggest that an attack such as described by Claimant would be logistically impossible. For instance, each stated that inmate movement begins on the hour and ends approximately five minutes thereafter. The movement for the entire facility is directed by officers in a central control center known as the arsenal. Officers in the arsenal announce the movement by two-way radio. Officers McCormack, Evans, O'Donnell, and O'Neill each has specific posts to man during this movement period. These officers are required to man these "movement posts" until movement ends and then proceed directly back to their original posts on housing floors. According to the officers, they are subject to discipline if they are not at their proper posts both during and after movement. Lieutenant Howard stated that, after 5 minutes, the end of a movement is announced by the arsenal over two-way radios. At this point, inmates are not free to move, doors are locked and attendance taken. Officers with movement posts outside are expected to be back to their main post within ten to fifteen minutes. According to Defendant, therefore, Officer Evans would have been on his way back to his post on the sixth floor of B Block or, more likely, already there, when the alleged assault occurred. This conclusion would be much easier to reach if the State had provided the Court with the appropriate officer logbooks.

Frances Allen, a Registered Nurse at Gowanda, explained movement for inmates taking evening medication. Ms. Allen stated that, depending on population, thirty to forty inmates receive medication during the 9:00 p.m. medical distribution call at Gowanda. Because all of the medicine cannot be distributed within the five-minute inmate-movement time frame, it is standard procedure, once the movement has ended, for the medical facility to hold all the inmates in the medical facility until all medicine is distributed and then to have a separate movement, a "medical go-back," during which these inmates are escorted back to their cells. Generally, the medical go-back takes place 20-25 minutes past the hour. Ms. Allen stated that, for security reasons, inmates are never permitted to leave in groups of two or three, as described by Claimant.

On the evening of the alleged incident, Officer O'Neill manned his regular post on the first floor hallway of A block, South Tower, where the alleged incident took place. As part of his duties during an inmate movement, Officer O'Neill ensures that the doors on the floor are locked, especially because the offices located on that floor close shortly after his shift begins. The doors that Officer O'Neill checks include the door in the foyer giving access to the first floor offices, where the alleged attack took place, and the door to the Parole Office, the door against which Officer Evans allegedly banged Claimant's head. Officer O'Neill testified that he would have made sure the doors on the ground floor were locked at approximately 9:00 p.m. and then would have returned to his other post on A-3 South, in the same building, by 9:10 p.m. Officer O'Neill stated quite candidly that if he were late returning to A-3 South, his absence would be noted and other officers would "look for" him. Had Officer O'Neill been in A-3 South at 9:10 p.m., as he testified, Claimant could not have seen him at 9:12 p.m. in the ground floor hallway.

Officer Evans' regular duty in 1999 was as a B-6 "rover." His responsibility was aiding other officers in various situations and supervising inmates on the sixth floor of B block on both the north and south ends. During movement, Officer Evans manned an outdoor post by the main walkway and the fence separating A and B blocks from C and D blocks. After movement, Officer Evans testified that he was required to return to the sixth floor of B block. Officer Evans claimed that he did not open the door separating the foyer from the ground floor hallway of A block, South Tower, and that he does not know if he even had a key to that door. He explained that he is provided only with the keys necessary to perform his duties in B block, and he has never had to open the door in question. Officer Evans testified that he did not threaten or assault Claimant. Officer Evans also explained that, on the date of the incident, officers were not authorized to carry either weighted gloves or mace. Further, Officer Evans and Lieutenant Howard both stated that officers are inspected daily and, if such items were found, the officer would be reprimanded immediately and asked to leave the property. Officer Evans testified that he believed he would lose his job if he possessed such articles.

As a result of the alleged assault, Claimant stated that he has suffered from syrinx, or cysts in the spinal column, in T2 through T4, and in T5 through T10. Claimant also alleges that because of injuries to his neck at C-5 and C-6, he has trouble holding his arms out, suffers from shoulder and arm pain, and has spasms in his arms. Claimant stated that he wears a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator) unit and a transubdermal patch, and takes OxyContin and Fentanyl for pain. Claimant also stated that he takes anti-depressants. Because of his lack of mobility and pain, Claimant can no longer work as a pipe fitter, a job he performed prior to his incarceration.

