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Green v. Santiago

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 14, 2016




         Plaintiff Courtney Green (“Green”), incarcerated in a Connecticut prison and appearing pro se, has filed a Complaint [Doc. 1], an Amended Complaint [Doc. 7], and a Supplemental Pleading [Doc. 8]. These submissions contain a number of allegations by Green which assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against several state prison officials.

         The Defendants identified by the initial Complaint are Warden Antonio Santiago; Deputy Warden Robert Martin; Lieutenant Bellamere, also identified as John Doe #1; Correctional Officer Ayote, also identified as John Doe #2; Correctional Officer Streeter, also identified as John Doe #3; and Administrative Remedies Coordinator Michelle King, also identified as Jane Doe.

         The Amended Complaint adds as Defendants Correctional Officer Cooley, also identified as John Doe #4; Correctional Officer Murphy, also identified as John Doe #5; Correctional Officer Donolfio, also identified as John Doe #6; and Deputy Commissioner Monica Rinaldi.

         The Supplemental Pleading seeks to add Counselor Supervisor Vazquez; Administrative Remedies Coordinator Kimberly Daly; and District Administrator Peter Murphy as Defendants.

         All Defendants are named in their individual and official capacities and were employed at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution ("CCI") where Green was previously an inmate at the time of the allegations.

         This Ruling begins with, and consists principally of, the Court's sua sponte review of Green's pleadings, a review mandated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 ("PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.


         28 U.S.C. § 1915A directs federal district courts to consider all prisoner civil complaints against governmental actors, and dismiss any portion of the complaint that “is frivolous, malicious, or 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(b)(1), (2).

         A district court's sua sponte dismissal of a prisoner's complaint under § 1915A is reviewed de novo by the court of appeals. Larkin v. Savage, 318 F.3d 138, 139 (2d Cir. 2003). Where the district court has dismissed for failure to state a claim, the Second Circuit has said that "we accept all of plaintiff's factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw inferences from those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. We must reverse a district court's dismissal pursuant to § 1915A whenever a liberal reading of the complaint gives any indication that a valid claim might be stated." Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         At the district court level, the district judge's § 1915A review of whether a complaint "fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted" is guided by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as interpreted by Supreme Court and Second Circuit decisions whose principles have become familiar. A pro se complaint is adequately pled if its allegations, liberally construed, could “conceivably give rise to a viable claim.” Phillips v. Girdich, 408 F.3d 124, 130 (2d Cir. 2005). The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded and non-conclusory factual matters alleged in a complaint, although a complaint may not survive unless its factual recitations "'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); Mastafa v. Chevron Corp., 770 F.3d 170, 177 (2d Cir. 2014) (same). Nevertheless, it is well-established that “[p]ro se complaints ‘must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'” Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006)); see also Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se litigants). And in Larkin, in the § 1915A context, the Second Circuit took care to cite approvingly and quote from Desiderio v. Nat'l Ass'n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 191 F.3d 198, 202 (2d Cir. 1999) that: "We will not affirm the dismissal of a complaint unless it appears beyond doubt, even when the complaint is liberally construed, that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would entitle him to relief." Larkin, 318 F.3d at 139.

         The Court will apply these standards in conducting its initial review of any claims asserted by Green. The Court begins with a recitation of the factual allegations contained in these pleadings.

         A. Factual Allegations

         Green's Amended Complaint [Doc. 7], filed on January 22, 2016, is the operative Complaint considered by this Initial Review Order.[1] The factual allegations contained in this pleading are recounted herein, recited in the light most favorable to Green. They describe four separate strip searches conducted by officers of CCI when Green was incarcerated there.

         1. Count One - August 2015 Search

          On August 27, 2015, during an "institutional facility shakedown, " Green was ordered to the gym with the other inmates in his housing unit, specifically the top tier of that unit. Am. Cmplt., Count One ¶ 1. Green was initially ordered to step out of his cell and was "pat searched, " id., then directed to the lower sallyport, aligned with other inmates by cell number, and moved to the gym escorted by Captain Griffin. The inmates were informed that their cooperation was expected as there was a facility emergency and that inmates who did not cooperate would be sent to the restrictive housing unit. Defendant Bellamere supervised the inmates and the subsequent searches.

