Viera v. Annucci et al
DECISION AND ORDER granting 62 Motion for Summary Judgment. The Clerk of Court is directed to terminate Sheahan, Rogers, and Caporiccio as defendants. Signed by Hon. Elizabeth A. Wolford on 03/31/2021. (CDH)-CLERK TO FOLLOW UP-
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
DECISION AND ORDER
M. SHEAHAN, THOMAS LEPKOWSKI,
CHANTIL J. BATES, JOHN A. ROGERS,
and DYLAN J. CAPORICCIO,
Pro se plaintiff Terell Viera (“Plaintiff”), an inmate in the custody of the New York
State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”), claims that
defendants M. Sheahan (“Sheahan”), Thomas Lepkowski (“Lepkowski”), Chantil J. Bates
(“Bates”), John A. Rogers (“Rogers”), and Dylan J. Caporiccio (“Caporiccio”)
(collectively “Defendants”) unconstitutionally interfered with his legal mail while he was
housed at the Southport Correctional Facility (“Southport”). (Dkt. 59). Presently before
the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Sheahan, Rogers, and Caporiccio
(collectively “Moving Defendants”). (Dkt. 62). For the reasons that follow, the motion is
The following facts are taken from Moving Defendants’ Statement of Undisputed
Facts (Dkt. 62-1), and the exhibits submitted in support of the motion. Despite being
afforded several extensions of time to file a response to the pending motion, Plaintiff failed
to submit an opposing statement of material facts as required by this District’s Local Rules
of Civil Procedure. However, Plaintiff did file a declaration setting forth his version of the
relevant events (Dkt. 90), which the Court has reviewed. Plaintiff’s declaration does not
contradict the material facts set forth by Moving Defendants and summarized below.
Accordingly, the Court has accepted Moving Defendants’ factual assertions to the extent
they are supported by the evidence of record.
As noted above, Plaintiff is an inmate in the custody of DOCCS. (Dkt. 62-1 at ¶ 1).
Sheahan is the former superintendent of Southport, and Rogers and Caporiccio are
corrections officers employed by DOCCS. (Id. at ¶ 2).
At the time of the alleged interference with his mail, Plaintiff was serving a sentence
in the special housing unit (“SHU”) for two incidents of assault at the Clinton Correctional
Facility. (Id. at ¶ 3). Plaintiff had further been sentenced to a cumulative total of 300 days
of loss of packages privileges, running from April 27, 2016, to February 21, 2017. (Id. at
Plaintiff first arrived at Southport in or about June 2016, and was able to send and
receive mail without issue. (Id. at ¶ 5). In early October 2016, Plaintiff sent a letter to an
individual named Patty Shanno (“Shanno”), who runs a private typing service in New
Jersey. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-6). Plaintiff received a response from Shanno agreeing to type up
papers related to a petition for a writ of habeas corpus Plaintiff had filed in federal court.
(Id. at ¶ 5).
On October 30, 2016, Plaintiff attempted to mail to Shanno legal papers including
a notice of motion, an affidavit, and a 65-page handwritten memorandum of law. (Id. at
¶ 8). Plaintiff placed his papers in a 9x12 inch envelope addressed to Shanno and included
an appropriate disbursement form. (Id. at ¶ 9). Rogers, who was collecting inmate mail
on that date, took the open envelope from Plaintiff, checked it for contraband, and then
placed it in the box for outgoing mail. (Id. at ¶ 10). Plaintiff’s envelope was returned to
him the next day, with an affixed note from mailroom staff stating, “You don’t have
package privileges, you need to break it down in state envelope.” (Id. at ¶ 11).
Later in the day on October 31, 2016, Plaintiff attempted to mail his papers to
Shanno a second time. (Id. at ¶ 12). Plaintiff again gave the envelope to Rogers, who
stated that he had already tried to send it out for Plaintiff, but would try again. (Id.).
Plaintiff asked Rogers why his mail was being returned, and Rogers indicated that he did
not know and that it was “probably something to do upfront,” but that he would put
Plaintiff’s papers in the mail again. (Id. at ¶ 13). Plaintiff’s second envelope was returned
on November 1, 2016, with an affixed note from mailroom staff stating, “No package
privileges per directive and your SHU orientation manual.” (Id. at ¶ 15).
Plaintiff attempted to mail his papers to Shanno in the same manner a third time.
(Id. at ¶ 16). Plaintiff’s third envelope was returned on November 3, 2016, with a notice
stating, “No package privileges . . . only for legal look at your orientation manual and
directive 4422-4421. Break it down in state envelope & send it. Thank you.” (Id. at ¶ 16).