Registered Nurse Frances Allen examined Claimant at the Gowanda medical facility on July 1, 1999, the day after the alleged assault. Ms. Allen testified that she observed no redness, no limitation of his range of movement, and no other evidence of injury when she examined Claimant that morning. She documented the lack of objective medical findings on the Inmate Accident Report and in Claimant's Ambulatory Heath Record (Exhibits B and G). Ms. Allen stated that, based upon Claimant's description of the nature and duration of the assault, one would expect to find very obvious injuries. Ms. Allen did not observe any injury consistent with Claimant being punched or struck, and Claimant made no complaints as to pain in his scalp or skull. Ms. Allen, who took photographs of Claimant during the course of the examination, did not observe any damage or receive any complaint of damage to Claimant's eyeglasses, and the glasses appear to be intact in the pictures (Exhibit A).

Later that day, Claimant was transferred to Collins Correctional Facility ("Collins") SHU, where he was examined as an incoming draft by Registered Nurse Nicole Gemmill-Stang. Ms. Gemmill-Stang has received training in the identification of wounds at Brooks Memorial Hospital and served on a wound identification team before employment with the Department of Correctional Services. Ms. Gemmill-Stang did not find any evidence of injury to Claimant during the course of her examination other than an innocuous faint bruise smaller than a quarter on his left rib area (Exhibit F). Ms. Gemmill-Stang agreed with Ms. Allen, testifying that extensive injuries would have been readily apparent if Claimant had been punched 20-25 times and had his head banged against the steel casing of a doorway 5 to 11 times. Ms. Allen also stated that, according to Claimant's Ambulatory Health Record dated July, 1999 (Exhibit G), Claimant took pain medication daily for his preexisting chronic back pain, which dated back to at least 1996.

Dr. Cristina Maria Misa, Director of Medical Services at Gowanda, testified on behalf of the State as an expert medical witness (Exhibit K). Dr. Misa's expert opinion, consistent with that of the nurses who examined Claimant after the incident, was that, based upon Claimant's physical condition, the events at issue simply could not have occurred as described by Claimant. Dr. Misa explained that Claimant's first examination took place approximately 13 hours after the alleged assault occurred. At that time, visible purple bruising should have been readily apparent. Dr. Misa also stated that with an assault as described by Claimant, she would expect to see head injuries, such as lacerations, bleeding, edema, or even fractures. In his post-incident examination, Claimant did not complain of any injury to or pain in his head. After the incident, several examinations were done to ensure that Claimant did not have internal injuries. Claimant's lungs were clear; they were not punctured by a broken rib (Exhibit G). Claimant's heart and bones also showed no indication of injury (Exhibit G). Dr. Misa bluntly stated that there is simply no physical evidence that would support Claimant's description of the events. With regard to Claimant's syrinx, Dr. Misa testified that, to her knowledge, and she is admittedly not a neurologist, the causes of syrinx are unclear. Syrinx may be a congenital condition existing from birth, and it may also be caused by trauma. Dr. Misa was careful to state that Claimant suffered from chronic back problems for years before the incident and, without full access to his medical records, she could not offer any objective findings as to the cause of his syrinx.

In situations involving inmate allegations of excessive force by a correction officer, such as here, the credibility of the respective witnesses is often the dispositive factor (
Davis v State of New York, 203 AD2d 234). To determine, in a given instance, whether force was used and, if so, whether the force used was excessive or unreasonable, a Court must examine the specific circumstances confronting the officers or guards (see e.g. Lewis v State of New York, 223 AD2d 800; Quillen v State of New York, 191 AD2d 31; Brown v State of New York, 24 Misc 2d 358).
I find Claimant's assertion that Officer Evans used excessive force without need or provocation lacking in credibility. Several contradictions in Claimant's testimony call his recollection of the events at issue into doubt. These include the identification of the officers present, the alleged damage to his eyeglasses, and the complete lack of objective medical evidence that he suffered any injury whatsoever on the night in question. Had the events of June 30, 1999 unfolded as described by Claimant, one would expect very visible and perhaps life threatening injuries. Claimant's physical condition shortly after the alleged assault, however, showed no indication of any trauma whatsoever. By contrast, I find that the testimony of each of Defendant's witnesses to be both credible and consistent.

I find, therefore, that Claimant has failed to demonstrate a
prima facie cause of action.
Accordingly, Claim Number 102893 is hereby DISMISSED.
Any and all motions on which the Court may have previously reserved decision or which were not previously determined, are hereby denied.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

April 13, 2005
Rochester, New York
HON. RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Judge of the Court of Claims