Matzell v. Annucci et al
MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER: ORDERED that Defendants' Dkt. 41 motion for judgment on the pleadings is DENIED. Signed by Judge David N. Hurd on October 7, 2021. (nas)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
JEFFREY MCKOY, BRUCE YELICH,
STANLEY BARTON, KAY HEADINGSMITH, ELIZABETH LARAMAY, JANE
BOYEA, JOHN/JANE DOES 1-10,
EMERY CELLI BRINCKERHOFF
ABADY WARD & MAAZEL, LLP
Attorneys for Plaintiff
600 Fifth Avenue, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10020
KATHERINE ROSENFELD, ESQ.
DEBRA L. GREENBERGER, ESQ.
VIVAKE PRASAD, ESQ.
HON. LETITIA JAMES
Attorney General for the
State of New York
Attorneys for Defendants
Albany, New York 12224
DAVID N. HURD
United States District Judge
CHRIS LIBERATI-CONANT, ESQ.
Ass’t Attorney General
MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER
On November 25, 2020, plaintiff Michael Matzell (“Matzell” or “plaintiff”)
filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) putative class action against defendants
Jeffrey McKoy, Bruce Yelich, Stanley Barton, Trudylynn Boyea, Katherine
Heading-Smith, Elizabeth Laramay, Anthony Annucci, and other
unidentified New York State Department of Corrections and Community
Supervision (“DOCCS”) employees (together “defendants”). Plaintiff, a
former inmate in New York state prison, alleges defendants’ decision to
administratively disqualify him from DOCCS’ Shock Incarceration Program
(“Shock”) despite a sentencing judge’s order that he enter the program
violated his rights.
Matzell brings claims under § 1983 for violation of his rights under the
Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Defendants have moved for judgment
on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 12(c). The
motion having been fully briefed, the Court will now consider it on the basis
of the parties’ submissions without oral argument.
A. The Shock Incarceration Program
Shock is a six-month program in which inmates are subject to “a highly
structured routine of discipline, intensive regimentation, exercise and work
therapy, together with substance abuse workshops, education, prerelease
counseling, and self-improvement counseling.” Dkt. 1 (“Compl.”), ¶ 38 (citing
N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 7, § 1800.2). 1 To be eligible for Shock, an
inmate must be: (1) eligible for release (on parole or conditional release)
within three years; (2) less than fifty years old; (3) free of any prior conviction
for a violent felony offense; and (4) not currently serving a sentence for
specified violent crimes. See id. ¶ 48 (citing N.Y. CORR. LAW § 865(1)). A
Shock participant who successfully completes the program is eligible for
immediate release on parole or conditional release. See N.Y. CORR. LAW §
867(4); N.Y. EXEC. LAW § 259-i(2)(e); 7 N.Y.C.R.R. §§ 1800.2, 1800.4(c); 9
N.Y.C.R.R. § 8010.2.
Prior to 2009, DOCCS enjoyed broad discretion to admit or exclude
individuals from Shock. Compl. ¶ 39. Indeed, until that point, only DOCCS
could determine an inmate’s Shock eligibility; judges had no authority to
order that an inmate be placed in the program. Id. ¶ 44.
However, in 2009, the New York State Legislature passed the Drug Law
Reform Act of 2009, (L 2009, ch 56, as codified in CPL 440.46 “DLRA”), which
allowed sentencing judges to offer court-mandated substance abuse
treatment to certain non-violent offenders without the approval of
The facts are taken entirely from plaintiff’s complaint and any documents attached to it,
because for the purposes of a Rule 12(c) motion, this court must accept all factual allegations in the
complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor.
prosecutors. Id. ¶¶ 40-41. Specifically, the DLRA amended Penal Law
§ 60.04(7) and enabled a sentencing court to “issue an order directing that
[DOCCS] enroll the defendant in the shock incarceration
program . . . provided that the defendant is an eligible inmate, as described in
[N.Y. CORR. LAW § 865(1)].” Id. ¶¶ 42.
