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Abrams v. Erfe

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 2, 2018

DAVID A. ABRAMS, No. 241224, a/k/a ABRAHAMS, Plaintiff,
WARDEN SCOTT ERFE, CAPTAIN JOHN WATSON, MAINTENANCE SUPERVISOR JOHN DOE, AND COUNSELOR TRAPP, sued in their individual and official capacity; and COUNSELOR SUPERVISOR PETERSON, sued in her individual capacity, Defendants.



         The plaintiff, David Abrams, pro se and currently incarcerated at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution in Uncasville, Connecticut, has filed a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Warden Scott Erfe, Captain John Watson, Maintenance Supervisor John Doe, Counselor Trapp, and Counselor Supervisor Peterson of the Cheshire Correctional Institution ("Cheshire C.I."), where he was previously housed. Throughout his complaint, Plaintiff alleges various constitutional and state law violations. Abrams is suing Peterson in her individual capacity and all other defendants in their individual and official capacities. He is seeking monetary and declaratory relief from all defendants and an injunction against Erfe.

         With respect to procedural history, Magistrate Judge Garfinkel granted Abrams's motion to proceed in forma pauperis on September 22, 2017. See Doc. 6. The Court now reviews Abrams's Complaint to determine whether his claims are "frivolous" or may proceed under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. For the following reasons, the Court dismisses his complaint in part.


         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a prisoner's civil complaint and dismiss any portion that "(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or (2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1)-(2). Although highly detailed allegations are not required, the complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S 544, 570 (2007)).[1] "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The complaint must provide "more than the unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         "[W]hether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will [ultimately] . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 663-64. When "well-pleaded factual allegations" are present, "a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 679. Factual disputes do not factor into a plausibility analysis under Iqbal and its progeny.

         "Although all allegations contained in the complaint are assumed to be true, this tenet is `inapplicable to legal conclusions.'" LaMagna v. Brown, 474 Fed.Appx. 788, 789 (2d Cir.2012) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). See also Amaker v. New York State Dept. of Corr. Servs., 435 Fed.Appx. 52, 54 (2d Cir.2011) (same). Accordingly, the Court is not "bound to accept conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions." Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir.2011) (quoting Rolon v. Henneman, 517 F.3d 140, 149 (2d Cir.2008) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Consequently, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         With respect to pro se litigants, it is well-established that "[p]ro se submissions are reviewed with special solicitude, and 'must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'" Matheson v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co., 706 Fed.Appx. 24, 26 (2d Cir. 2017) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006)(per curiam)). See also Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723 F.3d 399, 403 (2d Cir. 2013) (same); Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se litigants); Boykin v. KeyCorp., 521 F.3d 202, 214 (2d Cir. 2008) ("A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.") (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)); Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 191 (2d Cir. 2008) (Where the plaintiff proceeds pro se, a court is "obliged to construe his pleadings liberally.") (quoting McEachin v. McGuinnis, 357 F.3d 197, 200 (2d Cir. 2004)); Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007) ("In reviewing a pro se complaint, the court must assume the truth of the allegations, and interpret them liberally to "raise the strongest arguments [they] suggest[].").

         Despite being subject to liberal interpretation, a pro se plaintiff's complaint still must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Mancuso v. Hynes, 379 Fed.Appx. 60, 61 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Therefore, even in a pro se case, "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Nor may the Court "invent factual allegations" that the plaintiff has not pleaded. Id.


         In January 2017, Abrams was housed at Cheshire C.I. in Cheshire, Connecticut. Doc. 1 (Complaint), ¶10. He was employed by the facility to clean the showers, for which he received twenty-one dollars per month. Id. Counselor Trapp (a female) was the inmate counselor for Unit 3, where Abrams resided. Id., ¶¶11-12. In February 2017, Abrams asked Trapp for "state soap and envelopes . . . to which he [was] not entitled . . . because he was employed." Id., ¶13. Trapp allegedly smiled at Abrams and said, "See, life can be made easy for you in here." Id., ¶15. She handed Abrams four bars of soap and four pre-stamped envelopes. Id. Abrams replied, "Thanks, I appreciate you!" Id. ¶16. Trapp allegedly responded by saying, "Do you really? We'll see on my tour." Id.

         According to Plaintiff, over the next few days, Trapp stopped by Abrams' cell door between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. and watched him work out while wearing only his gym shorts. Id., ¶17. On these occasions, Trapp allegedly smiled at Abrams and gave him a "thumbs-up" signal. Id. On four different occasions over the next couple of weeks, Trapp "would stop by [Abrams's] cell while his cell window was partially covered for privacy" and watch Abrams "urinate, masturbate, and wash up while [he was] fully naked" after working out. Id., ¶18. She would allegedly smile at Abrams for three to five seconds and then continue on her tour. Id. During this time, Trapp gave Abrams multiple bars of soap and envelopes, which Abrams sold to other inmates in the unit for profit. Id. ¶20.

         Abrams alleges that he found Trapp to be "extremely unattractive" so he was "an unwilling participant in her inappropriate conduct." Id., ¶21. Nevertheless, he did not want to report her out of "fear of embarrassment, ridicule, " and retaliation, or as he describes, "what Trapp could do to him and for him." Id., ¶22.

         On numerous occasions, Abrams allegedly "went to see Trapp for a printout of his inmate account or to get soap and envelopes." Id., ¶24. During these times, Trapp would allegedly pose provocatively, "bend[ing] over at the waist, " "spread[ing] her legs while seated in front of him, " and/or "lean[ing] forward with her loose-fitted, low-cut blouse" exposing her cleavage. Id., ¶¶ 24-26. Abrams states that he "would laugh to himself" because he "found her unattractive" in that she was "built like a 12 year old girl." Id., ¶ 25.

         On March 3, 2017, Abrams argued with Trapp "over his placement at the bottom of the list for industry jobs that pay up to $150 monthly." Id., ¶27. Afterward, Abrams stopped communicating with Trapp; and Trapp no longer stopped at Abrams's cell door during her tour of the unit. Id., ¶¶ 27-28.

         On March 13, 2017, administrators placed Cheshire on "modified lockdown" because Governor Malloy was touring the facility. Id., ¶29. During this time, no inmates were permitted in any area outside of their cells except for those inmates who worked in the facility's industry unit, which included Abrams's cellmate. Id., ¶¶ 30, 33. Sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. on that date, Abrams alleges he partially covered his cell window for privacy. Id., ¶ 35. He decided to take advantage of the lockdown to do personal grooming ("groom his pubic area" or perform "manscaping, " as he terms it) while naked. Id. He retrieved his beard trimmer, removed all of his clothing, and began this task "over his toilet" in his cell. Id., ¶¶ 37-38. While trimming his hair, he saw the shadow of a figure move in front of the cell window and then walk away. Id., ¶¶ 40-41. Abrams could not identify the person at the window. Id., ¶ 42.

         Approximately ten minutes later, Abrams's cellmate returned from his industry job early. Id., ¶43. He refused to enter the cell because Abrams had partially covered the window. Id. Correction Officer Lapointe instructed the cellmate to enter the cell and "lock up." Id., ¶44. The cellmate told Lapointe to "calm down" because Abrams was using the bathroom. Id. The cellmate eventually entered the cell as Abrams was cleaning the toilet area. Id., ¶45.

         Ten minutes after the cellmate entered the cell, Counselor Supervisor Peterson and four other correction officers entered the cell to take Abrams to a segregation unit pending an investigation into a disciplinary report. Id., ¶¶45-46. Abrams later learned that Trapp had issued a disciplinary report against him for intentionally exposing himself to her. Id., ¶¶47-48. See also id., at 30 ("Disciplinary Report, " regarding incident on 3/13/2017).[2] While en route to the segregation unit, Peterson and/or the other officers ordered Abrams to strip, bend at the waist, and spread his legs "in front of Peterson (a female) and other officers." Id., ¶46.

