Greathouse v. Meddaugh et al
MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER: ORDERED that 1. Defendants' 9 motion to dismiss is GRANTED; 2. Plaintiff's complaint is DISMISSED; 3. Plaintiff shall have thirty days from the date of this decision in which to file an amended complai nt; and 3. If plaintiff does not file an amended complaint within this time period, the Clerk of the Court is directed to enter a judgment dismissing the complaint and close the file without further Order of this Court. Signed by Judge David N. Hurd on May 5, 2022. (nas)
Case 9:21-cv-01223-DNH-TWD Document 15 Filed 05/06/22 Page 1 of 17
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
SGT. K. MEDDAUGH, RN MARY
THOMPSON, OFFICER DRAKE,
SORC O’BRIEN, SORC L. O’HARA,
SGT. PHILLIPS, and JOHN/JANE
Attorneys for Plaintiff
14 Wall Street, Suite 1603
New York, NY 10005
ROBERT RICKNER, ESQ.
HON. LETITIA JAMES
New York State Attorney General
Attorneys for Defendants
Albany, NY 12224
MATTHEW GALLAGHER, ESQ.
Ass’t Attorney General
DAVID N. HURD
United States District Judge
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MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER
On November 11, 2021, plaintiff Leon Greathouse (“Greathouse” or
“plaintiff”), a former prison inmate, filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging
that officials employed by the New York State Department of Corrections and
Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) violated his Fourteenth Amendment
rights during a prison disciplinary hearing that resulted in, inter alia, a
twenty-three day delay in his release to parole. Dkt. No. 1.
On March 24, 2022, defendants moved under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure to dismiss the complaint. Dkt. No. 9. The motion has
been fully briefed and will be considered on the basis of the submissions
without oral argument.
On November 29, 2020, Greathouse was housed at Mohawk Correctional
Facility in Rome, New York. Compl. ¶ 1. 1 Plaintiff has a “number of
underlying medical issues for which he was taking medication.” Id. ¶ 19. At
about 4:20 a.m., plaintiff “awoke to a bloody nose and suddenly collapsed onto
the floor of his dorm.” Id. ¶ 18. According to plaintiff, the responding staff
1 The complaint becomes mis-numbered beginning after paragraph 10. However, for
consistency’s sake, the Court adopts the numbering in the pleading.
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members “made a conclusory determination that [he] was under the influence
of an intoxicant” and “immediately restrained and cuffed” him. Id. ¶ 19.
Greathouse alleges that defendant Sergeant K. Meddaugh (“Sgt.
Meddaugh”) forwarded this “unfound[ed] assumption” about plaintiff’s
intoxication to staff at the Walsh Regional Medical Unit (the “RMU”), where
plaintiff was taken for observation. Compl. ¶ 20. There, defendant
Registered Nurse Mary Thompson (“RN Thompson”) “conducted a visual
examination” of plaintiff and concluded “that he was under the influence of
an ‘unknown substance.’” Id. ¶ 21.
Greathouse denied using any drugs or alcohol, but none of the staff at the
RMU believed him. Compl. ¶ 23. Plaintiff alleges that he never received “a
full evaluation or physical examination to determine the cause of the medical
event.” Id. Further, plaintiff alleges that defendants ignored him when he
“expressed concern that he may have experienced some sort of seizure.” Id.
Greathouse alleges that neither RN Thompson nor any other DOCCS
employee followed DOCCS policies, which required confirmatory “[urinalysis]
testing upon any suspicion of intoxication.” Compl. ¶ 22. Instead, defendants
“merely stated, without more, that they believed Plaintiff was guilty of this
violation.” Id. Plaintiff was eventually released from medical observation a
few hours later. Id. ¶ 23.
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On November 30, 2020, Greathouse was issued a disciplinary ticket that
accused him of “ingesting intoxicants in violation of the prison’s Rule
113.13.” Compl. ¶ 27. Plaintiff alleges that this disciplinary proceeding
violated DOCCS policies. Id. ¶¶ 24–25. As plaintiff explains, DOCCS had
suspended “all disciplinary actions regarding intoxication until further
notice” because of issues with the reliability of the test used to confirm the
presence or absence of drugs. See id.
Nevertheless, on December 2 and 3, 2020, Greathouse participated in a
disciplinary hearing on misbehavior ticket. Compl. ¶ 28. Plaintiff alleges he
was denied his right to call witnesses on his behalf. Id. ¶ 31. In addition,
plaintiff alleges he was not allowed to “meaningfully question” RN Thompson
“or inquire as to why he was not given a drug test.” Id. ¶ 29.
Ultimately, defendant Officer Drake, the hearing officer, found
Greathouse guilty of the ticket. Compl. ¶ 32. Plaintiff was sentenced to 30
days of keeplock 2 in the Special Housing Unit (“SHU”). Id. ¶ 33. Plaintiff
also lost 60 days of good-time credit. Id. Plaintiff “handwrote an appeal to
the Commissioner the same day.” Id. ¶ 32.
On December 4, 2020, defendant Supervising Offender Rehabilitation
Coordinator (“SORC”) O’Brien (“SORC O’Brien”), at the direction of SORC
2 Keeplock is “a form of administrative segregation in which the inmate is confined to his cell,
deprived of participation in normal prison routine, and denied contact with other inmates.” Jenkins
v. Haubert, 179 F.3d 19, 21 (2d Cir. 1999) (cleaned up).
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O’Hara, delivered to Greathouse a “Notice of Suspension or Ineligibility of
Parole Release” that suspended his January 4, 2021 release date. Id. ¶ 23.
On December 17, 2020, defendant Sgt. Phillips notified Greathouse that
his “Certificate of Earned Eligibility” had been “denied as a result of [the]
disciplinary charges.” Compl. ¶ 35. Plaintiff was released to parole on
January 27, 2021, twenty-three days later than planned. Id. ¶ 36. Plaintiff
spent the final month of his incarceration in “the ‘box,’ also known as the
III. LEGAL STANDARD
To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint’s factual
allegations must be enough to elevate the plaintiff’s right to relief above the
level of speculation. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). So
while legal conclusions can provide a framework for the complaint, they must
be supported with meaningful allegations of fact. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S.
662, 679 (2009). In short, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a
claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.
To assess this plausibility requirement, the court must accept as true all of
the factual allegations contained in the complaint and draw all reasonable
inferences in the non-movant’s favor. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94
(2007). In doing so, the court generally confines itself to the facts alleged in
the pleading, any documents attached to the complaint or incorporated into it
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by reference, and matters of which judicial notice may be taken. Goel v.
Bunge, Ltd., 820 F.3d 554, 559 (2d Cir. 2016).
Greathouse’s one-count complaint alleges that defendants denied him due
process in connection with the disciplinary hearing and, as a result, he was
deprived of his liberty interests in (1) freedom from disciplinary segregation
absent sufficient process; and/or (2) release to parole. Compl. ¶¶ 37–42.
Defendants contend the complaint must be dismissed because Greathouse
has failed to plead a viable claim. Defs.’ Mem., Dkt. No. 9-1 at 6–7. 3 First,
defendants argue that relatively short durations of confinement in the SHU
do not trigger a protected liberty interest absent plausible allegations of an
“atypical and significant hardship.” Id. Second, defendants argue that a
prisoner in New York does not have a cognizable liberty interest in release to
parole. Id. at 7–8. Third, defendants argue that defendants SORC O’Brien,
SORC O’Hara, and Sgt. Phillips were not “personally involved” in any of the
alleged misconduct. Id. at 8–10.
In opposition, Greathouse contends that he was entitled to confirmatory
urinalysis testing under New York’s regulatory scheme before being
disciplined under DOCCS rules. Pl.’s Opp’n, Dkt. No. 13 at 7–8. In plaintiff’s
3 Pagination corresponds to CM/ECF.
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view, the fact defendants disciplined him for alleged intoxication despite “the
internal prohibition on charges related to intoxication” amounts to “a
complete indifference to [his] right to be free from unjust punishment.” Id. at
8. Plaintiff further argues the “atypical and significant hardship” analysis is
a fact-bound inquiry that requires discovery. Id. at 8–9.
Alternatively, Greathouse contends that he had a distinct liberty interest
subject to due process protections arising from his scheduled release to
parole. Pl.’s Opp’n at 9–10. Finally, although plaintiff concedes that his
claims against defendants SORC O’Brien and SORC O’Hara must be
dismissed, Id. at 5 n.1, he maintains that Sgt. Phillips was “personally
involved” in the alleged violation because he “personally rescinded” plaintiff’s
Certificate of Earned Eligibility despite knowing “that discipline was
improper absent confirmatory testing,” Id. at 10.
The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the states from “depriv[ing] any
person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. CONST.
amend. XIV, § 1. “Federal courts ‘examine procedural due process questions
in two steps: the first asks whether there exists a liberty or property interest
which has been interfered with by the State; the second examines whether
the procedures attendant upon that deprivation were constitutionally
sufficient.’” Francis v. Fiacco, 942 F.3d 126, 141 (2d Cir. 2019) (quoting Ky.
Dep’t of Corr. v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 460 (1989)).
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1. Edwards v. Balisok
As an initial matter, however, in their reply memorandum defendants
assert that Greathouse’s § 1983 procedural due process claim is barred by the
Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997), which
precludes an inmate from asserting a § 1983 claim related to alleged
deficiencies in a prison disciplinary hearing unless the sanction has been
overturned, either through administrative channels or in a habeas corpus
proceeding in state or federal court. See Defs.’ Reply, Dkt. No. 14 at 3–4.
In Edwards, the prisoner-plaintiff was found guilty of breaking certain
prison rules and sentenced to 10 days in isolation, 20 days in segregation,
and the loss of 30 days of good-time credit. 520 U.S. at 643. After his prison
administrative appeal failed, the plaintiff filed a § 1983 action alleging that
the procedures employed at the prison disciplinary proceeding violated his
procedural due process rights. Id. at 644. The Supreme Court rejected the
prisoner’s § 1983 claim, concluding it was not cognizable because it would
“necessarily imply the invalidity of the punishment imposed.” Id. at 648.
If that “implied invalidity” language sounds familiar, it is because the rule
adopted by the Supreme Court in Edwards was an outgrowth of two separate
strands of existing precedent that sharply limited which § 1983 claims can be
brought by prisoner-plaintiffs: Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973), and
Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).
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First, in Preiser, state prisoners filed suit under § 1983 seeking injunctive
relief to compel the restoration of good-time credit they had lost as a result of
prison disciplinary proceedings. 411 US. at 476. The Supreme Court rejected
their claim, concluding that when a prisoner challenges “the very fact or
duration of his physical imprisonment, the relief he seeks is a determination
that he is entitled to immediately release or a speedier release from that
imprisonment, his sole federal remedy is a writ of habeas corpus.” Id. at 500.
Later, in Heck, a prisoner filed suit under § 1983 seeking money damages
against law enforcement officials who had engaged in unlawful acts during
his state court prosecution. 512 U.S. at 478–79. The Supreme Court rejected
this claim too, reasoning that a § 1983 claim for money damages is not
cognizable if “a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the
invalidity of his conviction or sentence” unless the plaintiff can demonstrate
the conviction or sentence has been invalidated. Id. at 487.
“These cases, taken together, indicate that a state prisoner’s § 1983 action
is barred (absent prior invalidation)—no matter the relief sought (damages or
equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner’s suit (state conduct
leading to conviction or internal prison proceedings)—if success in that action
would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or its
duration.” Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81–82 (2005) (emphasis in
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Based on the facts alleged in the complaint, Edwards would likely apply to
Greathouse’s § 1983 procedural due process claim. Plaintiff alleges that he
was deprived of due process at the prison disciplinary hearing, which resulted
in the loss of good-time credit and delayed his release to parole. However,
plaintiff has not alleged that the disciplinary hearing has been overturned or
otherwise expunged. Absent that kind of showing, plaintiff likely cannot
maintain this claim. As the Second Circuit has explained:
The case law is clear that when a prisoner’s challenge
either to the process or the result of a prison
disciplinary proceeding necessarily implies the
invalidity of a sanction that affects the duration of his
sentence, such as the deprivation of good-time credits,
the prisoner may not maintain an action under § 1983
unless he has shown that the sanction (or the
procedures that led to it, if the procedural defect at
issue was critical to the imposition of the sanction)
have been overturned through administrative
channels or by a state or federal court.
Peralta v. Vasquez, 467 F.3d 98, 100 (2d Cir. 2006).
Upon review, however, the Court declines to apply Edwards at this
time. There are two reasons for this conclusion. First, defendants failed to
raise Edwards in their opening brief, which has deprived Greathouse of an
opportunity to distinguish it. Although the precise impact of Edwards might
be clear if plaintiff were still in custody at Mohawk or some other DOCCS
facility, plaintiff’s complaint alleges he is now on some kind of parole status.
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Although Edwards will not bar a claim for which habeas corpus relief is
unavailable, a parolee (as Greathouse apparently is) is typically considered
“in custody” for the purpose of a habeas proceeding. Webster v. Himmelbach,
271 F. Supp. 3d 458, 469 (W.D.N.Y. 2017); see also Nowakowski v. New York,
835 F.3d 210, 216 (2d Cir. 2016) (“[A] variety of nonconfinement restraints on
liberty satisfy the custodial requirement.”).
“For challenges to an underlying conviction, courts have found petitioners
to be ‘in custody’ for purposes of habeas not only when they are incarcerated
but also when they are on parole or supervised release.” Opperisano v. P.O.
Jones, 286 F. Supp. 3d 450, 455 n.7 (E.D.N.Y. 2018) (emphasis in original)
(collecting cases). “However, petitioners challenging their parole revocation
would not appear to be ‘in custody’ for purposes of habeas after release on
Greathouse challenges events that led to a change in the duration of his
incarceration on an underlying conviction—he lost good-time credit that
delayed his release. That fact pattern would seem to satisfy the “in custody”
requirement, which in turn would trigger the requirements of Edwards. And
if Edwards applies, plaintiff cannot proceed with this § 1983 claim to the
extent that it involves durational sanctions; i.e., the loss of good-time credit
and/or his delayed release to parole. However, because this change in
plaintiff’s status might well impact the applicability of Edwards, the parties
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and the Court would be better served with adversarial briefing on the
question before reaching that conclusion.
Second, even if Edwards did apply to the facts alleged by Greathouse, the
Second Circuit’s holding in Peralta v. Vasquez, 467 F.3d 98 (2006), would still
allow him to proceed with his § 1983 procedural due process claim as long as
he agreed to limit it to the conditions-of-confinement component of the
disciplinary sanction he received: the 30 days he spent in the SHU.
In Peralta, the Second Circuit concluded that a prisoner subject to “mixed
sanctions” i.e., “sanctions that affect both (a) the duration of his
imprisonment and (b) the conditions of his confinement” was still able to
“proceed separately, under § 1983, with a challenge to the sanctions affecting
his conditions of confinement without satisfying the favorable termination
rule.” 467 F.3d at 104. Importantly, however, to do so “the prisoner must
abandon, not just now, but also in any future proceeding, any claims he may
have with respect to the duration of his confinement that arise out of the
proceeding he is attacking in his current § 1983 suit.” Id.
“This allowance for forfeiture of duration claims in procedural due process
cases brought pursuant to § 1983 has come to be known as a ‘Peralta
waiver.’” Balkum v. Leonard, 2020 WL 372914, at *3 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 23,
2020). “In other words, if a plaintiff forever abandons any claims with
respect to the duration of his confinement that arise out of the disciplinary
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proceeding challenged, he may pursue a procedural due process claim with
respect to that disciplinary proceeding to challenge the conditions of his
confinement.” Id. (emphases in original).
2. Liberty Interest
However, even if Greathouse agreed to limit his § 1983 procedural due
process claim in this manner, it would still be subject to dismissal as it is
“A prisoner’s restricted confinement within a prison does not give rise to a
liberty interest, warranting procedural due process protection, unless the
conditions and duration of the prisoner’s confinement ‘impose[ ] atypical and
significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of
prison life.’” Sealey v. Giltner, 197 F.3d 578, 583 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting
Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995)).
“Factors relevant to determining whether the plaintiff endured an
‘atypical and significant hardship’ include the extent to which the conditions
of the disciplinary segregation differ from other routine prison conditions and
the duration of the disciplinary segregation imposed compared to
discretionary confinement.” Davis v. Barrett, 576 F.3d 129, 133 (2d Cir. 2009)
“The Second Circuit has not provided a bright-line rule as to what period
of time in segregated confinement implicates a prisoner’s constitutional
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rights, but the case law provides helpful guideposts.” Vogelfang v. Capra,
889 F. Supp. 2d 489, 510–11 (S.D.N.Y. 2012). As relevant here, however, the
Second Circuit has repeatedly concluded that “restrictive confinements of less
than 101 days do not generally raise a liberty interest warranting due
process protection, and thus require proof of conditions more onerous than
usual.” Davis, 576 F.3d at 133 (citation omitted).