Since the DLRA’s 2009 enactment, state prison officials may continue to
screen individuals who apply to Shock but may only reject inmates who have
been judicially sentenced to Shock when the prisoner has a “medical or
mental health condition” that would prevent him from successfully
completing the program. Compl. ¶ 50. Although the legislature reduced
DOCCS’ role in screening inmates, it nevertheless clarified that “any
defendant to be enrolled [in the Shock] program pursuant to this subdivision
shall be governed by the same rules and regulations promulgated by
[DOCCS], including without limitation those rules and regulations
establishing requirements for completion and such rules and regulations
governing discipline and removal from the program.” Id. ¶ 48 (citing
N.Y. PENAL LAW § 60.04(7)).
The DLRA’s changes to Shock were widely reported. Members of the
media, public defender organizations, criminal justice groups, and other
stakeholders all discussed its impact. Compl. ¶¶ 43, 47. DOCCS itself even
issued an analysis explaining the statutory reforms, noting that “[t]he
DLR[A] also permits the sentencing court to order DOCCS to enroll a drug
defendant into the Shock Incarceration Program when the defendant meets
the legal requirements.” Id. ¶ 46.
B. Plaintiff’s Sentencing and Time in DOCCS Custody
On July 9, 2015, the St. Lawrence County Court sentenced Matzell to four
years’ imprisonment, to be followed by three years of post-release
supervision, for criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third
degree. Compl. ¶ 65. Plaintiff was to serve this sentence consecutively to the
thirty-seven-months of time remaining from a previous sentence. Id. ¶ 66.
Put together, plaintiff’s aggregate maximum term was set at seven years, one
month, and 26 days. Id. The court also sentenced plaintiff to enroll in Shock
under to Penal Law § 60.04(7), though he would not become time-eligible for
the program until January 2018. Id.
On July 16, 2015, Matzell entered DOCCS custody to begin serving his
sentence. Compl. ¶ 68. During his incarceration, plaintiff received several
Tier 3 disciplinary tickets for substance-abuse-related infractions. Id. ¶ 71.
In January 2018, after serving two and a half years of his sentence,
Matzell became time-eligible to enroll in Shock. Compl. ¶ 72. But when
plaintiff applied, DOCCS denied him admission to the program based on his
disciplinary tickets for substance abuse during his incarceration. Id.
Specifically, as Matzell neared his Shock enrollment eligibility date, he
contacted defendants Boyea and Barton to inquire about his anticipated
enrollment in Shock. Compl. ¶ 76. Both defendants denied plaintiff’s
admission to Shock based on his disciplinary tickets for substance abuserelated infractions. Id. ¶¶ 77-83. Around this time, defendants Smith and
McKoy also wrote to plaintiff and informed him of his ineligibility for Shock
on the same grounds. Id. ¶¶ 82, 84-90.
On December 18, 2017, Matzell’s counsel wrote to defendant Yelich and
identified certain statutory grounds that he argued would require plaintiff’s
admission to Shock absent a disqualifying medical or mental health
condition. Compl. ¶ 89. On February 15, 2018, defendant McKoy replied,
informing plaintiff that he did not meet the disciplinary criteria to enter
Shock. Id. At no point did defendants identify any medical or mental health
conditions that prevented plaintiff from enrolling in the program. Id. ¶¶ 85,
On May 8, 2018, after defendants excluded Matzell from Shock, he
commenced an Article 78 proceeding 2 challenging DOCCS’ determination
that he was ineligible for the program. Compl. ¶ 97. On March 7, 2019, the
New York State Supreme Court, Albany County, issued an Order and
Judgment (the “March 7 Order”) in favor of plaintiff, stating “the controlling
An Article 78 proceeding is a special proceeding under New York law which allows a petitioner
to challenge the legality of state actions. See N.Y. CPLR § 7803.
statutes do not permit DOCCS to administratively bar an inmate from
entering the [S]hock program when [S]hock has been judicially ordered. To do
so constitutes an administrative alteration of a sentence, which is not
permitted.” Id. ¶ 98.
In the Article 78 proceeding, DOCCS argued that it retained discretion to
bar judicially sentenced shock inmates from participating in the program.
Compl. ¶ 99. DOCCS reasoned that Penal Law § 60.04(7)(a) refers to
incarcerated persons who have yet to begin Shock, which allows DOCCS to
apply its own rules and regulations to preclude those individuals from
enrolling in Shock. Id. ¶ 99 n.9.
The March 7 Order rejected this interpretation of § 60.04(7)(a), stating
that “[t]he full sentence [in this section] refers to any defendant who is ‘to be
enrolled’ in shock because a court has already ordered DOCCS to do so.” Id.
(emphasis in original). Moreover, the March 7 Order stated that defendant
Annucci was under a “clear statutory mandate” to enroll Matzell in Shock,
and that “[n]othing in the statute permits DOCCS to defy a court order.”
Id. ¶ 100. Accordingly, the March 7 Order directed DOCCS to enroll plaintiff
in Shock within 30 days. Id. ¶ 101.
DOCCS appealed the March 7 Order, which resulted in an automatic stay.
Compl. ¶ 102. Matzell moved to vacate the automatic stay, and on May 31,
2019, the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third
Department, granted his motion. Id. ¶ 102. Ultimately, that court also
affirmed the March 7 Order. See In re Matzell v. Annucci, 121 N.Y.S.3d 153
(Sup. Ct. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2020).
Following the March 7 Order and the Third Department’s order vacating
the automatic stay, DOCCS officially determined that Matzell suffered from
no disqualifying “medical or mental condition.” Compl. ¶ 103. On June 7,
2019, DOCCS allowed plaintiff to enroll in Shock, 506 days after he became
eligible for the program. Id. ¶ 104.
On December 24, 2019, upon Matzell’s completion of Shock, DOCCS
immediately and automatically granted him early conditional release; he was
released from DOCCS custody the same day. Compl. ¶¶ 106-107.
Rule 12(c) provides that “after the pleadings are closed – but early enough
not to delay trial – a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” FED. R.
CIV. P. 12(c). “The standard for addressing a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment
on the pleadings is the same as that for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for
failure to state a claim.” Cleveland v. Caplaw Enters., 448 F.3d 518, 521 (2d
“When considering [a Rule 12(c) motion], a court must construe plaintiff’s
complaint liberally, accepting all factual allegations in the complaint as true,
and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor.” Smith v.
Roberson, 2016 WL 1056588, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 16, 2016); see also Heller v.
Consol. Rail Corp., 331 F. App’x 766, 767 (2d Cir. 2009). “A claim has facial
plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to
draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
alleged.” Smith, 2016 WL 1056588, at *1.
Matzell asserts two claims on behalf of himself and a putative class: (1) a
claim alleging defendants denied his rights as guaranteed by § 1983 and the
Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution; and (2) a claim
alleging that defendants imposed cruel and unusual punishment in violation
of § 1983 and the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Defendants argue for dismissal of Matzell’s claims solely on the grounds
that they are entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law.
“Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages
liability ‘insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory
or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”
Moore v. Keller, 2021 WL 4066541, at *5 (N.D.N.Y. Sep. 7, 2021) (citing Jones
v. Treubig, 963 F.3d 214, 224 (2d Cir. 2020)). The qualified immunity
analysis asks (1) whether the official violated a statutory or constitutional
right; and (2) whether that right was “clearly established” at the time of the
challenged conduct. See Francis v. Fiacco, 942 F.3d 126, 140 (2d Cir. 2019).
The Second Circuit has sometimes broken this test into three separate
inquiries: (1) whether plaintiff has shown facts making out violation of a
constitutional right; (2) if so, whether that right was “clearly established”;
and (3) even if that right was “clearly established,” whether it was still
“objectively reasonable” for defendant to believe his conduct was lawful.
Gonzalez v. City of Schenectady, 728 F.3d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 2013).
To be clearly established for purposes of qualified immunity, “it is
sufficient if decisions of the Supreme Court or of the appropriate circuit have
defined the contours of the right with reasonable specificity.” Vincent v.
Yelich, 718 F.3d 157, 169 (2d Cir. 2013) (citing Tellier v. Fields, 280 F.3d 69,
84 (2d Cir. 2000)).
Defendants do not appear to challenge plaintiff at the first step of the
qualified immunity inquiry. Instead, they argue it was not “clearly
established” that DOCCS’s application of pre-existing administrative
exclusion criteria violated an inmate’s constitutional rights.”
