New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

EDWARDS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-038-120, Claim No. 108774


Synopsis

Inmate's claim for assault by correction officers dismissed after trial. Claimant's version of events - that COs repeatedly slammed his hands and arms in a feedup slot without provocation less credible than defendant's version of events - that claimant was sticking his hands through the feedup slot and failed to follow a direct order to withdraw his hands into cell. Degree of force used by correction officers found to be reasonable under the circumstances

Case Information

UID:
2008-038-120
Claimant(s):
MALIK EDWARDS
Claimant short name:
EDWARDS
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
108774
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
W. BROOKS DeBOW
Claimant’s attorney:
MALIK EDWARDS, Pro se
Defendant’s attorney:
ANDREW M. CUOMO, Attorney General of the State of New York
By: Michael C. Rizzo, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
November 14, 2008
City:
Albany
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

.
Decision

Claimant, an individual incarcerated in a State correctional facility, filed this claim on January 14, 2004, seeking damages for injuries sustained during an alleged assault by correction officers at Upstate Correctional Facility (CF) on November 16, 2003. The trial of this claim was conducted by videoconference on August 19, 2008, with the parties appearing at Clinton CF in Dannemora, New York and the Court sitting in Saratoga Springs, New York. Claimant offered his own testimony and the testimony of New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) Correction Officer (CO) Ronald Kocsis and CO Jeremy McGaw; defendant offered no witnesses. Claimant offered one document into evidence, which was received in evidence. Defendant offered eight documents into evidence, all of which were received in evidence. On November 16, 2003, claimant and his cellmate were in their cell at Upstate CF when they received “regular trays”[1] of food through the “feed up hatch”[2] to their cell. It was soon realized that claimant and his cellmate were not supposed to receive regular trays since they were both observing Ramadan, so an unidentified correction officer retrieved the two regular trays from claimant and his cellmate. The ensuing events were the subject of considerable dispute at trial.

According to claimant, CO McGaw returned with Ramadan meal trays, opened the feed up hatch door and was prepared to slide a tray through the hatch when CO Marlow told CO McGaw that claimant and his cellmate had already received meals and that they should not receive the meals. CO McGaw then “snatched” the food tray back from claimant’s hand and slammed the feed up hatch door shut on claimant’s right hand, which was caught in the hatch opening. Claimant began screaming and his cellmate pushed open the feed up hatch door in an effort to help claimant remove his hand from the hatch opening. CO McGaw called for other correction officers and CO Marlow responded and placed pressure on the feed up hatch door, pulled claimant’s hand outwardly from the cell, and banged the hatch door on claimant’s arm. Several other correction officers then responded and assisted CO Marlow in pulling claimant’s hand out of the hatch opening, banging the feed up hatch door on claimant’s arm, and screamed derogatory epithets about claimant’s faith. The correction officers eventually released the hatch door and allowed claimant to pull his injured arm back into the cell.

According to defendant’s evidence, CO McGaw, who was in charge of handing out Ramadan meal trays that day, arrived at claimant’s cell and asked claimant and his cellmate whether they had received regular trays, to which claimant responded that they had and that the trays had been given back. CO McGaw does not recall whether he had Ramadan meal trays with him ready to give to claimant and his cellmate, but the feed up hatch door was open. CO McGaw told claimant and his cellmate that he would have to check with Sergeant Sawyer as to whether they would be getting Ramadan food trays. CO McGaw then attempted to close the feed up hatch door, but both claimant and his cellmate pushed the hatch door and stuck their hands out the hatch opening. CO McGaw continued to attempt to close the hatch door by applying pressure to the door while giving multiple direct orders to claimant and his cellmate to pull their hands back into the cell. CO McGaw called for help on his radio and CO Kocsis responded and assisted CO McGaw in attempting to secure the hatch door by placing pressure on the door while forcing the arms of claimant and his cellmate back into their cell. Sergeant Sawyer responded and joined CO McGaw in giving claimant and his cellmate several direct orders to pull their hands back into the cell, but they continued to refuse to obey. COs Eaton and Marlow responded and ultimately were successful in assisting COs McGaw and Kocsis in getting claimant and his cellmate to pull their arms into the cell and securing the hatch. Sergeant Sawyer noted in his “Use of Force” report after the incident that some inappropriate comments were made during this incident.

The use of physical force against an inmate in the DOCS custody is permissible when an inmate resists or disobeys a lawful direction of a DOCS employee (Correction Law § 137 [5]). However, when using physical force, a DOCS employee may use only the degree of force as is reasonably necessary (7 NYCRR § 251-1.2 [b]). Further, a DOCS employee may not use physical force unless the employee believes that the physical force used is reasonably necessary for self-defense, to prevent personal or property injury, to enforce compliance with a lawful directive, or to quell a disturbance (7 NYCRR § 251-1.2[d]). The State may be held liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior when a State employee’s use of force is determined to be more than necessary or excessive (see Jones v State of New York, 33 NY2d 275 [1973]; Stein v State of New York, 53 AD2d 988 [3d Dept 1976]). Whether the force used was excessive is a question of fact to be decided upon consideration of the background and all of the circumstances confronting the employee (see Lewis v State of New York, 223 AD2d 800 [3d Dept 1996]; Hinton v City of New York, 13 AD2d 475 [1st Dept 1961]). The credibility of witnesses to the event may be crucial to a determination of whether excessive force was used (see Davis v State of New York, 203 AD2d 234 [2d Dept 1994]).

In this claim, the witnesses who testified at trial provided the Court with dramatically different versions of the events at issue. On the one hand, claimant would have the Court believe that CO McGaw and other correction officers engaged in an unprovoked attack on him. On the other hand, the testimony of defendant’s witnesses and other documentary evidence paint a picture of force employed against claimant as the result of the disobeyance of lawful orders. After listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, and upon consideration of that evidence and other evidence adduced at trial, the Court concludes that the version of events advanced by defendant’s evidence is more credible than claimant’s version. In particular, the Court found the testimony of COs McGaw and Kocsis to be more credible than claimant’s testimony.

Moreover, the Court finds that the force used by the correction officers to force claimant’s arm into the cell and secure the hatch door was reasonable under the circumstances. CO Kocsis testified that the presence of an inmate’s arm through the feed up hatch opening and out of his cell poses a security risk to correction personnel as an inmate could grab or otherwise do harm to a correction officer. In view of this security risk, claimant was ordered several times to pull his arm into his cell, and he refused several times to obey this lawful directive. The Court finds that in light of claimant’s noncompliance and the threat posed by the situation, defendant’s employees used a reasonable amount of force to require claimant to comply with the orders to pull his hands back into the cell and to secure the hatch door.
Accordingly, the Court finds in favor of defendant. Any motions not previously ruled upon are hereby DENIED. The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of defendant, dismissing the claim.
Let judgment be entered accordingly.
November 14, 2008
Albany, New York
HON. W. BROOKS DEBOW
Judge of the Court of Claims

[1].
All quotations are to the Court’s trial notes or the digital audio recording of the trial, unless otherwise indicated.
[2]. The feed up hatch is a rectangular 8 inch x 16 inch opening in the cell that is secured by a door with a latch on top that is locked on the outside of the cell.