         Two correctional officers began to strip search the inmates two at a time in two bathroom stalls. This process was slow and to expedite the process, Defendant Ayote ordered Green and two other inmates into an adjacent room with windows and a wall-mounted camera to be strip searched. The windows and lack of dividers permitted other inmates and officers to view the search. Green complained about the arrangement to Defendant Streeter, who told Green that he would be sent to restrictive housing if he failed to comply with the search. Green noted that another inmate in the room only a few feet away and several inmates seated on the bleachers in the gym looked at his buttocks and genitals. Defendant Bellamere was standing at the entrance of the gym and fully aware of the actions of Defendants Ayote and Streeter, and Defendant Bellamere failed to supervise the searches conducted by Defendants Ayote and Streeter.

         After the searches were completed, Green and the other inmates were seated on the bleachers when Defendant Martin and Captain Williams came into the gym. Inmates then asked about their ability to take showers. At this time, Green complained about the manner in which the search was conducted to Defendant Martin, who initially responded with indifference, stating that when he was in the military he had to shower with and in front of other men. He later agreed with Green and assured the Green that these searches would not happen again.

         The following day, Green wrote to Defendant Santiago about the search. He did not receive a response and considered that to violate Administrative Directive 9.6. Green then filed a grievance, which was returned to Green signed by Defendant King, with the designation "compromised, " signifying that the complaint had sufficient merit to warrant the modification of an existing decision. Green did not participate in the modification of any search procedures, and the search caused him a great deal of emotional distress, given the facts that other inmates witnessed it and it was recorded on camera. Green alleges that Defendant Santiago did not comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act and failed to prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

         2. Count Two - October 2015 Search

          On October 22, 2015 at 3:45 a.m., Green alleges that he was notified by the unit officer that he had to report to the admitting and processing area for a court transfer. He proceeded to the area and arrived there around 4:00 a.m. Defendant Cooley then requested that he enter the strip room, but a noise from outside disrupted the strip search. Defendant Cooley instructed Green not to strip, went to check on the noise and returned with three other inmates who were also going to court. Defendant Cooley requested that they also enter the strip room and be searched at the same time as Green. Green expressed his displeasure to Defendant Cooley at being exposed to a room of strangers within an arms length distance of each other in a "very confined room, designed to strip one individual at a time." Am. Cmplt., Count Two ¶ 5. Defendant Cooley ordered Green to strip in front of the three other inmates. After the incident, Green wrote to Defendant Martin and never received a response from Defendant Martin. Green exhausted his administrative remedies and received a returned grievance from Defendant King on December 4, 2015, which expressed that the disposition was "compromised, " again meaning that some modification of the existing decision regarding the search was warranted.

         3. Count Three - November 2015 Search

         On November 5, 2015, Green returned to CCI at about 8:00 p.m. from a court transfer and was placed in a holding cell with seven other inmates who were waiting to be readmitted and processed. Defendant Murphy requested that four inmates, including Green, follow him to the strip room. Once there Defendant Murphy requested that all four inmates strip; Green complied with the order. Defendant Murphy also directed Green to open his mouth, raise his hands, and bend at the waist so that his buttocks could be checked; Green complied with his orders in full view of the other three inmates in a room designed for the search of one individual at a time. Green wrote to Defendant Martin about the search and Defendant Martin did not respond, which prompted Green to write to Defendant Rinaldi on November 13, 2015 explaining the searches he had been subject to and how Defendants Martin and Santiago had not intervened. On November 23, 2015, Defendant Rinaldi responded to Green and on November 24, 2015, Defendant Martin also wrote to Green. Green exhausted his administrative remedies and Defendant King explained that she concurred with Defendant Martin and that corrective action was taken. Green was not allowed to participate in the resolution of his grievance.

