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Cruz v. Prior

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 23, 2016

YASSER CRUZ, Plaintiff,
LIEUTENANT PRIOR, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff, Yasser Cruz, currently incarcerated at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, filed this complaint pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), on August 3, 2016. Mr. Cruz' motion to proceed in forma pauperis was granted on August 5, 2016. The defendants are Lieutenant Prior, Counselor Dumas and District Administrator Angel Quiros. Mr. Cruz asserts a claim for denial of due process at a disciplinary hearing, the result of which caused him to be declared a member of the Security Risk Group (“SRG”) Latin Kings, and confined in restrictive housing for the next two years. See Compl. ¶ 37, ECF No. 1. Mr. Cruz seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as damages.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review prisoner civil complaints and dismiss any portion of the complaint that is frivolous or malicious, that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. In reviewing a pro se complaint, the Court must “liberally construe [the] pleadings, ” and interpret the complaint to “raise the strongest arguments it suggests.” Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007); see also Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-03 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special solicitude that courts ought to show to pro se litigants). Although detailed allegations are not required, the complaint must still include sufficient facts to afford the defendants fair notice of the claims and the grounds upon which they are based and to demonstrate a right to relief. Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). Conclusory allegations are not sufficient. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         II. Allegations

         On March 23, 2016, Mr. Cruz was housed in general population at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center and classified as an overall risk level 3. Compl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 1. That day, Captain Dougherty allegedly placed Mr. Cruz in restrictive housing on administrative detention status, pending investigation. Id. ¶¶ 6-7. On March 28, 2016, while confined in restrictive housing, a disciplinary report, issued by Captain Dougherty, was allegedly delivered to Mr. Cruz. Id. ¶¶ 8-9. The disciplinary report allegedly charged Mr. Cruz with the offense of SRG affiliation. Id. ¶ 10. The disciplinary report allegedly stated that, following an investigation, Mr. Cruz was found to display behaviors associated with the SRG Latin Kings, namely, that he participated in an act of violence in the dormitory on March 23, 2016. Id. ¶ 11. Mr. Cruz denied involvement in any act of violence on that date. Id. ¶ 12.

         The disciplinary report allegedly contained no specific information regarding the act of violence; no witnesses were identified and no incident reports or video footage were cited as evidence. Id. ¶ 13. Mr. Cruz alleges that the report was too vague to enable him to understand the charges against him and prepare a defense. Id. ¶¶ 14-15. Mr. Cruz alleges that he was never issued a disciplinary report relating to the underlying assault. Id. ¶ 16.

         On March 29, 2016, Mr. Cruz allegedly met with a disciplinary investigator, Correctional Officer Dousis. Id. ¶ 17. Mr. Cruz pled not guilty to the charge, elected to have the assistance of an advocate, and asked to view the evidence against him. Id. ¶¶ 19-20. Officer Dousis allegedly denied Mr. Cruz's request to view the evidence, on the ground that the evidence was confidential. Id. ¶ 21. On or around March 30, 2016, Mr. Cruz allegedly met with his advocate, Mr. Dumas. Mr. Cruz allegedly provided Mr. Dumas with written and oral statements and asked to view the evidence that would be submitted at the hearing. Id. ¶¶ 22-23. Mr. Dumas allegedly denied this request, on the grounds that the evidence was confidential. Id. Mr. Dumas allegedly failed to conduct any independent investigation. Id. ¶ 24.

         The disciplinary hearing was held on March 31, 2016 before Lieutenant Prior, Mr. Dumas, and Officer Dousis. Id. ¶ 25. Lieutenant Prior allegedly upheld the previous denials of Mr. Cruz's request to view the evidence against him. Id. ¶¶ 26-27. Lieutenant Prior allegedly found Mr. Cruz guilty of SRG affiliation. Id. ¶ 29. As a result of the guilty finding, Defendant Quiros allegedly caused Mr. Cruz to be designated an SRG member and transferred to the SRG restrictive housing unit at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. Id. ¶¶ 30-31. Mr. Cruz was allegedly not informed, either before or during the hearing, that this designation and transfer could occur. Id. ¶¶ 32-33.

         Mr. Cruz alleges that he must remain on SRG status for two years before he is eligible to return to general population. Id. ¶ 34. Allegedly, conditions in the SRG unit are qualitatively and quantitatively different from conditions experienced by other inmates. Id. ¶ 35. Mr. Cruz is allegedly denied all parole opportunities, the ability to earn risk reduction or good time credits, vocational and educational training, recreation, use of exercise equipment, congregated religious services, private medical or mental health counseling sessions and use of televisions. He alleges that he is required to remain in his cell with his cellmate for 23 or 24 hours a day and that he is handcuffed with hands behind his back during his one hour per day exercise time. Id. ¶ 36.

         III. Discussion

         Under the Supreme Court's ruling in Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), inmates have no due process rights in relation to prison disciplinary proceedings, “unless a liberty interest” protected by due process “was infringed as a result” of those disciplinary proceedings. Palmer v. Richards, 364 F.3d 60, 64 (2d Cir. 2004). Thus, to state his claim for denial of due process in connection with his being declared a member of a SRG and put in restrictive housing while incarcerated, Mr. Cruz must “establish that he had a protected liberty interest in being free from the punishment that was imposed upon him.” Scott v. Albury, 156 F.3d 283, 286 (2d Cir. 1998). Mr. Cruz has a protected liberty interest only (1) if the state has created a liberty interest in a statute or regulation and (2) deprivation of that interest caused plaintiff to suffer an “atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.” Sandin, 515 U.S. at 484; Anderson v. Recore, 317 F.3d 194, 200 (2d Cir. 2003) (“[T]he Sandin court indicated that in the intra-prison disciplinary context, deprivation of a state-created liberty interest generally must impose an atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life in order to trigger due process protection.”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         To make this determination, the Court must examine the punishment Mr. Cruz received. See Palmer, 364 F.3d at 64 (“[W]e read Sandin to require that we look to [the] actual punishment in making this determination.”). “Factors relevant to determining whether” an inmate plaintiff “endured an ‘atypical and significant hardship'” under Sandin include (a) “the extent to which the conditions of the disciplinary segregation differ from other routine prison conditions” and (b) “the duration of the disciplinary segregation imposed compared to discretionary confinement. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In Sandin, the Supreme Court held that confinement in restrictive housing for thirty days for disciplinary reasons did not implicate a constitutionally protected liberty interest. 515 U.S. at 485-86. The Second Circuit has held that confinement in restrictive housing for less than 101 days does not constitute an atypical and significant hardship sufficient to state a claim under Sandin, but that confinement for 305 days does. See Sealey v. Giltner, 197 F.3d 578, 589 (2d Cir. 1999) (finding that 101 day confinement in restrictive housing, while “doubtless unpleasant, ” did not constitute an atypical and significant hardship); but see Colon v. Howard, 215 F.3d 227, 231 (2d Cir. 2000) (holding that confinement in segregation for 305 days is sufficient departure from ordinary incidents of prison life to require procedural due process ...

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