New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
BEST v. NEW YORK STATE, # 2020-038-589, Claim No. 134651, Motion No. M-96136, Cross-Motion No. CM-96195

Synopsis

Defendant's cross motion to dismiss the claim granted. The claim failed to comply with Court of Claims Act 11 (b) as it did not allege the time when the claim arose, and the Court thus lacks jurisdiction over the claim. Claimant's motion for a default judgment denied as moot.

Case information

UID: 2020-038-589
Claimant(s): TIMOTHY BEST
Claimant short name: BEST
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): NEW YORK STATE
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 134651
Motion number(s): M-96136
Cross-motion number(s): CM-96195
Judge: W. BROOKS DeBOW
Claimant's attorney: TIMOTHY BEST, Pro se
Defendant's attorney: LETITIA JAMES, Attorney General
of the State of New York
By: Anthony Rotondi, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: December 22, 2020
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant, an individual formerly incarcerated in a county correctional facility, filed this claim alleging violations of his rights under the New York State Constitution and Correction Law 24 when defendant's employees failed to grant him conditional release from his incarceration at the Ulster County Jail.(1) Claimant now moves for a default judgment on the claim. Defendant opposes the motion, and cross moves to dismiss the claim on jurisdictional grounds. Claimant opposes the cross motion.

The claim alleges that claimant was deprived of his "rights to life and liberty without the due process of law and . . . to equal protection of law" under the New York State Constitution and that his rights under Correction Law 24 were violated when defendant's agents - namely, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci and "Ms. Taylor Vogt Internal Operations" - "enforc[ed] a local conditional release program that allow[ed] the release of felon[y] inmates and no release of misdemeanor inmates" such as claimant (Claim No. 134651, 2). The claim alleges that claimant "applied for but never recieved [sic] or was considered for local conditional release because [he] was [a] misdemeanor offender rather than a felony offender" (id.). The claim alleges that as a result, claimant "was forced to complete 160 days of incarceration" at the Ulster County Jail and seeks $32,000 in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages (id. at 5).

The Court will address defendant's cross motion first inasmuch as it implicates the Court's jurisdiction to entertain the claim. Defendant argues that the Court lacks jurisdiction over the constitutional causes of action asserted in the claim (see Rotondi Affirmation, 19), and that the claim fails to state a cause of action for wrongful confinement or to comply with the jurisdictional pleading requirements of Court of Claims Act 11 (b) inasmuch as it "fails to set forth the elements of wrongful confinement, wrongful imprisonment or any other tort" and "does little else than assert vague allegations of violations of Constitutional rights and irrelevant statutes" (id. at 20). Defendant further argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the claim because it fails to include an accrual date or "to allege when Claimant believes he should have been released from Ulster County Jail or even when he was released from Ulster County Jail" (id. at 21). Finally, defendant argues that the exhibits included with claimant's motion for a default judgment "establish[] . . . Defendant's entitlement to dismissal of the claim" because they show that defendant's employees "exercised discretion in denying Claimant's application for the Local Conditional Release program, setting forth the reasons for such denial," and that the State is thus immune from liability because "determinations relating to parole are discretionary, quasi-judicial determinations for which the State is absolutely immune from liability" (id. at 22-23).

In opposition to the cross motion, claimant argues that defendant is liable for the "illegal activities" of its employees at DOCCS, who violated claimant's rights under the state constitution and state civil rights laws "through gross misconduct and gross negligence" (Best Notice of Motion in Opposition, pg. 2). Claimant argues that defendant claims to release misdemeanor offenders at the Ulster County Jail to conditional release but fails to do so, which violates "their own policies" (id.).

