Johnson v. White et al
TEXT ORDER denying 96 Motion for Reconsideration/Motion to Vacate: The Court hereby ORDERS that Plaintiff's motion (Dkt. No. 96) is DENIED; and the Court further ORDERS that the Clerk of the Court shall serve a copy of this Memorandum-Decision and Order on all parties in accordance with the Local Rules. Signed by U.S. District Judge Mae A. D'Agostino on 7/15/2016. (copy of order mailed to plaintiff) (ban)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
BRANDI WHITE, Grievance Supervisor, Upstate
Correctional Facility; SCOTT WOODWARD, Grievance
Supervisor, Upstate Correctional Facility; SANDRA
DANFORTH, Deputy Superintendent of Upstate Correctional
Facility; MAUREEN SIENKO, Optometrist Upstate Correctional
Facility; MARTHA STURGEN, Nurse Administrator, Upstate
Upstate Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 2001
Malone, New York 12953
Plaintiff, pro se
NEW YORK STATE ATTORNEY
GENERAL - BUFFALO
Main Place Tower
350 Main Street
Buffalo, New York 14202
Attorneys for Defendants
STEPHANIE J. CALHOUN, ESQ.
Mae A. D'Agostino, U.S. District Judge:
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Johnathan Johnson, an inmate in the custody of the New York State Department
of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"), commenced this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 1983 claiming that his constitutional rights were violated while he was incarcerated at
Upstate Correctional Facility ("Upstate C.F."). See Dkt. No. 5. The case proceeded to a jury trial
that lasted from October 26, until October 28, 2015. After Plaintiff rested his case, the Court
granted Defendants' Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Dkt. No. 93. Currently
before the Court is Plaintiff's post-trial motion for reconsideration pursuant to Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure 52, 59, and 60, and 28 U.S.C. Sections 144 and 455. See Dkt. No. 96.
The conduct giving rise to the instant action surrounds a period of time from August 8,
2013 through January 9, 2014, during which Plaintiff alleges he was denied his prescription
eyeglasses. Dkt. No. 5; Dkt. No. 45 at 2. Plaintiff was examined by optometrist Defendant
Maureen Sienko on August 8, 2013. Dkt. No. 51 at 2. Defendant Sienko determined that
Plaintiff was nearsighted and ordered him a pair of new eyeglasses because his previous pair had
been broken. Id. After a period of approximately 145 days, Plaintiff received his prescription
eyeglasses. See generally Dkt. No. 5; Dkt. No. 51 at 2-3.
At trial, Plaintiff called eight witnesses, Dr. Richard W. Witlin, Sandra Simonds, Maureen
Sienko, Plaintiff, himself, Brandi (White) Collyer, Martha Anne Sturgen, Sandra Lee Danforth,
and Scott Woodward. See Dkt. Nos. 85, 87. At the close of Plaintiff's case, Defendants' moved
pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 for judgment as a matter of law. In a bench
ruling, the Court granted Defendants' motion on three separate grounds: (1) Plaintiff did not
establish that his nearsightedness was a serious medical condition; (2) Plaintiff failed to prove
each of the five Defendants' deliberate indifference to his alleged serious medical condition; and
(3) each of the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. See Dkt. No. 99.
Standard of Review
1. Rule 52(a)(5) & (6)
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(5) & (6) provides a mechanism for a litigant to
question the validity of a previous judgment based upon the sufficiency of the evidentiary
support. In a Rule 52(a)(5) motion, party may "question the sufficiency of the evidence
supporting the [court's] findings, whether or not the party requested findings, objected to them,
moved to amend them, or moved for partial findings." FED. R. CIV. P. 52(a)(5). Further, a finding
of fact may only be set aside if it is "clearly erroneous." Id. at § 52(a)(6).
2. Rule 52(b)
Rule 52(b) provides that, upon motion from a party, "the court may amend its findings–or
make additional findings–and may amend the judgment accordingly." Id. at § 52(b). "The
purpose of post-judgment motions under Rule 52(b) is to give the district court an opportunity to
correct manifest errors of law or fact at trial, or in some limited situations, to present newly
discovered evidence." United States v. Local 1804-1, Int'l Longshoremen's Ass'n, 831 F. Supp.
167, 169 (S.D.N.Y. 1993). "Thus, to succeed under Rule 52(b), the [movant] must show that the
Court's findings of fact or conclusions of law are not supported by the evidence in the record." Id.
3. Rule 59(a)
A district court may order a new trial under Rule 59(a) if it concludes that "'"the jury has
reached a seriously erroneous result or . . . the verdict is a miscarriage of justice,"' i.e., 'it must
view the jury's verdict as 'against the weight of the evidence.'" Manley v. AmBase Corp., 337
F.3d 237, 245 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124,
133 (2d Cir. 1998)). However, a Rule 59(a) motion "'may be granted even if there is substantial
evidence supporting the . . . verdict,' and . . . 'a trial judge is free to weigh the evidence himself,
and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner.'" Id. (quoting DLC Mgmt.
Corp., 163 F.3d at 133-34).
4. Rule 60(b)
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) provides six enumerated circumstances whereby a
district court may relieve a party from a final judgment, the following three of which may be
relevant in this case:
(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
(2) newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence,
could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial
under Rule 59(b);
(6) any other reason that justifies relief.
FED. R. CIV. P. 60(b).
5. 28 U.S.C. §§ 144 & 455
28 U.S.C. Section 144 provides that a party may raise the question of bias of the presiding
judge by raising questions of "personal bias or prejudice either against [the moving party] or in
favor of any adverse party." 28 U.S.C. § 144. Such request under this section "shall be filed not
less than ten days before the beginning of the term at which the proceeding is to be heard, or good
cause shall be shown for failure to file it within such time." Id.
28 U.S.C. Section 455 provides that a judge must disqualify herself "in any proceeding in
which [her] impartiality might reasonably be questioned." Id. at § 455(a). Section 455(b) lists
several specific circumstances in which a judge must disqualify herself from a proceeding, none
of which are applicable in this case. Id. at § 455(b). Importantly, "under section 455(a) the bias
to be established must be extrajudicial and not based upon in-court rulings." In re Int'l Bus.
Machines Corp., 618 F.2d 923, 929 (2d Cir. 1980).
Plaintiff's motion generally re-argues the same points raised at trial and in opposition to
Defendants' Rule 50 motion. Significantly, Plaintiff does not point to any newly discovered
evidence that was unavailable to him during trial. Liberally construed, Plaintiff's motion argues
that the Court committed a clear error in applying several legal standards in granting Defendants'
Rule 50 motion. See Dkt. Nos. 96, 106. While Plaintiff's contentions arguably do not rise to the
level of proof required to state a prima facie claim for reconsideration under any of the previously
mentioned Federal Rules, given Plaintiff's pro se status, the Court will briefly address each of the
alleged legal errors claimed in Plaintiff's motion.
First, Plaintiff contends that "the Court's order granting the Defendants' motion under Rule
50, prior to instruction on deliberate indifference, and serious medical delay, deprived Plaintiff of
his constitutional rights under the Seventh Amendment." Dkt. No. 96-1 at ¶ 37 (citing Berry v.
United States, 312 U.S. 450 (1941)). Berry generally stands for the proposition that a Court may
not grant a Rule 50 motion for directed verdict if the evidence presented at trial would allow a
jury to reach a conclusion in the non-moving party's favor. Berry, 312 U.S. at 456. In the instant
case, the Court properly applied the standard of review for a Rule 50 motion, and concluded that,
viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, "no reasonable jury could find that
[P]laintiff suffered from a serious medical need in the context of an Eighth Amendment claim."