         4. Count Four - December 2015 Search

          On or about December 2, 2015, at approximately 9:00 a.m. during a "matrix shakedown" in his unit, Green and his cellmate were ordered to stand up by Defendant Donolfio. Am. Cmplt., Count Four ¶ 1. Green faced Defendant Donolfio while his cellmate faced the window. Defendant Donolfio ordered Green to strip; Green requested that he do so privately without his cellmate there but Defendant Donolfio refused Green's request. Green expressed concern that his cellmate could see his body through a reflection of the window, which had a white film on it to prevent the inmates from seeing outside. However, Green complied with the orders. Green complained again to Defendant Martin and never received a response. Green exhausted his administrative remedies and the grievance was disposed of as "compromised." Defendant Martin notified Green in mid-December 2015 that his request to preserve video from all four incidents "has been completed as requested by the plaintiff." Am. Cmplt., Count Four ¶ 9.

         B. Discussion

         Green contends that Defendants have violated his Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and have not complied with Administrative and Unit Directives. Green also references the Prison Rape Elimination Act in his Amended Complaint.

         1. Sovereign Immunity for Official Capacity Claims

         Green has named all Defendants in their individual and official capacities, but he seeks only money damages. The Eleventh Amendment divests the Court of subject matter jurisdiction over any claims for monetary damages against a state official acting in his official capacity unless the state has waived this immunity or Congress has abrogated it. Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169 (1985). Section 1983 does not abrogate state sovereign immunity. Id. at 169 n.17; see also Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 341-45 (1979). Nor has Green alleged any facts suggesting that Connecticut has waived this immunity.

         Accordingly, any and all claims against the Defendants in their official capacities are dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), (2). See Al-Bukhari v. Dep't of Corr., No. 16-205, 2016 WL 730703, at *3 (D. Conn. Feb. 23, 2016) (dismissing claims against an individual in his official capacity based on sovereign immunity).

         2. Section 1983 Claims Against Defendants in Their Individual Capacities

          Green also asserts each of these § 1983 claims against all Defendants in their individual capacities, again, seeking only monetary damages. Specifically, Green alleges that each of the four searches violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches; his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment; and his Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection rights as well as violations of certain administrative policies and directives. The Court will address each of Green's claims in turn.

         a. Fourth Amendment Claims

         Green argues that the searches violated the Fourth Amendment which, in the prison context, proscribes unreasonable searches. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 558 (1979). The Fourth Amendment "'protects individual privacy against certain kinds of governmental intrusion' . . . and it is well-established that its protections extend to prisoners." Holland v. City of New York, No. 14-5517, -- F.3d --, 2016 WL 3636249, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. June 24, 2016) (quoting Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 350 (1967)). "The test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application" and each case "requires a balancing of the need for the particular search against the invasion of personal rights that the search entails." Bell, 441 U.S. at 559. Courts must consider the scope of the particular intrusion, the manner in which the search is conducted, the justification for initiating it, and the place in which it is conducted. Id.; see also Harris v. Miller, 818 F.3d 49, 63 (2d Cir. 2016) (reiterating that courts must evaluate searches of inmates under the four Bell criteria). Moreover, in Bell, the Supreme Court reiterated that "[t]he searches must be conducted in a reasonable manner." 441 U.S. at 560.

