New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

CULBREATH v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-028-585, Claim No. 109106, Motion No. M-71736


Inmate claimant’s motion for summary judgment is denied, and judgment in favor of the State is granted, where there are no allegations of ministerial error in connection with the disciplinary process that resulted in his confinement to SHU. The fact that there was such error in the cell search on which the decision to bring charges was based does not deprive the State of its absolute immunity (see Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212 [1988]).

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant’s attorney:
Defendant’s attorney:
BY: Joseph F. Romani, Esq.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
October 2, 2006

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


The following papers were read on Claimant’s motion for summary judgment:

1. Notice of Motion and Supporting Affidavit of Jeffrey M. Culbreath, pro se, with annexed Exhibits

2. Affirmation in Opposition of Joseph F. Romani, AAG, with Memorandum of Law

3. Reply Affidavit of Jeffrey M. Culbreath, pro se

Filed papers: Claim; Answer

This action for false imprisonment and “hardships claimant endured relating thereto” arose at Elmira Correctional Facility in November 2002. Following a search of his cell, Claimant was charged with possession of a weapon and subsequently found guilty of this charge following a disciplinary hearing. He was sentenced to 9 months in Special Housing Unit (SHU), along with loss of privileges and good time. The Claim further alleges that during the time Claimant was confined to SHU, at Elmira Correctional Facility and later at Southport Correctional Facility, he was subjected to inhumane conditions and physical injury as a result of the handling he received from Correction Officers.

On May 30, 2003, in an Article 78 proceeding commenced by Claimant, the administrative determination was reversed because of irregularities in the manner in which the cell search had been conducted (Culbreath v Selsky, Supreme Court, County of Chemung, Index No. 03-1104, RJI No. 03-0061-M, O’Brien, J.). Claimant seeks money damages as compensation for the 210 days that he spent in SHU, his loss of privileges during that time, and the mental anguish that he suffered as a result of such confinement (Claim, ¶¶ 18-20).

The Court of Appeals has held that disciplinary decisions and the actions of correction personnel that are prosecutorial or quasi-judicial in nature are protected by absolute immunity (Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212 [1988]), although this immunity is lost if the alleged wrongful actions related to such disciplinary decisions were taken without authority or in violation of governing rules or regulation (Arteaga, supra, at 221). Also, actions that are ministerial in nature are not immunized (Lauer v City of New York, 95 NY2d 95, 99-100 [2000], Tango v Tulevech, 61 NY2d 34, 40-41 [1983]).

Claimant argues that the protection of absolute immunity was lost in this case, because the correction officers who searched his cell violated ministerial rules governing the conduct of cell searches. Even if that is true, however, it merely establishes that the basis of the disciplinary charges was flawed, not that there was any ministerial error in the decision to bring charges, the conduct of the disciplinary hearing, or the imposition of a sentence. It was not the search of Claimant’s cell that led to his confinement in SHU, it was the decision to charge him with unlawful possession of a weapon based on the search, as well as his subsequent conviction and sentencing. In Arteaga, the Court of Appeals made it clear that so long as prison discipline is commenced and carried out in accordance with rules and regulations governing prison disciplinary proceedings, the actions of the State are absolutely immune:
Because of the problems of maintaining security and discipline within correctional facilities, the discretion delegated to the employees and officers is necessarily comprehensive and calls for the exercise of judgment under widely varying conditions. What, if any, disciplinary action to take in a given situation is a matter requiring consideration of broad policies and general objectives in the application of the governing rules and regulations to the particular circumstances. Where some correction officers might think it necessary to confine an inmate, others, because they considered the infraction to be less serious or evaluated the inmate's behavior pattern differently, could reasonably conclude otherwise. Similarly, what some Hearing Officers might regard as barely enough proof to warrant a finding of guilt in a Superintendent's hearing, others might reasonably reject as insufficient.
(72 NY2d at 218-219.) The Court also noted that this absolute immunity protects discretionary and quasi-judicial decisions “even when tainted by improper motives or malice” (id. at 220 n 2). Claimant does not allege that there was any ministerial irregularity in the decision to bring charges against him, the conduct of the hearing, or the sentenced imposed. Consequently, the State is not liable for the period of time that he spent in SHU, even though the conviction was ultimately reversed. Having the conviction expunged from his record is his sole remedy in this situation.

CPLR 3212(b) provides that “[i]f it shall appear that any party other than the moving party is entitled to a summary judgment, the court may grant such judgment without the necessity of a cross-motion.” In this situation, in the absence of any allegation of ministerial error in connection with the disciplinary process that brought about Claimant’s confinement, the actions of the State are protected by absolute immunity, and Claimant will not be able to prevail in this action.

Claimant’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED and, pursuant to CPLR 3212(b), summary judgment is granted in favor of Defendant and Claim No. 109106 is DISMISSED.

October 2, 2006
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims