McCenzie v. McClatchie et al
ORDER denying 61 Motion for Summary Judgment. Case is referred back to Magistrate Judge for Foschio for further proceedings. Signed by Hon. Richard J. Arcara on 3/4/2010. (JMB)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT W E S T E R N DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
M U H S IN FARID HIZBULLAH, 00-A-2980, P la in tiff, D E C IS IO N AND ORDER 0 5 -C V -6 1 8 A v.
SEARGENT M. MCCLATCHIE et al., D e fe n d a n ts .
IN T R O D U C T IO N O n December 10, 2007, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment p u rs u a n t to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("FRCP"). Defendants contend that plaintiff cannot establish an excessive use of force e ith e r objectively or subjectively, and that they are entitled to qualified immunity. In opposition, plaintiff submitted his own affidavit in which he stands by his a lle g a tio n s of assault and excessive force as set forth in his complaint. For the re a s o n s below, the Court will deny the motion. B AC K G R O U N D T h is case concerns allegations of Eighth Amendment violations by prison g u a rd s during an inmate transfer. Plaintiff is a New York State prisoner who was h o u s e d at the Upstate Correctional Facility until approximately February 5, 2004. On or about February 5, 2004, plaintiff was transferred from Upstate Correctional
Facility to Five Points Correctional Facility ("Five Points"), a maximum-security p ris o n . This transfer occurred because of plaintiff's extensive history of p o s s e s s io n of prison contraband and of assaults and other aggravated conduct a g a in s t prison staff. F ro m here, the parties' accounts of the events relevant to this case diverge s ig n ific a n tly . According to defendants, plaintiff's history and new prison a s s ig n m e n t warranted a departure from the usual method of receiving inmates at F ive Points. Five Points has a reception / draft area where new inmates normally e n te r for processing. Plaintiff was not escorted through the Five Points reception / draft area because he was to be assigned to a particular cellblock reserved for p ris o n e rs with a history of assaulting prison staff. Prisoners assigned to that c e llb lo c k are admitted directly through the entrance for that cellblock, and d e fe n d a n ts used that procedure with plaintiff. Defendants contend that plaintiff in itia te d a physical encounter with them upon walking through the cellblock e n tra n c e . Specifically, plaintiff allegedly attempted to hit one of the defendants e s c o rtin g him with his left elbow. Defendants claim that in response, they used fo rc e to place plaintiff against the wall. Defendants admit that their use of force c a u s e d a 1.25 cm laceration over plaintiff's right eyebrow, but that the laceration w a s closed with four sutures and that a medical examination uncovered no other in ju r ie s .
In contrast, plaintiff alleges that defendants initiated a much more s ig n ific a n t physical encounter at the cellblock entrance, and that they planned the e n c o u n te r in advance. Relevant to the pending motion are plaintiff's contentions th a t, upon passing through the cellblock entrance at Five Points, defendants s la p p e d and punched him repeatedly in his head, face, back, and legs. Plaintiff c la im s that one of defendants' punches made plaintiff bang his head against a w a ll, causing the laceration in question. Additionally, plaintiff denies that he in itia te d any aspect of the encounter and that he attempted to elbow anyone. He a rg u e s that he could not have elbowed anyone given the restraints that he was w e a rin g at the time. In arguing for summary judgment, defendants rely heavily on plaintiff's p ris o n file. Defendants contend that the reports, memoranda, and photographs in th a t file establish conclusively that plaintiff initiated a physical encounter that they a d d re s s e d with a reasonable and proportionate amount of force. Defendants c o n te n d further that documentary evidence in this case establishes plaintiff's e ye b ro w laceration as the only injury that he suffered, and that this evidence w o u ld have contained some sort of medical assessment about bruises or other in ju rie s if events had unfolded in any way approaching plaintiff's account. For th e s e reasons, defendants believe that plaintiff's claims fail as a matter of law and th a t they are entitled to qualified immunity.
In opposition to summary judgment, plaintiff acknowledges that there were n o witnesses to the events in question. Plaintiff also concedes that he has no audio, video, or documentary evidence to support his account. Instead, plaintiff h a s submitted his own sworn affidavit maintaining his position that he was a s s a u lte d under the circumstances that he first described in his complaint. D IS C U S S IO N S u m m a ry judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and d is c lo s u re materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue a s to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of la w ." FRCP 56(c)(2). "As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which fa c ts are material. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the s u it under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary ju d g m e n t . . . . More important for present purposes, summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is `genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such th a t a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v . Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (citation omitted). The dispute between the parties about what happened in the cellblock e n tra n c e at Five Points is "material" because it directly affects what plaintiff would h a ve to prove at trial to establish an Eighth Amendment violation. "W h e n prison o ffic ia ls maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary s ta n d a rd s of decency always are violated. This is true whether or not significant 4
injury is evident. Otherwise, the Eighth Amendment would permit any physical p u n is h m e n t, no matter how diabolic or inhuman, inflicting less than some arbitrary q u a n tity of injury." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 9 (1992) (citation omitted). Here, plaintiff has alleged a premeditated and severe physical attack and has d e n ie d doing anything that would have provoked any aspect of that attack. As a p ro se litigant opposing a summary judgment motion, plaintiff is entitled to the b e n e fit of the doubt regarding any inferences that have to be made about his a lle g a tio n s . See, e.g., Bennett v. Falcone, No. 05-CV-1358, 2009 W L 816830, at * 3 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 25, 2009) ("Pleadings submitted by pro se litigants are held to a le s s e r standard than those drafted by attorneys. The Court therefore construes P la in tiff's pleadings liberally so as to interpret them to raise the strongest a rg u m e n ts that they suggest.") (citations omitted). In response, defendants c o n c e d e that a physical encounter occurred, but insist that the encounter was a re s p o n s ive encounter much smaller in scope than what plaintiff has described. As a result, the parties disagree as to who initiated the encounter in question and a s to whether the amount of force that defendants used had been proportionate to any force that plaintiff used against them. Premeditation, planning, and d is p ro p o rtio n a te force go to the heart of what a jury would have to assess at trial w h e n deciding whether defendants violated the Eighth Amendment or are eligible fo r qualified immunity. This case thus satisfies the materiality prong of the s u m m a ry judgment standard. 5
The Court is more concerned about whether plaintiff's allegations and a ffid a vit, as the only evidence that he can muster in opposition to the pending m o tio n , suffice to make his material dispute "genuine." "W h ile it is undoubtedly th e duty of district courts not to weigh the credibility of the parties at the summary ju d g m e n t stage, in the rare circumstance where the plaintiff relies almost e xc lu s ive ly on his own testimony, much of which is contradictory and incomplete, it will be impossible for a district court to determine whether the jury could re a s o n a b ly find for the plaintiff, and thus whether there are any `genuine' issues o f material fact, without making some assessment of the plaintiff's account. Under these circumstances, the moving party still must meet the difficult burden o f demonstrating that there is no evidence in the record upon which a reasonable fa c tfin d e r could base a verdict in the plaintiff's favor." Jeffreys v. City of New Y o rk , 426 F.3d 549, 554 (2d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citations o m itte d ).1 This case does not present the exception established in Jeffreys that w o u ld allow this Court to assess plaintiff's credibility. W h ile plaintiff indeed is re lyin g exclusively on his own testimony, his account of the events in question h a s been consistent since the filing of his complaint. Defendants have not p o in te d to any depositions, interrogatories, or other documents indicating that p la in tiff has undermined his own credibility by contradicting himself. Since
Notably, every legal citation in defendants' memorandum of la w -- in c lu d in g the citations supporting defendants' argument that plaintiff's a lle g a tio n s are "beyond belief"--predates Jeffreys. 6
defendants have conceded that some kind of physical encounter occurred and th a t plaintiff suffered at least one injury as a result--namely, the laceration over h is right eyebrow--the Court will not declare that a jury's decision that plaintiff m e t his burden of proof would be categorically unreasonable. "In short, although th e credibility of plaintiff's testimony concerning the alleged assault is certainly in c o n s is te n t with other evidence and is subject to serious question, it is not so b la ta n tly false that the Court may simply reject it as a matter of law." Moore v. C a s s e lb e rry , 584 F. Supp. 2d 580, 587 (W .D .N .Y . 2008) (Larimer, J.); see also R o s s i v. Stevens, No. 04-CV-01836, 2008 W L 4452383, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2 0 0 8 ) ("In this case, Plaintiff's version of the incident is not limited by any fatal in te rn a l inconsistencies in his story, but primarily by the lack of corroboration of h is testimony. Therefore, although Plaintiff's evidence is open to credibility c h a lle n g e s , the Court finds that it is sufficient to create a genuine issue of fa c t-- o n e which is undoubtedly material to the resolution of his claim.") (internal q u o ta tio n marks and citation omitted). The factual dispute between the parties th u s is "genuine" for purposes of FRCP 56, making summary judgment in a p p ro p ria te .
CONCLUSION F o r all of the foregoing reasons, defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied. This case is referred back to Magistrate Judge Foschio for further p r o c e e d in g s .
s/ Richard J. Arcara
HONORABLE RICHARD J. ARCARA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE DATED: March 4, 2010
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