This argument is unpersuasive. First, the New York statutes are clear
that, although state prison officials may screen (and reject) individuals who
apply to Shock, they may only screen judicially sentenced inmates for
“medical or mental health condition[s]” that would prevent an inmate from
completing the program. Compare N.Y. CORR. LAW § 867(1)-(2) (permitting
state prison officials to screen Shock applicants to assess whether
individual’s participation would be “consistent with the safety of the
community, the welfare of the applicant and the rules and regulations of the
department”), with id. § 867(2-a) (“Subdivisions one and two of this section
shall apply to a judicially sentenced shock incarceration inmate only to the
extent that the screening committee may determine whether the inmate has
a medical or mental health condition that will render the inmate unable to
successfully complete [Shock]”). 3
Moreover, since at least 2006, the Second Circuit has stated that
“[DOCCS] has no…power to alter a [judge’s] sentence.” Earley v. Murray,
451 F.3d 71, 76 (2d Cir. 2006). For this principle, the Earley court looked
back 70 years to Hill v. United States ex rel. Wampler, 298 U.S. 46 (1936),
noting that in Wampler, “the Supreme Court established that the sentence
imposed by the sentencing judge is controlling; it is this sentence that
constitutes the court’s judgment and authorizes the custody of a defendant.”
Earley, 451 F.3d at 74. In 2013 and 2016, the Second Circuit confirmed that,
for the purposes of qualified immunity, Earley clearly established that
As noted supra § II.B, the New York State Supreme Court, Albany County and the Third
Department reached a similar conclusion. Both courts rejected DOCCS’ argument that it could
determine Shock enrollment for judicially sentenced inmates. See Dkt. No. 48, Ex. C, Matzell v.
Annucci, No. 3111-18, at 6 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cnty., Mar. 7, 2019) (“[T]he Court finds that the controlling
statutes do not permit DOCCS to administratively bar an inmate from entering the shock program
when shock has been judicially ordered. To do so constitutes an administrative alteration of a
sentence which is not permitted”); see also Matzell, 121 N.Y.S.3d at 157-58 (“DOCCS’ interpretation
would permit it to administratively modify a criminal sentence, rendering the Legislature’s grant of
judicial authority under the statute meaningless and hamper the purpose of the statute under the
DOCCS does not have the power to alter a sentence. See Vincent, 718 F.3d at
170; Betances v. Fischer, 837 F.3d 162, 171 (2d Cir. 2016).
The mere fact that no court has specifically extended Earley’s rule to an
administrative exclusion from Shock does not change the result. Indeed,
while the Supreme Court has held that “rights should not be defined at a
high level of generality,” White v. Pauly, 137 S. Ct. 548, 552 (2017), it
reiterated recently that “a general constitutional rule already identified in
the decisional law may apply with obvious clarity to the specific conduct in
question,” Taylor v. Riojas 141 S. Ct. 52, 53-54 (2020) (citing Hope v. Pelzer,
536 U.S. 730, 741 (2002)). And as the Second Circuit noted in Earley, since at
least 1936 (in Wampler), the Supreme Court has approved of the broad rule
that “[t]he judgment of the court establishes a defendant’s sentence, and that
sentence may not be increased by an administrator’s amendment.” Earley,
451 F.3d at 75 (citing Greene v. United States, 358 U.S. 326, 329 (1959) and
Johnson v. Mabry, 602 F.2d 167, 170 (8th Cir. 1979)).
Given Wampler’s reach, the Earley court did not hesitate to extend its
holding to DOCCS’ addition of post-release imprisonment (“PRS”) to an
inmate’s sentence, even though Wampler did not concern PRS at all. More
recently, Vincent made clear that the rights recognized in Earley were not
limited to DOCCS administratively adding PRS. See Vincent, 718 F.3d at
170 (explaining that the Earley court “stated [ ] ‘New York’s Department of
Correctional Services has no . . . power to alter a sentence’”) (italics in
original). This line of cases sufficiently “defined the contours of the right
with reasonable specificity,” Vincent, 718 F.3d at 169, and gave defendants
“fair warning” that their conduct was unconstitutional, Hope v. Pelzer, 536
U.S. 730, 741 (2002).