         The Second Circuit recognizes that inmates retain a "limited right to bodily privacy, " and "'[a] strip search that involves a stranger peering without consent at a naked individual, and in particular at the most private portions of that person's body is a serious invasion of privacy, '" Harris 818 F.3d at 58 (quoting Florence v. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, 132 S.Ct. 1510, 1526 (2012) (Breyer, J., dissenting)). Courts have nevertheless upheld strip-searches as reasonable security measures even when probable cause for the searches was absent as long as the searches were related to legitimate penological or security interests. See, e.g., Florence, 132 S.Ct. at 1514, 1523 (upholding a strip-search procedure applied during intake process at prison facility to detainee arrested for minor offense was reasonably related to need of the prison facility to maintain security and did not violate Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments); Bell, 441 U.S. at 558-60 (holding visual strip-searches of inmates' body cavities after contact visits with person from outside facility to be reasonable in light of the “serious security dangers” in prison, together with the “common . . . occurrence” of the “[s]muggling of money, drugs, weapons, and other contraband”). Importantly, "in the absence of substantial evidence in the record to indicate that the officials have exaggerated their response to these considerations courts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgment in such matters." Florence, 132 S.Ct. at 1517 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Numerous district courts in this Circuit have held that accusations of humiliation and embarrassment caused by strip searches, on their own, do not state a claim under the Fourth Amendment, specifically recognizing that "neither the presence of cameras nor the presence of other inmates and employees of a correctional facility makes an otherwise constitutional strip search unconstitutional." Smith v. City of New York, No. 14-5934, 2015 WL 3929621, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. June 17, 2015) (collecting cases); see also Dixon v. Santiago, No. 15-1575, 2015 WL 9582729, at *2-3 (D. Conn. Dec. 30, 2015) (collecting cases). Courts have repeatedly "acknowledged the degree to which strip searches may humiliate and 'invade the personal privacy of inmates, ' and nonetheless upheld the use of strip searches where they further the legitimate interest of discovering contraband." Walker v. Ponte, No. 14-8507, 2016 WL 4411415, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 18, 2016) (quoting Bell, 441 U.S. at 560). A plaintiff must allege facts that suggest these searches did not serve any legitimate penological purposes, or that each search was specifically "designed to intimidate, harass or punish." See Davila v. Messier, No. 13-81, 2014 WL 4638854, at * 6 (D. Conn. Sept. 17, 2014); see also Jean-Laurent v. Wilkerson, 438 F.Supp.2d 318, 323 (S.D.N.Y. 2006), aff'd 346 F.App'x 18 (2d Cir. 2002). For example, when two strip searches are conducted close in time and the inmate had no opportunity to obtain contraband after the first search, then the second strip search may be unreasonable and unconstitutional because the inmate lacked an opportunity to obtain contraband in the time in between the searches. See Hodges v. Stanley, 712 F.2d 34, 35-36 (2d Cir. 1983); Jean-Laurent, 438 F.Supp.2d at 323.[2]

         These decisions do not alter the Court's principle expressed in Bell that the manner in which the search is conducted must still be reasonable. Bell, 441 U.S. at 560; see also Murray v. Bushey, No. 04-00805, 2009 WL 498144, at *5 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 26, 2009) (holding that plaintiff stated a Fourth Amendment claim despite the legitimate penological goal evident from his complaint because the search was conducted in an "unreasonable manner" as it was conducted without permission from a higher ranking officer, in front of other inmates, and under filthy conditions). Florence reiterates the principle that where there is substantial evidence that officials have exaggerated a response to a legitimate penological concern and their "policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security, " the search may be unreasonable despite its initial justification. 132 S.Ct. at 1514, 1517. Thus the simple recitation that a search had a penological justification, even if accurate, does not end a court's inquiry in all instances. See, e.g., Williams v. City of Cleveland, 771 F.3d 945, 951-52 (6th Cir. 2014). Notwithstanding that justification, if the search is conducted in a particularly invasive or unnecessarily humiliating manner it may be condemned as unreasonable, in the totality of the circumstances.

         Green has made sufficient allegations that the officials may have exaggerated their response to legitimate security and penological concerns with respect to three of the four searches described in his Amended Complaint. These three searches, at least as conducted in the manner alleged by Green, may have been conducted in a manner designed to intimidate, harass or punish Green and conducted in an unreasonable manner in light of each situation. As such, the Court concludes that, at least at this preliminary stage, Green has stated a valid § 1983 claim based on the violation of his Fourth Amendment rights by the first, second, and third searches. See Bell, 441 U.S. at 559-60; Murray, 2009 WL 498144, at *5.

         With regard to the first search, Green alleges that he was "pat searched" and then directed to the gym where the strip searches occurred. It appears that he was under constant supervision and guard while being transported to the gym. Although the searches were conducted in the midst of an "emergency" according to Green's Amended Complaint, the penological justification for the second full strip search may have lessened by the time it was conducted in light of the fact that an earlier, close in time, pat search had already been conducted. See Hodges, 712 F.2d at 35-36; Jean-Laurent, 438 F.Supp.2d at 323. Moreover, the manner in which the strip search was conducted may have been wholly unreasonable. Green alleges that other inmates were searched in private bathroom stalls, but to "speed up the strip process" he and other inmates were ordered to a large room with no dividers or partitions to be strip searched in full view of other inmates, officers, and cameras. The strip search was conducted within a few feet of another inmate who stared at Green's genitalia. It is also unclear from Green's complaint that the emergency required taking this additional step. This search, as alleged by Green, could be unreasonable.[3] See Bell, 441 U.S. at 559- 60; Murray, 2009 WL 498144, at *5.

