New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

JOHNSON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-016-002, Claim No. 105978


Case Information

KENNETH JOHNSON The caption has been amended to reflect that the sole proper defendant is the State of New York.
Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :
The caption has been amended to reflect that the sole proper defendant is the State of New York.
Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

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

Cross-motion number(s):

Alan C. Marin
Claimant's attorney:
Kenneth Johnson, Pro se
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney GeneralBy: Geoffrey Rossi, Esq., AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
January 25, 2006
New York

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This decision follows the trial of the claim of Kenneth Johnson, which was held at Sullivan Correctional Facility.

Mr. Johnson testified that on February 11, 2002, while he was incarcerated at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, one of his family members called the facility to advise that his mother had died, and was told that there was no chaplain or counselor available to "handle" such information. Claimant said that the next day, February 12
th, when he happened to call home on an unrelated matter, he was told that his mother had died, that the funeral was to be held in Pennsylvania on the 17th, and that family members "had called the facility [the day before] . . . [and they were upset] that I [hadn't called] home." Claimant recalled that after the phone call, he attempted to see a chaplain or counselor, but was not able to do so that day.
Johnson said that on February 13
th, a family member called back and spoke to Senior Counselor Thomas Briggs, "who never contacted the Chaplain or . . . anybody. No one ever told me, watch commander, no one ever told me anything. No one came and allowed me a phone call . . . they never allowed anything to be done in terms of making arrangements for a funeral visit
. . . on the fifteenth, I finally got in contact with . . . counselor . . . Briggs." According to claimant, on the 15th, Briggs "somehow got in touch with the Chaplain, who knew about the death in my family. They took me to the Chaplain, I spoke with the Chaplain, he gave me a . . . two minute phone call and . . . they told my family that I couldn't have come to . . . the funeral anyway because it wasn't in the State of New York . . . so, I wrote . . . a grievance." Johnson continued that, "eventually, the outcome was that a letter was written to my family, apologizing for the . . . administrative mistake . . . "
* * *
Thomas Briggs, a senior counselor at Woodbourne, testified that he received a telephone call from claimant's uncle on February 13, 2002, after the uncle had already informed claimant of his mother's death. Briggs recalled being asked by the uncle if claimant could attend the funeral. Briggs said that he asked where the funeral was to be held, and when the uncle told him it would be in Philadelphia, Briggs advised him that inmates were not permitted to attend funerals outside the State of New York. Briggs said that he had no additional contact with claimant's uncle after such conversation. He also maintained that he had not been called by claimant's uncle on the 11
Briggs testified that after the phone call, he "checked who the counselor was for [claimant] . . . I told the counselor . . . that I'd been notified . . by [claimant's] uncle that his mom had passed away and asked the counselor if she would please go see the inmate." He added that, "what was important at that point in time . . . from my standpoint, was to have the counselor see [claimant] . . ." It was unclear from Briggs' testimony (and from claimant's), whether Johnson ultimately did see such counselor, and if so, when.
* * *
At trial, Johnson said he was not arguing that he should have been able to attend his mother's funeral, but rather that the State mishandled the notification process. He cited Department of Correctional Services Directive 4306 (claimant's exhibit 2), which states in relevant part as follows:
  1. PURPOSE. To establish Policy and Procedure for the timely notification to an inmate of grave illness or death of a family member.
  1. TELEPHONE RECEPTION. During business hours, the facility switchboard operator or watch commander shall refer calls regarding grave illness or death of an inmate's relative to an on-duty chaplain. If a chaplain is unavailable, a senior correction counselor should receive the call.
During non-business hours, the watch commander is to obtain the pertinent information, including the caller's telephone number, and immediately contact a chaplain or a senior counselor.
. . .
If there is conclusive evidence of relationship, the chaplain or senior counselor meets with the inmate as quickly as practicable to give him/her the information . . .

Claimant's exhibit 1 contains a copy of a February 27, 2002 letter from Superintendent John P. Keane to Mr. William Brown, which states as follows:
Deputy Superintendent Carrillo and I met with your nephew, Kenneth Johnson, today and expressed our condolences on the recent death of his mother and your sister. I also explained to him that there was an administrative error made here at this facility which resulted in him not being notified in a timely manner of your telephone call. My staff and I are sensitive to the serious nature of your phone call and appropriate steps have been taken so that this does not happen again.
Once again, our condolences and if you have any questions, call or write Deputy Superintendent Elias Carrillo or I.
* * *
Assuming, in view of the foregoing, that there was a violation of Directive 4306 in this case, the only cause of action asserted by claimant is, in effect, an allegation of negligent infliction of emotional distress. In order to prevail on such cause of action, claimant would be required to demonstrate that defendant's conduct unreasonably endangered his physical safety. There are two exceptions to this rule -- where a corpse was negligently mishandled, or where untruthful information regarding death was transmitted, which did not occur in this case.
Johnson v State of New York, 37 NY2d 378, 372 NYS2d 638 (1975).
Accordingly, claim no. 105978 is dismissed. The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

January 25, 2006
New York, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims