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Larry RODGERS, Claimant, v. The STATE of New York, Defendant.
Claimant Larry Rodgers is an individual incarcerated in a state correctional facility. He brings this claim sounding in wrongful confinement against defendant the State of New York seeking damages for 92 days that he spent in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) as a result of disciplinary proceedings, including time spent in continued detention in SHU for 11 days after the administrative reversal of the underlying determination of guilt.1 After considering the testimony and documentary evidence received at trial, as well as reviewing the parties’ arguments and applicable law, defendant's motion to dismiss so much of the claim as seeks compensation for the time claimant spent in SHU from the initiation of the disciplinary proceedings up until the date of the administrative reversal is granted. But the date of the reversal represents the boundary line of the State's privilege in this case and the 11 days claimant spent in SHU after that date constitutes unlawful excessive confinement.
At trial, claimant gave extremely brief testimony, but the facts are largely undisputed. Claimant testified that after being ordered by a corrections officer to take a urinalysis test that came back positive for marijuana, a misbehavior report was issued on November 1, 2017.2 The misbehavior report charged claimant with violating Rule 113.24 (use of unprescribed drugs). At the Superintendent's hearing, claimant denied using marijuana and challenged the urinalysis procedures. Claimant also testified that the hearing officer did not credit some of the arguments claimant raised at the hearing. Claimant was found guilty and given a penalty of 280 days in the SHU. The penalty ran from the date of the misbehavior report, November 1, 2017, and included a corresponding loss of commissary, package, and phone privileges, as well as six months’ loss of good time.
Claimant further testified that he administratively appealed the determination, which was ultimately reversed on January 22, 2018. The determination on appeal gave no reason for the reversal. Claimant explained that he did not leave SHU immediately after the administrative reversal, and confirmed on cross-examination that he was not released from SHU until February 2, 2018.
With respect to the effect that this experience had on him generally, claimant testified that he remains traumatized by the constant worry that he will be ordered to undergo further urinalysis testing whenever he leaves his cell, and that the same thing will happen to him again. As to his time in SHU in particular, claimant testified that his mother is very ill and that he likes to keep in contact with her every day, if possible, but that being in SHU and unable to communicate with her was just too much to bear, and put a lot of stress on him and his family.
After claimant rested, defendant moved to dismiss that portion of the claim that sought damages from the date of claimant's confinement in SHU on November 1, 2017, up to the date of the reversal of the disciplinary determination on January 22, 2018, based on claimant's failure to establish a prima facie claim of wrongful confinement. Defendant did not call any witnesses or offer any evidence, and thereafter renewed its motion at the conclusion of the trial, similarly arguing that the initial period of confinement up to the point of the reversal of the determination of guilt was privileged. The Court reserved decision on both motions.
In order to recover on a cause of action for wrongful confinement (a species of false imprisonment), claimant must show that (1) defendant intended to confine claimant; (2) claimant was conscious of the confinement; (3) claimant did not consent to the confinement; and (4) the confinement was not privileged (see De Lourdes Torres v Jones, 26 NY3d 742, 759 ; Broughton v State of New York, 37 NY2d 451, 456 , cert denied sub nom. Schanbarger v Kellogg, 423 US 929 ; see also Miller v State of New York, 124 AD3d 997, 998 [3d Dept 2015]).3 Here, claimant's unrebutted testimony at trial established that defendant intended to confine claimant, as well as that claimant was conscious of the confinement and did not consent to it. Thus, as is generally the case, the dispositive factor is whether the confinement was privileged.
In the prison context, the actions of corrections employees in commencing and conducting formal disciplinary proceedings—including issuing misbehavior reports, conducting hearings, rendering dispositions, and placing incarcerated persons in punitive confinement—“constitute discretionary conduct of a quasi-judicial nature for which the State has absolute immunity” where such employees “act under the authority of and in full compliance with the governing statutes and regulations” (Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212, 214 ; see also id. at 219; Ramirez v State of New York, 175 AD3d 1635, 1636 [3d Dept 2019], lv denied 35 NY3d 902 ). In the absence of proof that corrections personnel violated the applicable rules and regulations in the course of disciplinary proceedings or some other due process violation, such immunity attaches even if the determination is later administratively reversed (see Arteaga, 72 NY2d at 214-215; Davis v State of New York, 262 AD2d 887 [3d Dept 1999], lv denied 93 NY2d 819 ).
Claimant here seeks compensation for the entire 92 days spent in SHU confinement as result of the drug charge—from November 1, 2017, until his release on February 2, 2018. With respect to the initial period of claimant's confinement in SHU up to the date of the reversal of the disciplinary determination, such confinement was privileged. Although the claim generally asserted that due process violations occurred during the course of the underlying disciplinary proceedings, at trial, claimant did not testify that corrections personnel exceeded their authority or violated any rules implicating his due process rights.4 Nor did claimant offer any documentary evidence to support such allegations. Moreover, although claimant maintained his innocence of the charges, no reason was given for the reversal of the disciplinary determination; thus, the Court cannot infer that any rule violation necessarily occurred. Claimant similarly offered no proof that the reversal was based upon the violation of any rule during the course of the proceedings. Without such evidence, the reversal, in and of itself, does not indicate a lack of privilege (see Loret v State of New York, 106 AD3d 1159, 1159-1160 [3d Dept 2013] [affirming dismissal of claim where a claimant did not articulate any facts that corrections staff “responsible for his discipline acted in excess of their authority or in violation of any relevant rules or regulations,” even where underlying findings of guilt were annulled upon Article 78 review on substantial evidence grounds]), lv denied 22 NY3d 852 ; see also Arteaga, 72 NY2d at 215).
Given the State's immunity and resulting privilege, claimant cannot establish that this initial period of SHU confinement—from the commencement of the disciplinary proceedings to the date the determination of claimant's guilt was administratively reversed—constituted wrongful excessive confinement. Accordingly, defendant's motion to dismiss that portion of the claim made at the close of claimant's case is granted, and the claim is dismissed to the extent it asserts a cause of action for wrongful confinement before January 22, 2018.
A different result, however, obtains with respect to so much of the claim as seeks compensation for claimant's continued confinement in SHU for an additional 11 days after January 22, 2018. Claimant's testimony and the other evidence received at trial established that the disciplinary determination was reversed on January 22, 2018, but that claimant was not released from SHU until February 2, 2018. Defendant did not dispute these facts and, indeed, confirmed these dates upon its cross-examination of claimant. Defendant is not protected by absolute immunity for this period because, upon the reversal of the underlying finding of misbehavior, corrections officials had a ministerial duty to release claimant from SHU in the absence of any other legal basis to continue that restrictive confinement or delay his release (see Minieri v State of New York, 204 AD2d 982 [4th Dept 1994] [State liable for 40 days of SHU confinement after administrative reversal of a claimant's disciplinary determination]; Hernandez v State of New York, 48 Misc 3d 218, 220 & 223 [Ct Cl 2015] [citing Minieri and characterizing release of an incarcerated person from restrictive confinement when a disciplinary penalty ends as “purely ministerial act invoking no discretionary authority”]; Ramsey v State of New York, UID No. 2018-038-102 [Ct Cl 2018] [recognizing “ministerial duty” to release incarcerated person from confinement after reversal of disciplinary determination, unless authorities “provide some legal justification for any delay in releas(e)”]; see also Miller v State, 124 AD3d at 999 [affirming judgment holding State liable where actions of authorities in continuing to confine a claimant after maximum expiration date of sentence were not privileged “given the absence of any order that required [them] to do so”]). Claimant has thus established a prima facie case that he was unlawfully confined in SHU for those 11 days.
Defendant offered no evidence at trial—nor even any argument—that claimant's confinement after that point was lawfully authorized or otherwise privileged; the delay in releasing claimant was also wholly unexplained by the State. Notably, defendant's trial motions sought to dismiss the claim only with respect to the period of time that claimant was confined in SHU before the reversal of the disciplinary charges. Accordingly, claimant was not lawfully confined after the reversal of the underlying finding of misbehavior, and defendant is liable for the wrongful excessive confinement of claimant in SHU for a period of 11 days (see Hollender v Trump Vil. Coop., 58 NY2d 420, 425  [reaffirming that, ultimately, “the burden of establishing that the detention was privileged is on those charged with commission of that tort”], citing Parvi v City of Kingston, 41 NY2d 553 ).
Turning then to the issue of damages, “[a]s a general rule, the measure of damages for [wrongful confinement] is such a sum as will fairly and reasonably compensate the injured person for injuries caused by defendant's wrongful act, including damages for ․ mental suffering” (Miller v State of New York, 124 AD3d at 999 [internal quotation omitted]; see also Guion v Associated Dry Goods Corp [Lord & Taylor Div.], 56 AD2d 798, 798 [1st Dept 1977], aff'd 43 NY2d 876 ). Although limited, claimant here offered proof of some mental strain and anguish when he testified regarding how the additional 11 days in SHU negatively affected him and his ability to keep in daily communication with his very ill mother. After consideration of claimant's testimony and crediting it, the Court finds that $500 constitutes fair and reasonable compensation for the 11 days that claimant was wrongfully confined in SHU with the corresponding loss of privileges.
In sum, defendant's motion, made at the conclusion of claimant's case, to dismiss the claim insofar as it seeks compensation for the time claimant spent in SHU from November 1, 2017 to January 22, 2018, is GRANTED, and the claim is dismissed to that extent. However, claimant has established a claim, by a preponderance of the evidence, for 11 days of wrongful excessive confinement in SHU following the administrative reversal of the underlying disciplinary findings. Claimant is awarded damages in the amount of $500 for the period from January 22, 2018 to February 2, 2018.
To the extent that claimant has paid a filing fee, it may be recovered pursuant to Court of Claims Act § 11-a(2). All other motions made at trial and upon which the Court reserved decision are hereby DENIED.
Let judgment be entered accordingly.
1. To the extent the claim also asserted a constitutional tort cause of action, that cause of action was previously dismissed upon defendant's motion (see Rodgers v State of New York, UID No. 2019-041-047 [Ct Cl 2019] [Milano, J.]).
2. Claimant initially misstated the date of the misbehavior report when presenting his testimony, but later clarified and provided the correct date on cross-examination.
3. Placement in a special housing unit has generally been treated as confinement for purposes of a wrongful excessive confinement claim brought by persons already incarcerated (see Trammell v State of New York, 172 AD3d 1847 [3d Dept 2019]; Minieri v State of New York, 204 AD2d 982 [4th Dept 1994]; Callender v State of New York, UID No. 2012-049-108 [Ct Cl 2012]).
4. Claimant's belated attempt during his summation to make an argument regarding the alleged denial of employee assistance “did not constitute evidence” (People v Rupnarine, 140 AD3d 1204, 1205 [3d Dept 2016]), and claimant acknowledged that he did not testify about the issue during the evidentiary portion of the trial.
Zainab A. Chaudhry, J.
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Docket No: Claim No. 131757
Decided: September 30, 2022
Court: Court of Claims of New York.
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