New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
BLOUNT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-038-564, Claim No. 128074, Motion No. M-95549

Synopsis

Claimant's motion to compel defendant to disclose personnel records of former correction officer granted on the ground that they are relevant and necessary to the prosecution of this claim.

Case information

UID: 2020-038-564
Claimant(s): ROBERT BLOUNT
Claimant short name: BLOUNT
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 128074
Motion number(s): M-95549
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: W. BROOKS DeBOW
Claimant's attorney: HERMANN P. WALZ, ESQ.
Defendant's attorney: LETITIA JAMES, Attorney General
of the State of New York
By: Christina Calabrese, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: November 2, 2020
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

This claim seeks compensation for injuries sustained when claimant, then an inmate at Shawangunk Correctional Facility (CF), was allegedly assaulted by correction officers on July 8, 2015. Claimant filed this motion pursuant to Civil Rights Law 50-a seeking an order directing the release of the personnel records of former Correction Officer Riccobono. Defendant opposed the motion. By Decision and Order dated September 15, 2020, the Court held that the personnel records are no longer shielded by Civil Rights Law 50-a, which was repealed by the Legislature on June 12, 2020, and held claimant's motion in abeyance pending submission by defendant of the personnel records for in camera review to determine their relevance.

As discussed in the Court's prior Decision and Order, the CPLR reflects this State's policy in favor of broad disclosure by mandating "full disclosure of all matter material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action" (CPLR 3101 [a]; see Calhoun v Pickett, 77 AD2d 776, 776 [3d Dept 1980], affd sub nom Hoenig v Westphal, 52 NY2d 605 [1981]). The Court of Appeals has explained that "[t]he words, 'material and necessary', are . . . to be interpreted liberally to require disclosure, upon request, of any facts bearing on the controversy which will assist preparation for trial by sharpening the issues and reducing delay and prolixity" (Allen v Crowell-Collier Publ. Co., 21 NY2d 403, 406 [1968]; see Matter of Saratoga Prop. Devs., LLC v Assessor of City of Saratoga Springs, 62 AD3d 1107, 1108-1109 [3d Dept 2009). As the Appellate Division, Third Department, has instructed,

"Courts must evaluate disclosure demands on a case-by-case basis with due regard for the strong policy supporting open disclosure, while balancing competing interests such as the demanding party's need for the information, its possible relevance, the burden imposed on a party or nonparty by ordering disclosure, and the potential for confusion or delay"

(Perez v Fleischer, 122 AD3d 1157, 1158 [3d Dept 2014], lv dismissed 25 NY3d 985 [2015]). It is well settled that "[t]he trial court is afforded broad discretion in supervising disclosure (Di Mascio v General Elec. Co., 307 AD2d 600, 601 [3d Dept 2003]; see Mitchell v Stuart, 293 AD2d 905, 906 [3d Dept 2002]), and may conduct an in camera inspection of the documents at issue to determine whether they are "relevant and material to the issues to be decided in th[e] action" (Solomon v Meyer, 103 AD3d 1025, 1026 [3d Dept 2013]).

"The party seeking to prevent disclosure has a heavy burden, especially where the materials sought are relevant," and is thus obligated to "establish[] that the information sought is immune from disclosure" (Marten v Eden Park Health Servs., 250 AD2d 44, 46-47 [3d Dept 1998] [internal quotation marks omitted]), such as privileged materials and attorney work product, which are statutorily exempt from disclosure (see CPLR 3101 [b], [c]). As noted above, in its previous Decision and Order, the Court rejected defendant's argument that Riccobono's personnel records are shielded by Civil Rights Law 50-a because the repeal of that statute was not retroactive, and defendant argues only that the records lack relevance and makes no further argument that Riccobono's personnel records are protected from disclosure.

Defendant has submitted an unredacted copy of Riccobono's personnel records along with another copy with proposed redactions. The Court's in camera review of Riccobono's personnel records reveals that, contrary to claimant's contentions in support of the instant motion, they do not contain information related to the investigation of the July 8, 2015 incident that led to Riccobono's termination or to any history of assaultive behavior by Riccobono during the course of his employment as a correction officer. Rather, Riccobono's personnel file consists largely of documentation related to his initial hiring and training as a correction officer. However, the records do contain some general information regarding Riccobono's termination from his employment as a correction officer following the July 8, 2015 incident. Although the Court's in camera review of Riccobono's personnel records reveals that they contain little of the type of information claimant seeks, in light of the liberal standard for disclosure as articulated above, the Court concludes that Riccobono's personnel records are nevertheless relevant to claimant's prosecution of this claim insofar as they contain information related to Riccobono's termination from his employment as a correction officer. Moreover, in the Court's view, the information regarding Riccobono's hiring and employment is likewise relevant and necessary to claimant's prosecution of this claim insofar as it asserts a cause of action against the State sounding in negligence.

In balancing the competing interests of the parties, the Court agrees with claimant that he has a significant need for the information in Riccobono's personnel file in order to prosecute his claim. As noted in the Court's previous Decision and Order, claimant has been unable to locate Riccobono in order to take his examination before trial, and as a result, that means of obtaining information regarding the July 8, 2015 incident, as well as Riccobono's history as a correction officer, has been foreclosed to him. Moreover, because Correction Officer Gay invoked his Fifth Amendment rights during his examination before trial, claimant was unable to obtain from him any information regarding the alleged assault and Riccobono's role in that incident. Given the inability to locate Riccobono and Correction Officer Gay's invocation of his Fifth Amendment rights at his examination before trial, the Court is persuaded that Riccobono's personnel records are relevant and that claimant has a significant need for their disclosure, inasmuch as they represent one of the only avenues remaining to claimant to investigate and obtain information regarding the July 8, 2015 incident. As noted above, defendant makes no argument against disclosure of Riccobono's personnel records other than that they generally lack relevance, nor is there any indication that their disclosure constitutes a burden on any party or nonparty or would cause confusion or delay in the resolution of this matter.

In sum, considering the strong policy in New York courts in favor of full and open disclosure, the Court concludes that defendant must turn over Riccobono's complete personnel file, with appropriate redactions of his personal information, as reflected in the redacted copy of the personnel records submitted to the Court in camera.(1) The Court notes, however, that defendant has proposed redacting the name of an individual listed as Riccobono's emergency contact, along with contact information and the nature of Riccobono's relationship to that individual (see Defendant's In Camera Submission, Redacted Personnel Records, Bates Stamp Nos. 001, 003, 005 and 044). Inasmuch as claimant has been unable to locate Riccobono, the identity of the individual listed as an emergency contact could be helpful in locating Riccobono, and thus that person's identity shall be disclosed to claimant.

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED, that claimant's motion number M-95549 is GRANTED, and defendant is directed to disclose to claimant within thirty (30) days of the filing of this decision and order a complete copy of Riccobono's personnel records, with redactions as discussed herein.

November 2, 2020

Saratoga Springs, New York

W. BROOKS DeBOW

Judge of the Court of Claims

Papers considered:

1. Claim No. 128074, filed June 14, 2016;

2. Verified Answer, filed July 15, 2016;

3. Notice of Motion, dated June 15, 2020;

4. Affirmation of Hermann P. Walz, Esq., dated June 15, 2020;

5. Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion, dated June 15, 2020;

6. Affirmation of Christina Calabrese, AAG, in Opposition, dated July 23, 2020;

7. Email Correspondence of Christina Calabrese, AAG, dated October 14, 2020, with In Camera Submission of Unredacted and Redacted Personnel Records.


1. In reviewing the redacted copy of Riccobono's personnel records, the Court notes that defendant has neglected to redact Riccobono's date of birth on page 5 of his personnel records, in the subsection denominated "Personal Information" (see Defendant's In Camera Submission, Redacted Personnel Records, at Bates Stamp No. 5). Defendant is directed to ensure that the date of birth is redacted on this page prior to turning over Riccobono's redacted personnel records to claimant.