See Dkt. No. 99 at 10. The Court reached this conclusion after a lengthy discussion of the
evidence presented in Plaintiff's case, which was stated as follows:
Drawing all reasonable inferences from [P]laintiff's testimony, the
effects of his moderate myopia include that he suffered from
headaches for the entire 145 days that he was without his glasses;
that he was unable to see the scenery outside of his exercise area
during the one hour a day he was allowed outside, as he was housed
in the SHU; that he could not clearly identify other inmates while
he was in the general housing area; and that he suffered from eye
strain if he read for extended periods of time without his glasses.
Plaintiff also testified that he continued to perform his duties as a,
quote, law clerk, end of quote, that he was still able to read in his
cell and, significantly, that all of his conditions subsided after he
received his glasses on January 9, 2014. Plaintiff also testified that
he never made a sick call for any of the symptoms that he
Dkt. No. 99 at 11. Viewing these alleged injuries in light of the factors established in Brock v.
Wright, 315 F.3d 158, 162-63 (2d Cir. 2003), the Court determined that no reasonable juror could
find that Plaintiff suffered a serious medical condition in the context of an Eighth Amendment
claim. Id. 11-14. As Plaintiff has failed to identify any additional evidence that would lead the
Court to a different conclusion regarding his alleged serious medical condition, the Court finds
that it correctly applied the standard of review to the facts presented at trial in granting
Defendants' Rule 50 motion.
Second, Plaintiff's reply asserts that the Court did not use the proper standard for
determining deliberate indifference for the delay of Plaintiff's medical care. Dkt. No. 106 at ¶¶ 5,
6 (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976); Martinez v. Mancusi, 443 F.2d 921 (2d Cir.
1970)). Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the Court misconstrued the difference between gross
negligence and deliberate indifference. Id. at ¶¶ 10-17.
Plaintiff's argument on this ground is unavailing as the Court did not discuss in any part of
its decision that any of the Defendants acted with gross negligence. In regards to Dr. Sienko's
failure to contact Plaintiff after he missed a scheduled eye-clinic appointment, the Court
concluded that "[t]his course of conduct, at most, illustrates negligence on behalf of Dr. Sienko."
Dkt. No. 99 at 19. The Court further concluded that Plaintiff failed to provide evidence that
"raise[d] Dr. Sienko's actions above mere negligence." Id. Thus, the Court did not hold that any
of the Defendants' actions amounted to gross negligence, which is similar in many respects to
deliberate indifference, but that they may have, at most, amount to ordinary negligence. See Doe
v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Social Serv., 649 F.2d 134, 144 n.5 (2d Cir. 1981) (stating that the district court
properly rejected a jury instruction that equated ordinary negligence with deliberate indifference).
Thus, the Court's conclusion that a showing of mere negligence, without more, is insufficient to
sustain a cause of action for deliberate indifference applied the proper legal analysis on this point.
See Martinez v. Mancusi, 443 F.2d 921, 923 (2d Cir. 1970) (citing Church v. Hegstrum, 416 F.2d
499, 450-51 (2d Cir. 1969)) ("Mere negligence in giving or failing to supply medical treatment
alone will not suffice [to prove an Eighth Amendment violation]"). Accordingly, the Court
properly applied the standard to establish deliberate indifference for an Eighth Amendment claim
based on the failure to provide medical care that a showing of mere negligence is not sufficient.
Third, liberally construed, Plaintiff's reply argues that the Court improperly held that an
actual injury must be established to find deliberate indifference from a delay in medical care,
rather than the delay in medical care merely creating a substantial risk of serious harm. Dkt. No.
106 at ¶¶ 20-22 (citing Blackmore v. Kalamazoo Cnty., 390 F.3d 890, 899 (6th Cir. 2004)).
Plaintiff misconstrues the Sixth Circuit's holding in Blackmore. In that case, the court held that
the delay need not produce an actual injury to amount to deliberate indifference if "the
seriousness of a prisoner's needs for medical care is obvious even to a lay person . . . ."