Insofar as defendant argues that the Court lacks jurisdiction over the claim to the extent that it alleges violations of claimant's rights under the 14th Amendment to the federal constitution (see Rotondi Affirmation, 8, 19; Claim No. 134651, 2 ["civil rights 14 amendment"]), defendant is correct that the Court lacks jurisdiction over any federal constitutional claims asserted therein, which must be brought in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 (see Brown v State of New York, 89 NY2d 172, 184-185 [1996]; Lyles v State of New York, 2 AD3d 694, 696 [2d Dept 2003], affd 3 NY3d 396 [2004]). However, the claim also asserts that claimant's rights to due process and equal protection under the New York State Constitution, and not the federal constitution, were violated when defendant's employees failed to consider his application for the local conditional release program (see Claim No. 134651, 2), and claimant clarifies in his opposition to the cross motion that his claim sounds in violations of the "NYS Constitution and civil rights laws, not the Federal Constitution and civil rights [laws]" (Best Notice of Motion in Opposition, pg. 2). Because defendant has not sought dismissal of the claim insofar as it asserts causes of action pursuant to the state constitution, it will not be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Turning to defendant's argument that the claim must be dismissed because it fails to comply with the jurisdictional pleading requirements contained in the Court of Claims Act, which require, among other things, that "[t]he claim shall state the time when and place where such claim arose, [and] the nature of same" (Court of Claims Act 11 [b]), it is well settled that the pleading must set forth sufficient facts to satisfy each of the pleading requirements set forth in Court of Claims Act 11 (b) (see Kolnacki v State of New York, 8 NY3d 277, 280-281 [2007], rearg denied 8 NY3d 994 [2007]), and the failure to do so is a fatal defect in subject matter jurisdiction requiring dismissal of the claim (see Lepkowski v State of New York, 1 NY3d 201, 209 [2003]; see also Kolnacki, 8 NY3d at 281). The purpose of the pleading requirements of Court of Claims Act 11 (b) is "to enable the State . . . to investigate the claim[s] promptly and to ascertain its liability under the circumstances" (Lepkowski, 1 NY3d at 207 [internal quotation marks omitted]). "Although absolute exactness is not required, the claim must provide a sufficiently detailed description of the particulars of the claim . . . [and] defendant is not required to ferret out or assemble information that section 11 (b) obligates the claimant to allege" (Morra v State of New York, 107 AD3d 1115, 1115-1116 [3d Dept 2013] [internal quotations and citations omitted]). As noted above, defendant argues that the claim fails to satisfy the statutory requirements in two respects, namely, that it fails to sufficiently allege the nature of the claim and that it fails to include a proper accrual date or any date indicating when claimant was or believes he should have been released from the custody of the Ulster County Jail.

The Court disagrees with defendant that claimant has failed to sufficiently allege the nature of the claim. It is apparent from the face of the claim that it alleges that claimant was wrongfully confined in the Ulster County Jail for 160 days after his application for conditional release was denied by defendant's employees in violation of his due process and equal protection rights under the state constitution based upon his status as a misdemeanor - rather than a felony - offender. In the Court's view, those allegations are sufficiently detailed to allow defendant to investigate the claim and to ascertain its liability, and the claim will not be dismissed for failure to allege the nature of the claim as required by Court of Claims Act 11 (b).

Regarding defendant's further argument that the claim fails to allege the time when the claim arose because it lacks a proper accrual date, although the timeliness of a claim is measured from the date of accrual, the jurisdictional pleading requirements of the Court of Claims Act require that the claim contain allegations as to when it arose (see Green v State of New York, 65 Misc 3d 543, 546 [Ct Cl 2019]; Walker v State of New York, UID No. 2020-038-522, n 4 [Ct Cl, DeBow, J., Feb. 25, 2020]), and thus the lack of a proper accrual date, in and of itself, is not a ground for dismissal of the claim. However, here, the claim alleges only a single date, December 24, 2019, upon which claimant allegedly exhausted his administrative remedies with respect to the denial of his application for conditional release (see Claim No. 134651, 2, 4). As defendant correctly argues, the claim contains no other pertinent dates, such as the dates of claimant's incarceration in the Ulster County Jail, the date upon which he sought to be conditionally released, the date of the denial of his application for conditional release, or the date upon which he was actually released. In the absence of any allegations to indicate when the claim arose, it must be dismissed as jurisdictionally defective.

Moreover, the causes of action sounding in negligence and state constitutional tort must be dismissed because defendant is immune from liability in denying claimant conditional release, for the reasons that follow. Claimant has attached to his motion for default judgment a December 18, 2019 letter from Taylor Vogt from DOCCS Internal Operations addressing his application for conditional release. In the letter, Vogt stated that it would "be [her] last time addressing [claimant's] Local Conditional Release Application" and explained that an inmate who was deemed "preliminarily eligible" would not be automatically released, but that a process would then take place that "involve[d] the inmate being interviewed by the Parole Officer, a Parole Board Report being completed, documents being gathered, and a case folder [being] compiled" (Best Affidavit in Support [M-96136], Exhibit C [Vogt Correspondence, dated Dec. 18, 2019]). Vogt further explained that DOCCS then would "solicit responses from the Judge, Defense Attorney and the District Attorney's office" regarding the conditional release application and was required to wait 21 days for any responses before moving the case folder "to the next step" (id.). Vogt stated that once the case folder had been compiled and the 21-day period had passed, the Board of Parole would review claimant's application as required under Executive Law 259-i and "make[] the final determination as to whether [the] applicant should be released to parole supervision," which she emphasized was "not an automatic decision" (id.). Vogt then informed claimant: "I stand by my original decision to deny your application from processing any further due to the limited time left to serve on your local sentence" (id.).

According to Article 70 of the Penal Law, an individual convicted of any misdemeanor shall be sentenced to a definite term of imprisonment (see Penal Law 70.15 [1], [2], [3]). The Penal Law further provides, as relevant here, that an individual serving a determinate sentence in excess of 90 days "may, if he or she so requests, be conditionally released . . . at any time after service of sixty days of that term," that "[c]onditional release . . . shall be in the discretion of the parole board" and "shall be upon such conditions as may be imposed by the parole board, in accordance with the provisions of the executive law" (Penal Law 70.40 [2] [emphasis added]). Thus, as the Third Department has stated, "the determination of whether to grant an inmate conditional release is a discretionary one" (Matter of Lynch v Annucci, 151 AD3d 1148, 1150 [3d Dept 2017], lv denied 29 NY3d 918 [2017] [emphasis added]). It is well settled that defendant is entitled to governmental immunity for the discretionary decisions of DOCCS and its employees (see e.g. Pryor v State of New York, 92 AD3d 1047, 1048 [3d Dept 2012]), and that "discretionary or quasi-judicial acts involve the exercise of reasoned judgment which could typically produce different acceptable results whereas a ministerial act envisions direct adherence to a governing rule or standard with a compulsory result" (Haddock v City of New York, 75 NY2d 478, 484 [1990] [internal quotation marks omitted]).

Here, Vogt apparently states in her December 18, 2019 letter to claimant that his application for conditional release had been denied on the ground that there was insufficient time to decide his application before his term of imprisonment expired based upon the process required in order to determine such an application. Thus, it appears that defendant did not engage in the discretionary process outlined in Vogt's letter in denying claimant's application for conditional release, but rather denied the application on the ground that it had not been brought in time for that process to take place. Although defendant thus admittedly did not engage in the process of evaluating claimant's application for conditional release, its decision nevertheless required the exercise of discretion in weighing the time required to fully evaluate claimant's application against the time remaining on his sentence, and thus the causes of action sounding in negligence and state constitutional tort will be dismissed on the ground that defendant is entitled to immunity for its discretionary decision (see generally Matter of Paperno v Hammock, 97 AD2d 848, 848-849 [2d Dept 1983] [noting that "(a)pplicants for conditional release are less likely to be granted than applications for parole release and, therefore, a conditional release applicant has a lesser expectation of liberty," and that "a conditional release applicant's sentence is generally shorter than that of a parole applicant, and, therefore, the conditional release applicant usually has less at stake"]).

Inasmuch as the claim must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction due to the failure to comply with Court of Claims Act 11 (b), claimant's motion for a default judgment on the claim will be denied as moot.

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED, that claimant's motion number M-96136 is DENIED as moot; and it is further;

ORDERED, that defendant's cross motion number CM-96195 is GRANTED, and claim number 134651 is DISMISSED.

December 22, 2020

Saratoga Springs, New York

W. BROOKS DeBOW

Judge of the Court of Claims

Papers considered:

1. Claim No. 134651, filed May 26, 2020;

2. Verified Answer, dated September 1, 2020;

3. Notice of Motion (M-96136), dated October 13, 2020;

4. Affidavit of Timothy Best in Support (M-96136), sworn to October 13, 2020, with Exhibits A-E;

5. Notice of Cross Motion, (CM-96195), dated November 18, 2020;

6. Affidavit of Anthony Rotondi, AAG, in Opposition and In Support of Cross Motion, dated November 18, 2020, with Exhibits A-E;

7. Notice of Motion [in Opposition to Cross Motion (M-96195)], dated November 29, 2020, with unenumerated attachments.


1. The claim alleges that it accrued at "Ulster County Correctional Facility," but the address included with the claim indicates that claimant was incarcerated at the Ulster County Jail in Kingston, New York, at the time of the events alleged in the claim (see Claim No. 134651, 3).