Plaintiff made a final attempt to mail his papers on the evening of November 3,
2016. (Id. at ¶ 16). Plaintiff again handed the envelope and the disbursement form to
Rogers. (Id.). Plaintiff’s envelope was not returned to him after this fourth attempt, nor
did he receive a copy of the disbursement form back as proof that his papers had been sent
to Shanno. (Id. at ¶ 23). Plaintiff does not know what happened to his fourth envelope.
(Id. at ¶ 26). Plaintiff was transferred out of Southport shortly thereafter. (Id. at ¶ 24).
On November 2, 2016, Plaintiff sent a letter to Sheahan complaining that mailroom
staff was refusing to mail his papers to Shanno due to his loss of package privileges. (Id.
at ¶ 17). Sheahan did not respond to this letter. (Id. at ¶ 18). Instead, on November 10,
2016, Plaintiff received a response from the Acting Deputy Superintendent of Programs
informing him that he could send out his packet of papers “as long as it is addressed to the
Courts or an Attorney that is representing you.” (Id. at ¶ 19).
On November 10, 2016, Plaintiff filed a grievance asserting that “the mailroom staff
threw out [his] mail instead of mailing it out.” (Id. at ¶ 27). During the course of the
investigation into this grievance, “mailroom staff responded that Plaintiff did not have
package privileges and the mail was sent back to him on November 4, 2016.” (Id. at ¶ 28).
As security staff at Southport, Rogers and Caporiccio played no role in the
processing of mail by mailroom staff. (Id. at ¶ 30). Caporiccio was working as a B-block
floor officer on November 4, 2016, and one of his responsibilities was to “hand out general
mail to the inmates housed” on the floor to which he was assigned. (Dkt. 62-3 at ¶¶ 3, 5).
Plaintiff commenced this action on December 7, 2017. (Dkt. 1). The operative
pleading is the second amended complaint, filed on June 26, 2020. (Dkt. 59).
Moving Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on August 17,
2020. (Dkt. 62).1 Plaintiff’s response deadline was initially set for October 16, 2020 (Dkt.
63), but the Court granted multiple requests by Plaintiff for an extension (Dkt. 75; Dkt. 85),
ultimately setting a final response deadline of March 10, 2021 (Dkt. 85).
Plaintiff’s response papers are postmarked March 15, 2021, and were received by
the Court on March 19, 2021. (Dkt. 90). Defendants contend that the response was
accordingly untimely. (Dkt. 93 at 1).
However, the affidavit of service included with
Plaintiff’s response, which is notarized, indicates that Plaintiff placed the papers in the
mailbox at the Auburn Correctional Facility, where he is currently housed, on March 8,
2021. (Dkt. 90-2 at 1). “Where a prisoner proceeds pro se, the filing date is governed by
the ‘prisoner mailbox rule,’ which provides that the effective filing date is the day upon
which the prisoner delivers the petition to prison officials for mailing.” Mingo v. United
States, 360 F. Supp. 2d 591, 593 (S.D.N.Y. 2005); see also Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266,
276 (1988) (establishing prisoner mailbox rule). Accordingly, the effective filing date of
Plaintiff’s response is March 8, 2021, prior to the deadline set by the Court.
Moving Defendants filed their reply on March 29, 2021. (Dkt. 93).
Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment
should be granted if the moving party establishes “that there is no genuine dispute as to
Nov-moving defendants Bates and Lepkowski were not initially included in this
lawsuit, and their deadline for filing dispositive motions is June 8, 2021. (Dkt. 94).
any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ.
P. 56(a). The Court should grant summary judgment if, after considering the evidence in
the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the Court finds that no rational jury could
find in favor of that party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (citing Matsushita
Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)).
“The moving party bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute as
to any material fact. . . .” Crawford v. Franklin Credit Mgmt. Corp., 758 F.3d 473, 486
(2d Cir. 2014). “Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the
party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing the evidentiary
materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the
non-movant’s burden of proof at trial.” Johnson v. Xerox Corp., 838 F. Supp. 2d 99, 103
(W.D.N.Y. 2011) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). Once the
moving party has met its burden, the opposing party “must do more than simply show that
there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, and may not rely on conclusory
allegations or unsubstantiated speculation.” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc.,
781 F.3d 42, 44 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting Brown v. Eli Lilly & Co., 654 F.3d 347, 358 (2d
Specifically, the non-moving party “must come forward with specific
evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact.” Brown, 654
F.3d at 358. Indeed, “the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the
parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the
requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).