Defendants rely on three cases, Sudler, Francis, and Hurd, to argue that
the rights at issue here were not clearly established. These cases are
Sudler involved DOCCS’ calculation of certain jail time credits that are
due when two separate sentences run concurrently. See Sudler v. City of New
York, 689 F.3d 159, 172 (2d Cir. 2012). In Sudler, the two concurrent
sentences could not run concurrently under state law, and there were no
cases instructing DOCCS how to reconcile these competing legal commands.
See id. at 172-73, 175. Since there were no instructive cases, the court held
that defendants’ approach was reasonable and did not violate clearly
established law. See id. at 174-75. This is different from the present
allegations, where there are no competing legal commands, only a single
sentence issued by a single judge.
Francis dealt with a conflict between a state court sentencing order and a
New York statute which denied the court the authority to sentence the
defendant in the manner it sought to. See Francis v. Fiacco, 942 F.3d 126,
131 (2d Cir. 2019). Specifically, a state court judge had ordered plaintiff’s
state sentence to run concurrently with a federal sentence that a judge had
not yet issued, but was contrary to state law. Id. Thus, like in Sudler, there
were competing legal commands; defendants were “between the rock of the [ ]
sentencing order and the hard place of the New York statutory scheme.” Id.
at 134. By contrast, the parties in this case do not dispute that the
sentencing court had the authority to sentence plaintiff to Shock.
Finally, Hurd is unavailing because it did not concern the alteration of a
judicial sentence, but rather an official complying with a judicial sentence
and miscalculating statutorily mandated credits. See Hurd v. Frendenburgh,
984 F.3d 1075, 1081 (2d Cir. 2021). The sentencing court in Hurd only set
the inmate’s maximum sentence and did not specify how it was to run. Id.
Additionally, the sentencing court did not order DOCCS to grant the inmate
credits for jail-time or good behavior. Id. A DOCCS official ultimately
miscalculated the statutorily mandated credits, but DOCCS released the
inmate before his maximum sentence term expired. Id. This differs from the
present circumstances, where plaintiff alleges that the sentencing judge’s
order expressly ordered him into Shock as part of his sentence, and where
plaintiff’s maximum sentence would only apply if he were ineligible for Shock
or could not complete it.
Defendants’ citation to Miller to suggest that, prior to Matter of Matzell
(his Article 78 proceeding on this issue), it could be “fairly argued” that Penal
Law § 60.04(7) gave DOCCS authority to administratively exclude those
judicially ordered to Shock is likewise unconvincing.
Miller concerned a different statute than this case, as well as a different
program (Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment,
“CASAT”). See Matter of Miller v. Fischer, 67 A.D.3d 1269, 1269 (3d Dept.
2009). CASAT, unlike Shock, has three phases; the first can be court-ordered
and not subject to DOCCS discretion, but the second two require approval by
DOCCS officials. Id. In Miller, DOCCS allowed Miller to enroll in the first
phase of the program, but denied him entrance into phase two. Id. at 126970. The court, citing the statute, held that DOCCS did not have authority or
discretion to deny admission to phase one of CASAT, but that it could
exercise discretion for the second phase. Id. at 1270-71.
In this case, Matzell alleges that defendants were aware of the changes
brought forth by the DLRA (in fact even issuing an analysis on these
changes), see, e.g., Compl. ¶¶ 14-17, 46, and yet still knowingly violated the
law, see id. ¶¶ 118, 124.
These allegations, coupled with pre-existing Second
Circuit precedent, the DLRA’s plain language, and the state court decisions
holding that the DLRA required DOCCS to enroll judicially sentenced
inmates in Shock, are sufficient to plausibly allege that defendants’ conduct
was not objectively legally reasonable in light of clearly established law.
Matzell has plausibly alleged that DOCCS’ refusal to enroll him in Shock
violated clearly established law. Accordingly, defendants’ bid for qualified
immunity must be rejected.
Therefore, it is
Defendants’ Dkt. 41 motion for judgment on the pleadings is DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: October 7, 2021
Utica, New York.
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