Blackmore, 390 F.3d at 899. In such a case where "prison officials are aware of a prisoner's
obvious and serious need for medical treatment and delay medical treatment of that condition for
non-medical reasons, . . . the effect of the delay goes to the extent of the injury, not the existence
of a serious medical condition." Id. Thus, the holding in Blackmore that a delay in providing
medical care need not exacerbate a plaintiff's injury to amount to deliberate indifference is
predicated upon a finding that the plaintiff suffered an "obvious and serious need for medical
treatment." Id. In this case, the Court correctly determined at the outset of its decision that
Plaintiff did not suffer a serious medical condition. Moreover, the Court held that none of the
Defendants had any reason to believe that Plaintiff was experiencing any negative medical
implications as a result of not having his glasses since he never made a sick call for his symptoms
and his grievance letters never mentioned his alleged injuries. See Dkt. No. 99 at 22 ("Strikingly
absent from all of [P]laintiff's complaints and inquiries, however, is any mention of how being
without prescription glasses adversely impacted his health or his daily activities"). Accordingly,
Plaintiff's case did not present a situation where he showed an "obvious and serious need for
medical treatment," such that a mere delay in treatment, without more, amounted to deliberate
Lastly, Plaintiff claims that the Court erred by crediting Defendants' testimony in ruling
on the Rule 50 motion. Dkt. No. 106 at ¶¶ 38-52. Plaintiff's argument on this point is misplaced,
as the Court is not prohibited from citing a Defendant's testimony, and may properly rely on
testimony of Defendants at trial, but simply cannot pass judgment on the credibility of those
witnesses. In the Rule 50 decision, the Court properly drew "all reasonable inferences in
[P]laintiff's favor." Dkt. No. 99 at 10. Thus, the Court applied the appropriate standard of
considering evidence from all witnesses and deciding any conflicts in that evidence in the light
most favorable to Plaintiff. See Weldy v. Piedmont Airlines, 985 F.2d 57, 60 (2d Cir. 1993) ("The
nonmovant must be given the benefit of all reasonable inference, because the trial court cannot
assess the weight of conflicting evidence, pass on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its
judgment for that of the jury"). Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to introduce
any new evidence or provide a compelling argument that the Court misapplied the law to reach a
seriously erroneous result in granting Defendants' Rule 50 motion.
Plaintiff raises numerous arguments for why the Court was biased in deciding his case and
why it should be disqualified from any further proceedings. Plaintiff contends that "the DOCCS
staff at Upstate had written communications to the office of the Attorney General . . . fabricating
[Plaintiff's] alleged violences [sic] conduct against prison guards during court proceedings."
Dkt. No. 96-1 at ¶ 4. Plaintiff contends that he was required to wear handcuffs and leg restraints
during the course of the trial as a result of these allegedly false reports. Id. at ¶ 5. Plaintiff
alleges that the reliance on these violence reports and subsequent ruling that he remain
handcuffed during the proceedings evidences this Court's lack of impartiality to hear his case or
decide the instant motion. Id. at ¶ 6. While Plaintiff is correct that the Court received a
disciplinary report regarding Plaintiff's behavior during the course of the trial, see Dkt. No. 92;
Dkt. No. 101-1 at 29-30, the receipt of this record does not indicate bias in any manner.
The use of shackles to restrain prisoners in a civil case is appropriate in certain
circumstances. See DeLeon v. Strack, 234 F.3d 84, 87-88 (2d Cir. 2000). A trial court may
exercise its discretion to order restraints "to maintain safety and security, [if it] imposes no greater
restraints than are necessary and takes steps to minimize the prejudice flowing from the
restraints." Id. at 88; see also Davidson v. Riley, 44 F.3d 1118, 1122 (2d Cir. 1995); Hameed v.
