New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
ROBERTS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-038-102, Claim No. 125532

Synopsis

Case information

UID: 2020-038-102
Claimant(s): SHAWN ROBERTS
Claimant short name: ROBERTS
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 125532
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: W. BROOKS DeBOW
Claimant's attorney: SHAWN ROBERTS, Pro se
Defendant's attorney: LETITIA JAMES, Attorney General
of the State of New York
By: Heather R. Rubinstein, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: January 15, 2020
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant, an individual incarcerated in a State correctional facility, filed this claim seeking compensation for wrongful confinement in keeplock at Green Haven Correctional Facility (CF) for five days commencing on December 19, 2014. The trial of this claim was conducted by videoconference on December 5, 2019, with the parties appearing at Green Haven CF in Stormville, New York and the Court sitting in Albany, New York. Claimant presented his own testimony and offered two exhibits that were received into evidence. Defendant called no witnesses and did not offer any documentary exhibits. After listening to and observing claimant's demeanor as he testified, and upon consideration of his testimony and all the other evidence received at trial, the applicable law, and the arguments of the parties at trial, the Court concludes that defendant is entitled to absolute immunity for the actions of its agents.

FACTS

On December 19, 2014, Correction Officer (CO) E. DeJesus authored an inmate misbehavior report (IMR) charging claimant with violating five Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) rules related to an incident that occurred in the J-Gate Corridor at Green Haven CF on that date. CO DeJesus described the incident as follows:

"On December 19, 2014 at approximately 2:35 p.m. while exiting disciplinary to go to my next post, I heard a commotion in the hall. There was a group of approximately 60 inmates that were exiting J-School. At this time the west side runner had pulled two inmates from the group. The westside runner asked for my assistance to escort the group of inmates to B&C Corridor. As I attempted to escort the group, 5 inmates including [claimant] refused to move. [Claimant] was given several direct orders to keep moving. He refused and stated that he was waiting for his boys. I gave him another direct order to keep moving towards B&C Corridor. [Claimant] then complied but moved at a very slow pace still turning to look behind. [Claimant's] actions interfered with me making my relief for my next job assignment."

(Claimant's Exhibit 1). Claimant was charged in the IMR with violating DOCCS Rule 106.10 for refusing a direct order, Rule 104.13 for creating a disturbance, Rule 109.12 for a movement regulation violation, Rule 104.12 for making a demonstration, and Rule 107.10 for interference with an employee. The IMR was endorsed by W. Freeman and A. Langer as employee-witnesses (see id.). Claimant testified that he was confined to keeplock on December 19, 2014 pending the disciplinary hearing on the charges in the IMR.

Claimant testified that he was working in the Green Haven CF law library until 2:30 p.m. on December 19, 2014 and was not present in the corridor when the incident occurred. Claimant testified that CO McNeil was present in the law library on December 19, 2014, that he called CO McNeil as a witness at the disciplinary hearing on the charges in the IMR, and that CO McNeil testified at the disciplinary hearing that claimant was present in the law library on December 19, 2014 until 2:30 p.m. and could not have been present in the corridor at the time of the incident. In dismissing the charges in the IMR on December 24, 2014, the hearing officer relied upon CO McNeil's testimony, which "contradict[ed] the [IMR]" inasmuch as CO McNeil testified "that [claimant] was with him on [the] date and time alleged [in the IMR] and could not possibly be involved" (Claimant's Exhibit 2). Claimant testified that although CO DeJesus was "one of the better"(1) COs at Green Haven CF, he believed that she was told to write IMRs for the incident, that she did not know the identities of the five inmates that refused to move in the corridor and she randomly picked claimant and other inmates to receive IMRs, and that the IMRs that were issued to the other four inmates were likewise dismissed. Claimant testified that he believed that he was randomly picked by CO DeJesus because his name was on a document that indicated that claimant's assigned program that day was at J-school. Claimant testified that he was released from keeplock on December 24, 2014.

DISCUSSION

In the context of the prison disciplinary process, where defendant's "employees act under the authority of and in full compliance with the governing statutes and regulations (Correction Law  112, 137; 7 NYCRR parts 250-254), their actions constitute discretionary conduct of a quasi-judicial nature for which the State has absolute immunity" (Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212, 214 [1988]). Thus, "unless the [correctional] employees exceed the scope of their authority or violate the governing statutes and regulations [relating to the prison disciplinary process], the State has absolute immunity for those actions" (Holloway v State of New York, 285 AD2d 765, 765 [3d Dept 2001]). Not all violations of DOCCS rules governing the disciplinary process will result in the abrogation of the State's absolute immunity, only those that violate an inmate's right to due process (see Arteaga, 72 NY2d at 221). Where the State has lost its absolute immunity, a claimant must still prove all the elements of a cause of action for unlawful confinement, namely "that the defendant intended to confine the [claimant], that the [claimant] was conscious of the confinement and did not consent to the confinement, and that the confinement was not otherwise privileged" (Martinez v City of Schenectady, 97 NY2d 78, 85 [2001]; see Broughton v State of New York, 37 NY2d 451, 456 [1975], cert denied sub nom. Schanbarger v Kellogg, 423 US 929 [1975]).

