New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
WOODS v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-058-010, Claim No. 126933

Synopsis

After trial, dismissing Claim alleging assault and battery and excessive use of force by correction officers.

Case information

UID: 2020-058-010
Claimant(s): WESLEY WOODS
Claimant short name: WOODS
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 126933
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: CATHERINE E. LEAHY-SCOTT
Claimant's attorney: Wesley Woods, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney: Hon. Letitia James, Attorney General
By: Thomas Trace, Esq., Associate Attorney
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: January 31, 2020
City: Albany
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant Wesley Woods, a pro se inmate in the custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), seeks damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained while incarcerated at Marcy Correctional Facility for an intentional assault and battery and use of excessive force by correction officers. The trial of this Claim was conducted by videoconference on December 5, 2019, with the parties appearing at Marcy Correctional Facility and the Court presiding in Albany, New York. Claimant testified on his own behalf. Claimant offered no other witnesses or exhibits. Defendant offered two exhibits which were received into evidence with no objection by Claimant. Defendant presented four witnesses. At the conclusion of Claimant's case and trial, Defendant moved to dismiss the Claim. After considering all the testimony and evidence received at trial, reviewing the applicable law, and arguments made by the parties, the Court grants Defendant's motion to dismiss made at the conclusion of trial and dismisses the Claim.

Claimant testified that, on January 22, 2015, he was preparing to exit his cell to attend his morning program. When Correction Officer Cacciotti (Cacciotti) approached his cell, Claimant placed his shoes and socks on the gate so the officer could search them. Once fully dressed, Claimant then turned around and put his hands through the cell bars permitting himself to be handcuffed. Claimant stated that he must be handcuffed before the gate opens to his cell. When the gate opened, Claimant stated he stepped back and lifted his arms so that a waist restraint could be placed around him. Claimant explained, at that time, Cacciotti forcibly pushed Claimant's hands down, which caused Claimant to "tense up." Cacciotti purportedly asked Claimant what was his problem to which Claimant responded he did not have a problem. Claimant further testified that Cacciotti told Claimant he was not going to his program and to get back into his cell. When Claimant learned he was not going to his program, he asked Cacciotti what was wrong with him and made disparaging remarks. Claimant stated that as a result of making those remarks, Cacciotti pushed him in his cell onto his bed and punched him. He stated that Correction Officers Hamburg (Hamburg) and Kelly (Kelly) also came into his cell and were hitting and punching him for 5 to 10 minutes. Claimant testified that as he was hit and punched, he was handcuffed behind his back and restraints were placed on his legs. After the hitting stopped, he noticed Correction Sergeant Zike (Zike) was present in his cell. Claimant was brought to the medical unit and thereafter brought to an outside hospital, St. Elizabeth's Medical Center. He claims he suffered a dislocated left ring finger and a black eye. After testifying, Claimant rested his case. At that time, Defendant made a motion to dismiss, and the Court reserved decision.

Defendant produced four witnesses, to wit: Cacciotti, Kelly, Zike and Correction Nurse Wilcox (Wilcox). During the testimony of Cacciotti, Defendant offered Exhibit A(1) with no objection by the Claimant. Cacciotti testified that before taking Claimant to his morning program, he requested Claimant put his hands through a hatch in his cell to be handcuffed. Thereafter, the gate to Claimant's cell was opened, and Cacciotti proceeded to pat down and frisk Claimant. During the frisk, Cacciotti explained Claimant became agitated and tense. As a result, Cacciotti requested a retention strap and placed Claimant back in his cell. Cacciotti testified he never completed his pat down and frisk due to Claimant's agitation. As Cacciotti was placing Claimant back in his cell, Claimant turned toward Cacciotti and kicked him in his knee. After this occurred, Cacciotti pushed Claimant back in his cell and onto his bed. Cacciotti testified he never punched or hit Claimant, but used force to push Claimant on his bed and restrain him there. Other officers came to Claimant's cell and held Claimant down while iron restraints were placed on Claimant's legs. Cacciotti testified that once the leg iron restraints were placed on Claimant's legs, he became compliant.

Kelly testified he was working on January 22, 2015 as an escort officer and responded to the incident involving Claimant. He testified when he responded to Claimant's cell, Claimant was face down on his bed. Kelly did not witness any correction officer punch or hit Claimant. Kelly explained he was responsible for placing leg restraints on Claimant and escorting him to the medical unit for an evaluation.

Zike testified he responded to the incident after it occurred and prepared a Use of Force Report which is part of Exhibit A.

Wilcox testified she examined Claimant on January 22, 2015 and prepared an Inmate Injury report (Ex A-14). She observed an obvious deformity to Claimant's left ring finger with swelling; a minor abrasion to the thumb side of Claimant's left wrist; and an abrasion to the outer left nostril area. Wilcox further testified Claimant was sent to a local hospital for evaluation and X rays. Through Wilcox's testimony, Defendant offered Exhibit B,(2) which was admitted into evidence without objection by Claimant. Defendant's Exhibit B describes results of radiographic images taken of Claimant's left ring finger on March 19, 2015 by Oneida Medical Imaging Center. Testimony at trial indicated Claimant was taken to St. Elizabeth's Medical Center. Since there is no evidence connecting the March 19, 2015 medical report to the incident of January 22, 2015, the Court gives Exhibit B no weight.

The Claim sets forth a cause of action for assault and battery and the use of excessive force by the involved correction officers. In a correctional facility, DOCCS' employees are authorized to use a limited degree of physical force when it is reasonably necessary to enforce an inmate's compliance with a lawful directive (see Correction Law 137 [5]).(3) DOCCS' regulations also provide that "[w]here it is necessary to use physical force, only such degree of force as is reasonably required shall be used" (7 NYCRR 251-1.2 [b]) and a correction officer shall not lay hands on or strike an inmate "unless the employee reasonably believes that the physical force to be used is reasonably necessary: for self-defense; to prevent injury to person or property; to enforce compliance with a lawful direction; to quell a disturbance; or to prevent an escape" (7 NYCRR 251-1.2 [d]). The State may be held liable for any injuries sustained by an inmate when a State employee uses a degree of force that is excessive under the circumstances (see Jones v State of New York, 33 NY2d 275, 279-280 [1973], rearg dismissed 55 NY2d 878 [1982] Gumbs v State of New York, UID No. 2019-038-113 [Ct Cl, DeBow, J., Sept. 27, 2019]). However, "[t]he fact that an altercation between [an inmate] and a correction officer occurred, in which force was used and [the inmate] was injured, is not in and of itself a basis for liability" (Patterson v State of New York, UID No. 2002-031-015 [Ct Cl, Minarik, J., Apr. 23, 2002]; see Sheils v State of New York, UID No. 2019-032-504 [Ct Cl Hard. J., July 2, 2019]). A claimant must establish that "the force used was unreasonable in light of the circumstances surrounding the altercation" (Patterson v State of New York, UID No. 2002-031-015, citing Thomas v State of New York, UID No. 2001-013-517 [Ct Cl, Patti, J., Dec. 2001]; see Sheils v State of New York, UID No. 2019-032-504). In order to assess what degree of force was necessary at the time of the incident, this Court will consider the circumstances that confronted the correction officer at the time that the force was applied (see e.g. Bush v State of New York, 57 AD3d 1066, 1067 [3d Dept 2008]). In determining whether excessive force occurred, the trial court's findings are entitled to great deference in its assessment of the evidence and witness credibility (see Barnes v State of New York, 89 AD3d 1382, 1383 [4th Dept 2011], lv dismissed 19 NY3d 949 [2012]; Bush, 57 AD3d at 1066).

Upon consideration of the testimony of Claimant and the correction officers who testified, observing their demeanor while testifying as well as examining the documentary evidence received at trial, it is the finding of this Court that Claimant failed to establish, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that any of the correction officers involved in this incident assaulted him or used force which could be construed as excessive when initially handcuffing, patting him down, frisking him and/or restraining Claimant in order to gain control over him in his cell.

Accordingly Claim Number 126933 is dismissed. Any and all other evidentiary rulings or motions on which the Court may have previously reserved or which were not previously determined, are hereby denied.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

January 31, 2020

Albany, New York

CATHERINE E. LEAHY-SCOTT

Judge of the Court of Claims


1.

1 Exhibit A consists of 20 pages which includes five pages of a Use of Force Report; four pages of an Unusual Incident Report; five pages of "To/From" memoranda; a one page misbehavior report; a one page Inmate Injury Report; two photographs of the Claimant from the date of the incident; one page indicating when the photographs were taken; and one page entitled "Certificate of Records.

"

2.

2

Exhibit B consists of two pages. The first page is a letter addressed to Shehab Zaki M.D., Medical Department at Marcy Correctional Facility, providing results of four radiographic images taken of Claimant's left ring finger on March 19, 2015. The second page is a certification from Oneida Medical Imaging Center.

3.

3 Correction Law 137 (5) provides:

"No inmate in the care or custody of the department shall be subjected to degrading treatment, and no officer or other employee of the department shall inflict any blows whatever upon any inmate, unless in self defense, or to suppress a revolt or insurrection. When any inmate, or group of inmates, shall offer violence to any person, or do or attempt to do any injury to property, or attempt to escape, or resist or disobey any lawful direction, the officers and employees shall use all suitable means to defend themselves, to maintain order, to enforce observation of discipline, to secure the persons of the offenders and to prevent any such attempt or escape."