New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
FIELDS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2018-038-101, Claim No. 126234

Synopsis

Case information

UID: 2018-038-101
Claimant(s): ORLANDO FIELDS
Claimant short name: FIELDS
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 126234
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: W. BROOKS DeBOW
Claimant's attorney: ORLANDO FIELDS, Pro se
Defendant's attorney: ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General
of the State of New York
By: Douglas Kemp, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: January 3, 2018
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant, an individual formerly incarcerated in a State correctional facility, filed this claim alleging that defendant's agents wrongfully deducted $600 from his inmate account. The trial of the claim was conducted in Albany, New York on September 13, 2017, at which claimant was the sole witness to testify. Numerous exhibits were offered by the parties and received into evidence. After listening to and observing claimant's testimony, and considering it along with the documentary evidence received at trial and the parties' oral arguments, the Court finds that claimant has proven by a preponderance of the credible evidence that defendant is liable to claimant.

FACTS

On January 26, 2015, claimant, an inmate incarcerated at Altona Correctional Facility (CF), executed a disbursement request to send $100 in funds from his inmate account to Jennifer Hollis (see Claimant's Exhibit 4 [1/26/15 Disbursement Request]), who claimant testified is the mother of his child. The Altona CF Business Office processed and approved claimant's request on January 29, 2015 and deducted $100 from his inmate account (see Claimant's Exhibit 2). A member of the Business Office staff who was to write a check to Ms. Hollis read the amount requested as being $700 because the first numeral in the amount requested appeared to her to be the number 7. The first numeral in the amount requested is fairly described as being a vertical line with a serif at the top of the line extending downward in a diagonal line from right to left. Upon further review by a supervisor, and comparing the first numeral in the amount requested with the three number 1s contained in claimant's inmate number on the form, which were merely vertical lines without the serif, it was determined that the first numeral was a "7" and not a "1" and that claimant had requested a disbursement of $700 and not $100. Therefore, on January 30, 2015, the Business Office deducted an additional $600 from claimant's account (see id.), and sent a check in the amount of $700 to Hollis. The Court notes that on the disbursement form claimant wrote the date as "1-26-2015" with the numeral 1 appearing the same as the first numeral in the amount request, as both had a vertical line and serif (see Claimant's Exhibit 4 [1/26/15 Disbursement Request]).

Claimant testified that he had intended to request a disbursement of only $100 and not $700, and that upon discovering the error he wrote to the Inmate Accounts Office who informed him that the "amount on the disbursement [form] appears to be $700.00 which was sent to the address on the envelope" (Claimant's Exhibit 3). The matter was further investigated by Deputy Superintendent for Administration T. DeLisle, who explained to claimant the circumstances behind the Business Office's decision to send the $700 check, that the check had been cashed so a stop payment could not be issued, that "the disbursement form was initialed by security as being approved . . . so it was processed by the [B]usiness [O]ffice" and that claimant would "need to contact the person the money was sent to in order to have the $600.00 returned to [his] account" (Claimant's Exhibit 1-A).

Claimant filed a grievance seeking reimbursement in the amount of $600 on the ground that Altona CF negligently processed the disbursement as it was not properly verified under Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) Directive 2798, which requires the written approval of the facility Superintendent or their designee for any disbursement in excess of $100, and that the inmate identify the name and address of the recipient, the relationship of the payee to the inmate and the purpose of the disbursement (see Claimant's Exhibit 1-B [DOCCS Directive 2798, III, A (1) (c)]). On February 24, 2015, the Inmate Grievance Committee (IGRC) in a unanimous decision recommended that claimant be reimbursed on the ground that the disbursement should have been investigated further pursuant to DOCCS Directive 2798, III, A (1) (c) (see Claimant's Exhibit 1-E). Claimant's grievance was ultimately denied by the Altona CF Superintendent on March 10, 2015 on the ground that monetary damages were not available through the inmate grievance process, and he advised claimant to contact Hollis to request the return of the $600 (Claimant's Exhibit 1-C).

Claimant filed an administrative claim seeking reimbursement of $600, asserting that Altona CF failed to properly review the disbursement under DOCCS Directive 2798. The claim was denied by Altona CF Institutional Steward Judith Blockson on March 6, 2015, and then again on appeal by DOCCS Budgeting Analyst Eileen Nerf on May 11, 2015, on the ground that claimant submitted a disbursement form seeking a $700 disbursement (see Claimant's Exhibit 1-D). In a memorandum dated May 12, 2015 by Captain R. Strack to Blockson about claimant's administrative claim, Strack states that he interviewed claimant about his administrative claim on May 5, 2015 and that claimant admitted that the numeral he claimed to be number 1 more closely resembled a number 7 (see Defendant's Exhibit B).(1) Capt. Strack's memorandum further states that claimant stated he no longer had any contact with Hollis and that claimant had sent the money for his daughter's birthday, that Strack had reviewed and approved the disbursement after verifying Hollis' address and claimant's relation to her, and that Strack believed that claimant "quite possibly intended for this alleged mistake to take place in order that he may file this [administrative] claim" (id.). Claimant testified that Capt. Strack's May 2015 interview was the first time he had met Strack, and that he was not interviewed by Strack prior to the disbursement of the funds. Claimant further testified that he did not purposely write the first numeral in such a manner so that he could pursue a monetary claim.

DISCUSSION

Claimant argues that Altona CF staff failed to comply with DOCCS Directive 2798 and were negligent in failing to conduct a prior investigation into whether he sought to disburse $700 from his inmate account. Defendant argues that the first numeral in the amount requested is clearly a number 7, and that the Business Office staff's review led to the clear conclusion that claimant had intended to send a check for $700, and that any confusion was attributable to claimant's sloppy handwriting or his attempts to deceive. After viewing claimant testify and his demeanor as he did so, and after considering all of the relevant documentary evidence, the Court concludes that claimant has proven his claim by a preponderance of the credible evidence.

It is apparent to the Court that the numeral at issue consists of a vertical line with a serif pointing downward in a diagonal manner, and not a horizontal line at top with a line emanating from the right side either vertically or diagonally from right to left, and thus, it is clearly a number 1 and not a number 7. Indeed, the first numeral in the date - which was clearly the number 1 as the request was made in the first month of January - is virtually identical to the first numeral in the amount requested. The Business Office staff correctly interpreted the numeral in the amount requested as the number 1 when it originally approved claimant's disbursement request. To be sure, claimant did write the number 1 in two different styles on the form, but to the extent that it was not clear whether the numeral with the serif was a 1 or a 7, it was incumbent on Business Office staff to investigate the amount claimant intended to have disbursed from his inmate account. To the extent that the Business Office's comparison of the numeral's in the identification number with the numeral at issue may be characterized as an investigation, it was clearly deficient because the numeral 1 in the date was a close match to the numeral in the disbursement amount. Thus, at best, the two differing styles yielded confusion, and the Business Office staff should have reached out to claimant to ascertain his intent, which they did not do.

Moreover, Altona CF staff clearly failed to comply with DOCCS Directive 2798 in approving the disbursement, which further led to the error in the check being written for $700. Under the directive, in order for a disbursement in excess of $100 to be approved, claimant was required to have listed, among other things, his relationship to the recipient, and the purpose of the disbursement, which information did not accompany the disbursement requested. If Altona CF staff had complied with the directive and sought complete information from claimant prior to the check being sent, staff would have learned that claimant was not attempting to send a check in excess of the $100 limit, and the error would have been caught and avoided. To the extent that defendant relies on Capt. Strack's interview of claimant to demonstrate compliance with Directive 2798, the preponderance of the credible evidence demonstrates that any such investigation which was conducted more than three months after the disbursement was requested and the check was sent, amounting to nothing more than an attempt to retroactively comply with the Directive.

Finally, in viewing claimant's demeanor while testifying, the Court does not credit defendant's assertion that claimant intended to mislead or deceive Altona CF officials in the manner in which he drafted the disbursement request. And to the extent that claimant may have harbored such an intent, a proper investigation would have prevented claimant from benefitting therefrom.

CONCLUSION

In sum, claimant has proven that Altona CF officials failed to properly process claimant's disbursement request and defendant is therefore liable to claimant who is awarded damages in the amount of six hundred dollars ($600.00).

To the extent that claimant has paid a filing fee, it may be recoverable pursuant to Court of Claims Act 11-a (2).

Any motions not previously ruled upon are hereby DENIED.

The Chief Clerk of the Court of Claims is directed to enter judgment in accordance with this Decision.

January 3, 2018

Saratoga Springs, New York

W. BROOKS DeBOW

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. The Court notes that although the memorandum ostensibly memorialized Capt. Strack's investigation into the facts surrounding claimant's administrative claim, the memorandum post-dates both the denials of claimant's administrative claim and his administrative appeal.