After claimant rested his case, defendant moved to dismiss the claim on the ground that defendant's agents followed all applicable protocols during the disciplinary process, that claimant had received due process, and that therefore claimant's pre-hearing confinement was lawful. In opposition, claimant argued that CO DeJesus violated the DOCCS rule that required her to ascertain the facts of the incident prior to the issuance of the IMR, and that his due process rights were violated. After defendant rested, defendant renewed its motion to dismiss, which claimant opposed. The Court reserved decision on both motions.

DOCCS regulations provide that a "misbehavior report shall be made by the employee who has observed the incident or who has ascertained the facts of the incident" (7 NYCRR 251-3.1 [b]). Claimant asserts that CO DeJesus violated 7 NYCRR 251-3.1 (b) in this instance because she did not have factual knowledge of the events giving rise to the IMR, and that his due process rights were violated because he was confined on an IMR that was untrue inasmuch as he was nowhere near the area when the incident occurred.

Here, claimant does not dispute that there was an incident in the J-Gate Corridor on December 19, 2014 during which five inmates refused CO DeJesus's direction to move, nor does he argue that CO DeJesus did not observe that incident. Rather, claimant argues that he was not one of the five inmates involved in the incident, and, as a result, CO DeJesus did not ascertain the facts of the incident before issuing claimant the IMR in contravention of 7 NYCRR 251-3.1 (b). However, 7 NYCRR 251-3.1 (b) is written in the alternative, that is, it requires that a misbehavior report be written either by "the employee who has observed the incident or who has ascertained the facts of the incident" (emphasis added). Here, the evidence fairly establishes that CO DeJesus observed the incident that formed the basis of the IMR against claimant, and thus there was no violation of 7 NYCRR 251-3.1 (b).

Turning to claimant's argument that his due process rights were violated, New York federal courts have held that although "a prison inmate has no general constitutional right to be free from being falsely accused in a misbehavior report" (Boddie v Schnieder, 105 F3d 857, 862 [2d Cir 1997]), an inmate does have "the right not to be deprived of a protected liberty interest without due process of law" (Freeman v Rideout, 808 F2d 949, 951 [2d Cir 1986], rehearing denied 826 F2d 194 [2d Cir 1987], cert denied 485 US 982 [1988]). Thus, the issuance of a false IMR "by itself, does not create a due process violation because '[t]here must be more, such as retaliation against the prisoner for exercising a constitutional right' " (Flemings v Kinney, 2004 WL 1672448, *3 [SDNY 2004], quoting Boddie, 105 F3d at 862) or denial of "procedural protections . . . that would have allowed the inmate to expose the falsity of the evidence against him" (Faison v Janicki, 2007 WL 529310, *4 [WDNY 2007]).

Here, claimant was afforded the opportunity at the disciplinary hearing to demonstrate the falsity of the IMR issued against him by CO DeJesus and indeed, he was able to do so through the hearing testimony of CO McNeil. Thus, the fact that CO DeJesus misidentified claimant in the IMR as one of the five inmates in the corridor that day - even if by design(2) - is of no moment inasmuch as claimant was allowed to challenge the IMR at the disciplinary hearing, and thus there was no violation of any due process safeguards (see Freeman v Rideout, 808 F2d at 953 [no actionable constitutional cause of action arising from false disciplinary charges against inmate where the inmate "was granted a hearing, and was afforded the opportunity to rebut the charges against him"]; see also Arteaga, 72 NY2d at 227-228 [Simons, J., dissenting] ["an inmate has no constitutional claim for being falsely or wrongly accused of conduct that has resulted in a deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty interest by being placed in a special housing unit or solitary confinement provided the inmate is afforded with the minimum requirements of due process required for prison disciplinary matters"], citing Freeman, 808 F2d 949).

In sum, claimant has not established a due process violation that would strip defendant of its absolute immunity from liability, and thus defendant is not liable to claimant.

CONCLUSION

The evidence fails to establish that defendant's agents exceeded the scope of their authority or violated a DOCCS rule implicating claimant's due process rights in confining him. Thus, defendant is entitled to absolute immunity for the actions of its agents. Accordingly, claim number 125532 is DISMISSED. Any motions not previously ruled upon are hereby DENIED.

The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

January 15, 2020

Saratoga Springs, New York

W. BROOKS DeBOW

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are to the audio recording of the trial of this claim.

2. The Court declines to credit claimant's self-serving and speculative testimony that he believed that CO DeJesus had randomly picked claimant and four other inmates to receive IMRs and that the IMRs for the other four inmates were dismissed. Notably, claimant failed to call CO DeJesus and the other two employee witnesses, Freeman and Langer, to establish that he was knowingly falsely charged, nor did he introduce the disciplinary dispositions of the other four inmates. Thus, the evidence does not establish one way or the other whether claimant was falsely or mistakenly misidentified by CO DeJesus in the IMR.