Greathouse alleges that he spent 30 days in the SHU as a result of being
found guilty on the disciplinary charge. But he does not allege any facts to
suggest that this relatively short period of disciplinary segregation posed the
kind of “atypical and significant hardship” necessary to trigger a protected
liberty interest. See, e.g., Israel v. Bradt, 228 F. Supp. 3d 237, 239 (W.D.N.Y.
2017) (“In line with Second Circuit precedent, district courts within this
circuit have repeatedly held that sentences of . . . –two months—do not,
absent some unusually harsh conditions, implicate a protected liberty
interest.” (collecting cases)).
Thus, although Greathouse may be correct that the “atypical and
significant hardship” inquiry ultimately involves a fact-bound examination of
the conditions of confinement, see, e.g., Sealey, 116 F.3d at 52, on a motion to
dismiss the plaintiff must still allege facts that plausibly suggest the
relatively short period of confinement at issue—30 days—involved some kind
of “atypical and significant hardship.”
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3. Parole Status
As a final matter, Greathouse contends that he enjoyed a distinct liberty
interest arising from his scheduled release to parole. To make this argument,
plaintiff relies on Victory v. Pataki, 814 F.3d 47 (2d Cir. 2016), where the
Second Circuit analyzed the point at which New York’s statutory parole
scheme triggered a protected liberty interest. As relevant here, Victory
concluded that, “[u]nlike a mere applicant for parole, a New York inmate who
has been granted an open parole release date has a legitimate expectancy of
release that is grounded in New York’s regulatory scheme.” Id. at 60.
The problem with this argument is twofold. First, Victory’s holding is
about the procedural due process owed in the context of a parole rescission
hearing, not a prison disciplinary proceeding. See 814 F.3d at 60 (“We
therefore conclude that a New York ‘parole grantee has a protectable liberty
interest that entitles him to due process in the [Board of Parole’s] parole
Greathouse has not challenged the results of any parole hearing. And the
cases citing Victory do not seem to rely on it for the premise advanced by
plaintiff here; i.e., that a plaintiff’s liberty interest in parole permits him to
proceed on a § 1983 claim related to a prison disciplinary hearing
notwithstanding the procedural bar set forth in Edwards and/or the minimal
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threshold showing of “atypical and significant hardship” established by the
Supreme Court in Sandin.
Second, even assuming the logic of Victory authorized an end run around
these two Supreme Court precedents, Greathouse has alleged little in the
way of facts related to his release to parole. Although he mentions that a
Certificate of Earned Eligibility was “denied,” compl. ¶ 35, and his release
date was delayed as a result, id. ¶ 34, it is worth noting that even “the receipt
of an earned eligibility certificate does not preclude the Board from denying
parole, nor does it eliminate the Board’s discretion in making the release
decision.” Wills v. Microgenetics Corp., 2021 WL 3516419, at *3 (E.D.N.Y.
Aug. 10, 2021) (quoting Wallman v. Travis, 794 N.Y.S.2d 381, 386 (N.Y. App.
Div. 1st Dep’t 2005)).
Thus, absent some additional factual allegations about how far along in
the parole determination process Greathouse was at the time of his unknown
medical incident, it is hard to conclude that plaintiff possessed a cognizable
liberty interest under the Second Circuit’s reasoning in Victory. 4 Cf. Delaney
v. Perez, 2021 WL 3038642, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. July 16, 2021) (extending Victory
to a § 1983 claim that prisoner was improperly incarcerated despite being
sentenced to parole supervision).
4 Even assuming otherwise, the “flexible, context-dependent approach” to procedural due
process claims “makes particularly fertile ground for qualified immunity.” Francis, 942 F.3d at 149.
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Greathouse’s complaint must be dismissed. However, because the facts
alleged in the complaint suggest that plaintiff might still be able to plead a
viable § 1983 procedural due process claim against one or more of the
defendants, he will be given leave to amend his complaint.
Therefore, it is
1. Defendants’ motion to dismiss is GRANTED;
2. Plaintiff’s complaint is DISMISSED;
3. Plaintiff shall have thirty days from the date of this decision in which
to file an amended complaint; and
3. If plaintiff does not file an amended complaint within this time period,
the Clerk of the Court is directed to enter a judgment dismissing the
complaint and close the file without further Order of this Court.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: May 5, 2022
Utica, New York.
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