Mann, 57 F.3d 217, 222 (2d Cir. 1995). Here, the Court placed its reasoning on the record for
keeping Plaintiff in restraints:
THE COURT: All right. While we're in here without the jury being
present, I want to discuss whether or not I will keep Mr. Johnson
partially or fully restrained during the trial. I'll note for the record
that Mr. Johnson has an extremely lengthy disciplinary record from
the period of his incarceration. The disciplinary record includes
many instances of violent conduct, insubordinate conduct,
unhygienic conduct; and in reviewing that disciplinary record, it
appears to me that I should have significant concern about Mr.
Johnson's presence in the courtroom as it relates to the safety of
everyone in the courtroom. Just last Friday, I was advised that
when Mr. Johnson was -- when DOCCS was attempting to move
Mr. Johnson closer to Albany for the trial that he refused a direct
order, made threats, threats of violence, and created a disturbance,
and that his behaviors were violent.
THE COURT: Okay. What I'm going to do for the time being is I'm
going to have his leg restraints remain on and I would like, for the
time being, his hands restrained, but not with the black box and the
waist chain, so before we get the jury pool in here, would you take
as much time as you need, and I will say to you, Mr. Johnson, and
your counsel, that if I see the slightest, it could even just be a
precipitous move on your part, or a facial expression that concerns
me, I will have you fully restrained during the course of the trial.
Dkt. No. 108 at 2-3. The Court was presented not only with the misbehavior report from
Plaintiff's encounter with prison guards immediately preceding the trial, but also reviewed
Plaintiff's voluminous 92 page disciplinary record from his tenure at Upstate C.F. in deciding the
place Plaintiff in restraints during the course of the trial. See Dkt. No. 61. Thus, notwithstanding
that Plaintiff's failure to prove that the disciplinary report received during the course of the trial
was fabricated, the issuance of this report did not form the sole basis for the Court's decision to
shackle Plaintiff, such that the reliance upon this report does not establish bias on the Court's
Plaintiff further alleges that the Court was biased against him because he refused to
consent to the dismissal of certain Defendants during the final pretrial conference, id. at ¶ 7, and
because a prison guard brought a picture of Plaintiff wearing eye glasses during the relevant time
period of this case to the Court's attention during the pendency of the trial, id. at ¶ 8. The Court
notes that neither of these issues presents a grounds for disqualification because they were each
addressed by formal decisions during the pendency of the trial. See In re Int'l Bus. Machines
Corp., 618 F.2d 923, 929 (2d Cir. 1980) ("[U]nder section 455(a) the bias to be established must
be extrajudicial and not based upon in-court rulings").
During the course of the trial, a prison guard presented the Court with a prison transport
photograph containing a picture of Plaintiff wearing eyeglasses. The picture was purportedly
taken during the period of time that Plaintiff claimed he was required to live without glasses. The
Court ruled that this picture could not be introduced for evidentiary or impeachment purposes
because it had not been identified prior to the commencement of trial. Thus, far from showing the
Court's bias against Plaintiff, the evidentiary ruling to exclude the photograph from being
introduced was in Plaintiff's favor. An alternative ruling allowing the jury to consider the picture
of Plaintiff wearing eyeglasses during the time that he claimed he did not have his glasses would
have undoubtedly been fatal to Plaintiff's case. Accordingly, Plaintiff has presented no credible
grounds to question the Court's impartiality and his motion is denied on this ground.
The Court also notes that, while not on the record, Plaintiff acted out aggressively on at
least one occasion during trial, shouting "you stupid old bitch" after the Court issued its decision
on Defendants' Rule 50 motion.
After carefully reviewing the parties' submissions and the applicable law, and for the
above-stated reasons, the Court hereby
ORDERS that Plaintiff's motion (Dkt. No. 96) is DENIED; and the Court further
ORDERS that the Clerk of the Court shall serve a copy of this Memorandum-Decision
and Order on all parties in accordance with the Local Rules.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: July 15, 2016
Albany, New York
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