New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

ADAMS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-031-525, Claim No. 109295


Claimant demonstrated that the failure to investigate another inmate’s refusal to testify violated his right to due process at his inmate disciplinary hearing. However, as the record contains no evidence that the violation altered the outcome of the hearing, the claim is dismissed

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:
New York State Attorney General
BY: HEATHER R. RUBINSTEIN, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
November 21, 2006

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant, James Adams, filed claim 109295 on May 3, 2004, alleging that he was illegally confined following a Tier III disciplinary hearing at Auburn Correctional Facility (“Auburn”). I conducted the trial of this matter on July 26, 2006, at Auburn.
Claimant testified that he was placed in the Special Housing Unit (“SHU”) after allegedly assaulting another inmate (Rolando Coronado, 84-B-0698) at Auburn on August 15, 2003. The assault was witnessed by correction officers. When Claimant met with his assistant in preparation for the disciplinary hearing, he said that he wanted to call Mr. Coronado to testify. Mr. Coronado initially indicated that he would testify on Claimant’s behalf; however, on the day of the hearing, August 20, 2003, Mr. Coronado refused to testify and signed a refusal form. Claimant was found guilty at the hearing and given two years in SHU. Claimant appealed, alleging that he thought the refusal form was forged, and asserting that the signature looked nothing like Rolando Coronado and appeared to start with a “J.” He also alleged that the hearing officer should have personally interviewed Mr. Coronado to ascertain the reasons for his refusal. (Mr. Coronado had simply circled a section on the form which said that he did not wish to be involved).
The hearing determination was originally administratively affirmed, but later, after intervention from Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, the hearing was administratively reversed on January 8, 2004. Claimant was released on January 26, 2004 after serving 164 days in SHU.
Claimant’s position at trial was that the hearing officer’s failure to investigate Coronado’s refusal to testify effectively denied him due process at the hearing. I agree. Case law developed in this area clearly demonstrates that the hearing officer had a duty to investigate Coronado’s refusal to testify. In Matter of Barnes v LeFevre (69 NY2d 649, 650), the Court of Appeals determined that
“[t]he hearsay report of a correction officer that a witness refuses to testify unaccompanied by any reason from the witness proffered to the hearing officer for such refusal is not a sufficient basis upon which an inmate’s conditional right to call witnesses can be summarily denied.”

This decision has been cited in various other cases that have determined that a witness’s signature on a witness refusal form is also not sufficient. Citing Barnes, the Appellate Division, Second Department, stated in Matter of Silva v Scully (138 AD2d 717, 719),
“the respondents had the responsibility of making a meaningful effort to secure the testimony of requested inmate witnesses. The mere fact that a witness checked a box indicating he did not want to get involved is an insufficient reason to justify the failure to obtain the witness’s testimony without further inquiry”

(see also Matter of Hylton v Lord, 148 AD2d 453). I find, therefore, that Defendant violated its own regulation, 7 NYCRR § 254.5, which entitles an inmate to call witnesses at their disciplinary hearing.
However, as stated by the Honorable Richard E. Sise, in the very similar case of Rivera v State of New York (Ct Cl, February 8, 2006 [Claim No. 102781], UID #2006-028-008),
“Before a violation of one of the rules or regulations governing prison disciplinary hearings can become the basis for an award of money damages from the State, it must be established that the violation caused actual injury to the inmate.”

Judge Sise went on to dismiss the claim in Rivera, as there was no evidence produced which indicated that the underlying disciplinary hearing would have had a different result if the witness had testified.
Here, as in Rivera, I find that the record is completely devoid of any evidence that the hearing determination would have been altered had Mr. Coronado testified. In fact, the evidence appears to indicate that the hearing determination would have been the same. Although the hearing transcript itself was not offered into evidence, the claim in this matter indicates that the incident was witnessed by correction officers. Moreover, at the trial of this matter, evidence was admitted indicating that Mr. Coronado refused to testify as he feared for his safety from Claimant. There is also reason to believe, based upon the fight between the two inmates being witnessed, that Mr. Coronado would not have willingly testified favorably for Claimant as any testimony that would exonerate Claimant would have incriminated Coronado (see Silva v Casey, 992 F2d 20).
Claimant’s failure to offer any proof whatsoever that, if Mr. Coronado had testified, Claimant would not have been found guilty is fatal to his claim. The claim is, therefore, dismissed.

November 21, 2006
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims