New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
BROWN v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-041-506, Claim No. 122362

Synopsis

Claim alleging wrongful confinement resulting from inmate disciplinary determination is dismissed after trial where correction officer credibly testified at trial to truth of allegations underlying disciplinary determination, claimant's trial testimony lacked credibility and the only other witness to the disciplinary determination allegations was not called by claimant as a trial witness.

Case information

UID: 2020-041-506
Claimant(s): DAVID A. BROWN
Claimant short name: BROWN
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 122362
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: FRANK P. MILANO
Claimant's attorney: BROWN HUTCHINSON, LLP
By: Michael Cobbs, Esq.
Defendant's attorney: HON. LETITIA JAMES
New York State Attorney General
By: Michael T. Krenrich, Esq.
Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: June 15, 2020
City: Albany
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

David Brown (claimant), while an inmate at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility (Mt. McGregor), was issued a misbehavior report by Corrections Officer (CO) Laura Coleman on January 28, 2012. The misbehavior report charged claimant with three violations, engaging in a sexual act with a fellow inmate, engaging in physical contact with a fellow inmate and refusing a direct order.

A subsequent Tier III disciplinary hearing resulted in claimant being found guilty of all three charges and, as a consequence, claimant ultimately served 272 days in Special Housing (SHU), with its attendant loss of several privileges, 23 hour per day cell confinement and segregation from the general inmate population.

Claimant unsuccessfully appealed the disciplinary hearing determination administratively, and thereafter commenced an Article 78 proceeding in Supreme Court to annul the determinations of the disciplinary hearing and to expunge his institutional record. During the pendency of claimant's Article 78 proceeding, defendant agreed to annul its disciplinary determination and to expunge claimant's institutional record, and claimant was released from SHU confinement.

During claimant's Tier III disciplinary hearing, claimant requested the production of many witnesses and of various documentation. Most of claimant's requests were denied by the hearing officer. Most critically, claimant was denied the testimony of inmate "John Doe," the inmate charged as claimant's sexual partner on January 28, 2012, and claimant was also denied a statement that inmate Doe had authored about the events of January 28, 2012. The hearing officer indicated that inmate Doe, among others, had refused to testify at the disciplinary hearing. No documentary proof of those refusals were produced to claimant.

The basis of claimant's Article 78 petition, and of his subsequently filed claim, is that the hearing officer's denial of claimant's disciplinary hearing requests constituted a denial of claimant's due process rights, causing claimant to be found guilty of the charges and to thereafter be wrongfully confined to SHU for 272 days.

To establish that he was wrongfully confined, claimant must prove that "(1) the defendant intended to confine him, (2) the [claimant] was conscious of the confinement, (3) the [claimant] did not consent to the confinement and (4) the confinement was not otherwise privileged" (Broughton v State of New York, 37 NY2d 451, 456 [1975], cert denied sub nom. Schanbarger v Kellogg, 423 US 929; Krzyzak v Schaefer, 52 AD3d 979 [3d Dept 2008]).

The element most often contested in a prison disciplinary wrongful confinement claim is whether claimant can show that the confinement was not "otherwise privileged."

With respect to whether a confinement is privileged, Holmberg v County of Albany (291 AD2d 610, 612 [3d Dept 2002], lv denied 98 NY2d 604 [2002]), instructs that: "Generally, where a facially valid order issued by a court with proper jurisdiction directs confinement, that confinement is privileged . . . and everyone connected with the matter is protected from liability for false imprisonment."

In the context of confinement pursuant to a prison disciplinary proceeding, such confinement is "privileged to the extent that it was under color of law or regulation, specifically in accordance with [inmate misbehavior] regulations" (Gittens v State of New York, 132 Misc 2d 399, 402 [Ct Cl 1986]).

Even assuming that claimant establishes a prima facie case for wrongful confinement based upon the purported violation of the hearing rules and regulations, the defendant is entitled to assert as a defense its absolute immunity from liability for claimant's alleged wrongful confinement.

That immunity defense provides that where employees of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, in commencing and conducting inmate disciplinary proceedings, "act under the authority of and in full compliance with the governing statutes and regulations . . . 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]; Varela v State of New York, 283 AD2d 841 [3d Dept 2001]; Davis v State of New York, 262 AD2d 887 [3d Dept 1999], lv denied 93 NY2d 819 [1999]). The defendant's quasi-judicial disciplinary hearing immunity attaches even if the determination is later reversed administratively or as the result of a successful CPLR Article 78 proceeding (see Arteaga, 72 NY2d at 215).

If, however, prison officials fail to comply with a rule or regulation, implicating due process rights, governing such disciplinary hearings, absolute immunity may be lost and liability for money damages may be imposed if it is proven that the regulatory violation caused actual prejudice or injury to the inmate (see Watson v State of New York, 125 AD3d 1064 [3d Dept 2015]; Davidson v State of New York, 66 AD3d 1089, 1089 [3d Dept 2009]; Vasquez v State of New York, 10 AD3d 825 [3d Dept 2004]).

The burden of demonstrating prejudice resulting from the alleged regulatory violation rests with claimant. In Miller v State of New York (156 AD3d 1067, 1068 [3d Dept 2017]), the court affirmed the dismissal of an inmate wrongful confinement claim based upon violation of a regulation requiring a timely disciplinary hearing, explaining that:

"[C]laimant failed to establish any prejudice as a result of the delay or that, but for the delay, the outcome of the hearing would have been different such that a cause of action based upon the violation of the pertinent regulation was deemed to occur (see Bottom v State of New York, 142 AD3d 1314, 1316 [2016], appeal dismissed 28 NY3d 1177 [2017]; Davidson v State of New York, 66 AD3d at 1090). In other words, defendant retained its immunity absent a showing of prejudice resulting from the alleged delay in conducting the hearing."

Trial of the claim was conducted on March 9, 2020. Two witnesses testified at trial, claimant and CO Coleman, now retired.

Corrections Officer Coleman testified that while making her rounds in Dorm C-1 at Mt. McGregor shortly after 1:00 a.m. on January 28, 2012, she heard running water in the dorm's shower room. Opening the closed shower room door in order to turn off the involved faucet, she entered a darkened room and turned on the shower room lights. She then observed claimant on his knees in one of the few shower stalls in the room, performing oral sex upon inmate Doe.

She ordered the inmates to stop and to leave the shower room. Neither inmate fully complied, instead fleeing the shower stall and moving in opposite directions while remaining in the shower room. Corrections Officer Coleman then issued a second order to claimant and inmate Doe to leave the shower room, and they then complied and left the shower room. These events, as described by CO Coleman at trial, formed the basis of the three charges she issued against claimant in issuing him a misbehavior report (see Exhibit 3).

Immediately following the early morning events of January 28, 2012, CO Coleman contemporaneously created three documents, her misbehavior report of claimant (Exhibit 3), a "TO/FROM" Memo she provided to Sergeant (Sgt.) Schmid describing the events (Exhibit A) and a logbook entry (Exhibit 7), all of which contain information consistent with the trial testimony CO Coleman provided. Further, Sgt. Schmid provided testimony at claimant's disciplinary hearing (Exhibit 1, p 18) corroborating CO Coleman's trial testimony and the associated documentation she had contemporaneously created. Finally, an Unusual Incident Report dated February 1, 2012 (Exhibit 10) additionally contains information consistent with the trial testimony of CO Coleman and with the disciplinary hearing testimony of Sgt. Schmid.

The Court, having considered the trial testimony of CO Coleman, and having observed her demeanor as she gave it, found CO Coleman to be earnest, appropriately detailed and specific, and credible.

Claimant also testified at trial. Mr. Brown explained that inmate Doe was smoking in the shower room and had asked claimant to accompany him in order to spray the room with a scented mist to mask the smell of smoke. Claimant denied engaging in any sexual act with inmate Doe, claiming that the two were only accused after being summoned to Officer Coleman's office. Claimant also testified that the disciplinary charges were fabricated to retaliate for claimant's "homosexual lifestyle," and to support defendant's transfer of claimant to another facility. Claimant provided no proof in support of his allegations concerning defendant's motivation in fabricating charges against him.

Contradicting claimant's trial testimony, CO Coleman testified that she smelled no smoke upon entering the shower room in the early morning hours of January 28, 2012. She also testified that prior to the events of the day, she knew neither claimant nor inmate Doe.

Mr. Brown's claim must and does fail, for several reasons. Initially, the Court fully credits CO Coleman's trial testimony and concludes that the events for which claimant received a misbehavior report and its resulting discipline following the disciplinary hearing determination, transpired as CO Coleman testified at trial. The Court does not credit claimant's denials of the behavior for which he was charged and disciplined.

Next, there were only three possible eyewitnesses to the events, a credited trial witness, a discredited trial witness and a witness never presented to the Court at trial, inmate Doe. The Court, accordingly, is unable to assess whether inmate Doe's testimony at claimant's disciplinary hearing, if given, would have led to findings contrary to the findings of claimant's guilt. As such, claimant's evidence at trial fails to prove his claim.

Finally, beyond the foregoing, the disciplinary hearing officer based his determination of claimant's guilt upon the same evidence credited by this Court after trial (see Exhibit 1, p 23).

Claimant, by reason of the foregoing, has failed to prove his claim by a preponderance of the credible evidence. The claim is dismissed.

All motions not previously decided are hereby denied.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

June 15, 2020

Albany, New York

FRANK P. MILANO

Judge of the Court of Claims