         The second search, as alleged by Green, occurred prior to a court transfer, taking place in a room designed to strip one individual at a time and with three other inmates and Defendant Cooley present. Green alleges that he was an "arms length" distance from the other inmates and that he was singled out by Defendant Cooley after he complained about the manner of the search.

         Similarly, Green alleges regarding the third search, that he and three other inmates were singled out of a group of inmates returning from court by Defendant Murphy for a group strip search. The search occurred again in a room designed for the search of one individual at a time and Green was singled out for a search of his buttocks in front of the other three inmates. Although searches prior to and after a court transfer may be justified in the search for contraband, see Smith, 2015 WL 3929621, at *2 (recognizing that searches conducted after a contact visit or prior to transport away from the facility are "situations where the legitimate purpose of preventing the import or export of contraband is clear"), the manner in which both of these searches were conducted could be unreasonable designed to intimidate, harass or punish, and thus, the search could be a violation of Green's Fourth Amendment rights. See Bell, 441 U.S. at 559-60; Murray, 2009 WL 498144, at *5. Finally, with regard to the fourth search, it is well-settled that it is reasonable for a correctional facility to conduct random searches of inmates' cells and persons. See Israel v. City of New York, No. 11-7726, 2012 WL 4762082, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 5, 2012) ("The Supreme Court has held that 'random searches are essential to the effective security of penal institutions.'" (quoting Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 529 (1984))); see also Castro-Sanchez v. N.Y. State Dep't of Corr. Servs., No. 10-8314, 2011 WL 6057837, at *8-9 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 6, 2011) ("Routine random strip searches of inmates, including body cavity inspections, do not violate the Fourth Amendment."). Green has not alleged that he was singled out in any manner as part of the search (in fact he pleads that Defendant Donolfio's order was that "one of the two occupants" should stand up and the other should face the window), that his cellmate actually viewed him during the strip search, or that the space he was strip searched in was confined or too small for the search. Green has only alleged that it was possible for his cellmate to view him, but at best, his cellmate viewed him indirectly through a reflection on a window, which had a white film on it preventing the inmates from viewing the outside. Green's cellmate was not facing him during the search and only Defendant Donolfio conducted the search. The search appears, as alleged, to be reasonably tied to furthering Defendant Donolfio's interests in finding contraband and, unlike the other three searches, the manner in which it was conducted furthered that interest and cannot be said to be unreasonable or exaggerated based on Green's allegations and the manner in which it was conducted.

         The Court emphasizes that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures and at this particular initial review stage it is unclear to the Court why Green must be subject to these types of strip searches if it was easily possible and practicable for Defendants to avoid these types of situations. See Dixon, 2015 WL 9582729, at *3 (allowing claims for injunctive and declaratory relief to go forward recognizing that strip searches in the view of or presence of others may be unconstitutional); see also Williams, 771 F.3d at 954 ("To state a claim, plaintiffs were required only to allege-rather than demonstrate-that the jail acted unreasonably."). It is well-recognized that strip searches are "'a serious invasion of privacy, '" Harris v. Miller, 818 F.3d at 58 (quoting Florence v., 132 S.Ct. at 1526 (Breyer, J., dissenting)), and such an invasion must be balanced against each of the Bell factors in determining whether the search is reasonable, see id. at 62-63. Because the manner in which these searches were conducted, as alleged by Green, was not justifiable and may have been an exaggerated response or intentional misconduct by Defendants, Green has stated a viable Fourth Amendment claim as to the first three searches.[4] The Court recognizes that humiliation on its own, from the presence of inmates, correction officers or cameras, has been characterized by other ...

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