Plaintiff’s Claims against Rogers and Caporiccio
Moving Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s claims against Rogers and Caporiccio
must be dismissed because these defendants were not personally involved in the alleged
refusal to mail Plaintiff’s papers to Shanno. The Court agrees.
Plaintiff’s claims are asserted pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a cause
of action against individuals who, acting under color of state law, deprive an individual of
rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution. “Personal involvement in the
deprivation of a federal constitutional right is the sine qua non of liability under § 1983.”
Rupp v. City of Buffalo, No. 17-CV-1209S, 2021 WL 1169182, at *5 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 29,
2021); see also Tangreti v. Bachmann, 983 F.3d 609, 616 (2d Cir. 2020) (a § 1983 plaintiff
must establish “that each Government-official defendant, through the official’s own
individual actions, has violated the Constitution”).
“Based in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a prisoner has a right to
reasonable access to the courts while incarcerated to challenge convictions or conditions
of confinement.” Winters v. City of New York, No. 1:19-CV-07271 (MKV), 2020 WL
4194633, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. July 21, 2020). “For purposes of Section 1983, to establish the
requisite ‘personal involvement’ of a defendant in a denial-of-access-to-the-courts claim,
‘a plaintiff must show that the defendant caused the plaintiff injury or, put less succinctly,
that the defendant took or was responsible for actions that had the actual effect of
frustrating the plaintiff’s effort to pursue a legal claim.’” Wilson v. Bradt, No. 14-CV-6226
CJS, 2018 WL 4409993, at *10 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 17, 2018) (quoting Oliva v. Town of
Greece, 630 F. App’x 43, 45 (2d Cir. 2015)).
On the record before the Court, Plaintiff cannot establish that either Rogers or
Caporiccio took any action that frustrated his effort to pursue his legal claims. As to
Caporiccio, his sole alleged involvement in this case is that he was working as a B-block
floor officer on November 4, 2016, and was responsible for handing out general mail.
While Plaintiff contends in opposition to the instant motion that Caporiccio did not return
his fourth envelope when he “handed out mail to inmates of B-block, 9 gallery on the fourth
(4th) of November 2016” (Dkt. 90-1 at 9), this is pure speculation on his part, unsupported
by any evidentiary proof. There is no evidence before the Court to support the conclusion
that Plaintiff’s fourth envelope was in the mail that Caporiccio was given to hand out on
November 4, 2016. Indeed, Plaintiff admitted at his deposition that he has no knowledge
of what happened to his fourth envelope after he gave it to Rogers. (Dkt. 62-6 at 101).
Moreover, in his declaration submitted in opposition to the instant motion, Plaintiff asserts
that “mailroom staff . . . never returned the envelope to Plaintiff on November 4th, 2016.”
(Dkt. 90 at ¶ 29 (emphasis added)). Further, Caporiccio flatly denies, under penalty of
perjury, having failed to return Plaintiff’s mail. (Dkt. 62-3 at ¶ 9). On these facts, no
reasonable jury could conclude that Caporiccio was personally involved in the alleged
interference with Plaintiff’s attempts to mail his papers to Shanno.
As to Rogers, it is undisputed that on the first three occasions that Plaintiff gave him
an envelope addressed to Shanno, Rogers appropriately deposited it in the outgoing mail.
It is further undisputed that Rogers had no role in the mailroom’s screening and rejection
of those envelopes.
Plaintiff asserts that Rogers was personally involved in the
disappearance of the fourth envelope because “he was the last known person known to
Plaintiff to have taken care, custody and control over Plaintiff’s legal envelope before its
disappearance.” (Dkt. 90-1 at 8). However, Rogers denies, under penalty of perjury,
having confiscated, destroyed, failed to process, or failed to return Plaintiff’s mail. (Dkt.
62-4 at ¶ 9). Plaintiff has offered no evidentiary proof to contradict this statement by
Rogers, and his speculation that Rogers must have engaged in some sort of malfeasance
because the fourth envelope was neither returned to him nor delivered to Shanno is
insufficient to defeat the instant motion for summary judgment. See McPherson v. New
York City Dep’t of Educ., 457 F.3d 211, 215 n.4 (2d Cir. 2006) (“Speculation alone is
insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.”).
In sum, Plaintiff has failed to come forward with any evidence from which a
reasonable jury could conclude that either Rogers or Caporiccio personally took action that
frustrated Plaintiff’s efforts to pursue his legal claims.
Rogers and Caporiccio are
accordingly entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s claims against them.
Plaintiff’s Claims Against Sheahan
The Court turns next to Plaintiff’s claims against Sheahan. Moving Defendants also
argue that Plaintiff cannot establish Sheahan’s personal involvement in the claimed
violation of his rights. Again, the Court agrees.
“A defendant in a § 1983 action may not be held liable for damages for
constitutional violations merely because he held a high position of authority. Rather, the
personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite
to an award of damages under § 1983.” Victory v. Pataki, 814 F.3d 47, 67 (2d Cir. 2016)
(internal alterations, quotations, and citations omitted). Although in Colon v. Coughlin, 58
F.3d 865, 873 (2d Cir. 1995), the Second Circuit identified five categories of evidence that
may establish the liability of a supervisory official, more recently, in Tangreti, the Second
Circuit clarified that “there is no special rule for supervisory liability. Instead, a plaintiff
must plead and prove that each Government-official defendant, through the official’s own
individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” 983 F.3d at 618. The Second Circuit
explained further that “[t]he factors necessary to establish a [§ 1983] violation will vary
with the constitutional provision at issue because the elements of different constitutional
violations vary,” and “[t]he violation must be established against the supervisory official
directly.” Id. (second alteration in original) (internal quotations and citations omitted).
Here, Plaintiff contends that Sheahan was personally involved in the claimed
deprivation of his rights because (1) he did not respond to Plaintiff’s letter of November 2,
2016, and (2) he affirmed the denial of Plaintiff’s grievance. (See Dkt. 90 at ¶¶ 20-22, 4447).
These facts are insufficient to establish the requisite personal involvement by
With respect to Sheahan’s failure to respond to Plaintiff’s letter of November 2,
2016, “[t]he general rule is that if an official receives a letter from an inmate and passes it
on to a subordinate for response or investigation, the official will not be deemed personally
involved with respect to the subject matter of the letter[.]” Von Stein v. Pruyne, No. 15CV-7039 (CS), 2020 WL 3498431, at *13 (S.D.N.Y. June 29, 2020). Here, the record
demonstrates that responsibility for responding to Plaintiff’s letter was passed to the Acting
Deputy Superintendent of Programs, who sent a response on November 10, 2016. (See
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Dkt. 62-8 at 32). Sheahan’s receipt of this letter and referral of the matter to a subordinate
does not establish his personal involvement in the alleged failure to process Plaintiff’s mail.
As to Sheahan’s affirmance of the denial of Plaintiff’s grievance, “[i]t is clear that
affirming the administrative denial of a prison inmate’s grievance by a high-level official
is insufficient to establish personal involvement under section 1983[.]” Morales v. Fischer,
46 F. Supp. 3d 239, 255 (W.D.N.Y. 2014) (quotation omitted). A conclusion to the
contrary would lead to “the untenable consequence that virtually every inmate who sues
for constitutional torts by prison guards could name the superintendent as a defendant since
the plaintiff must pursue his prison remedies” pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act
“and invariably the plaintiff’s grievance will have been passed upon by the
superintendent.” Madison v. Mazzuca, No. 02 CIV. 10299 RWS, 2004 WL 3037730, at
*10 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 30, 2004) (quotation and alterations omitted). Accordingly, while the
record does show that Sheahan affirmed the denial of Plaintiff’s grievance (see Dkt. 62-8
at 4), this is insufficient, without more, to establish Sheahan’s personal involvement in the
claimed violation of Plaintiff’s rights.
Plaintiff has failed to point to any facts from which a rational jury could find
personal involvement by Sheahan. Instead, the record before the Court demonstrates that
Plaintiff is attempting to hold Sheahan liable based solely on his position as superintendent
at Southport. This is not legally permissible and Sheahan is entitled to summary judgment.
For all these reasons, the Court finds that Moving Defendants are entitled to
summary judgment on Plaintiff’s claims against them because a reasonable jury could not
find that they were personally involved in the alleged violation of Plaintiff’s right to access
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Accordingly, the Court does not reach Moving Defendants’ alternative
arguments that (1) Plaintiff cannot establish that he was actually hindered or impeded from
raising nonfrivolous legal claims, (2) Plaintiff has failed to exhaust his administrative
remedies, (3) they are entitled to qualified immunity, and (4) Plaintiff’s claims are barred
pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). (See Dkt. 62-10 at 10-18).
For the foregoing reasons, Moving Defendants’ motion for summary judgment
(Dkt. 62) is granted, and Plaintiff’s claims against defendants Sheahan, Rogers, and
Caporiccio are dismissed. The Clerk of Court is directed to terminate Sheahan, Rogers,
and Caporiccio as defendants in this matter.
ELIZABETH A. WOLFORD
United States District Judge
March 31, 2021
Rochester, New York
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