         On March 13, 2017, while in segregation, Abrams informed Sergeant Duquette that Trapp had sexually harassed him on previous occasions. Id., ¶50. Thereafter, on March 23, 2017, Abrams wrote a letter to the Connecticut State Police requesting that charges be filed against Trapp for sexual harassment and for filing a false disciplinary report. Id., ¶52. Abrams also filed multiple grievances against Trapp. Id.

         According to Plaintiff, Captain Watson had previously implemented a new policy at Cheshire's segregation unit, mandating that inmate mail be sent out only if the inmate completed a special request form so that postage costs could be deducted from his account. Id., ¶53. Abrams did not learn of this new policy until after he had mailed his March 23 letter to the state police. Id. His letter was "never returned to him, nor was postage deducted from his prison account." Id. He contacted the mail room to see if his letter was, in fact, sent out but did not receive a response. Id., ¶54. Abrams has "concluded" that Cheshire staff intercepted his letter because of the allegations contained in it and "because [such interception] is known to happen when an inmate in segregation tries to contact outside intervention." Id., ¶56.

         While in segregation, Abrams informed Captain Watson about black mold on the vent in his cell. Id., ¶57. Watson allegedly replied, "It comes off with wet tissue." Id. Abrams also submitted a written request to speak to someone who handles cases under the Prison Rape Elimination Act ("PREA"). Id., ¶61. Captain Watson allegedly responded by claiming that "plaintiff's allegations don't qualify for P.R.E.A." Id.

         According to Abrams, his disciplinary hearing was postponed twice, and the hearing officers did not provide him with an "advocate" as promised. Id., ¶58. On March 29, 2017, Hearing Officer King allegedly found Abrams "guilty [of indecent exposure] based on evidence, the plaintiff's testimony, and on [King's] position that 'an individual can be guilty of indecent exposure regardless if it is intentional or not.'"[3] Id., ¶59. Abrams spent a total of seventeen (17) days in segregation "after a hearing with sanctions in which [ten] (10) days good time was taken from him. Id., ¶60.

         On March 30, 2017, Abrams contacted the PREA resource center and spoke with a female operator. Id., ¶¶61-62. The operator told Abrams that his claims against Trapp did not constitute sexual harassment, but she disagreed with Officer King's assessment that an individual can be found guilty of indecent exposure if the act was unintentional. Id., ¶62.

         Abrams has raised multiple constitutional and state law claims against the named defendants. The Court will address the viability of each claim in turn.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Sexual Abuse

         Abrams claims that Trapp violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by sexually harassing him on numerous occasions. Doc. 1, ¶¶64-68. The Eighth Amendment sets constitutional boundaries on the conditions of imprisonment. "The 'unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain' on a prisoner constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment." Boddie v. Schnieder, 105 F.3d 857, 861 (2d Cir. 1997) (citing Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986)).

         To state an Eighth Amendment claim, "a prisoner must allege two elements, one subjective and one objective." Crawford v. Cuomo, 796 F.3d 252, 256 (2d Cir. 2015). First, the prisoner must allege that "the defendant acted with a subjectively 'sufficiently culpable state of mind.'" Id. (quoting Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 8 (1992)). Second, the conduct alleged must be "objectively 'harmful enough' or 'sufficiently serious' to reach constitutional dimensions." Id. (quoting Hudson, 503 U.S. at 8). See also Boddie, 105 F.3d at 861 ("Because sexual abuse by a corrections officer may constitute serious harm inflicted by an officer with a sufficiently culpable state of mind, allegations of such abuse are cognizable as Eighth Amendment claims.").

         First, as to objective harm, "[a]nalysis of the objective prong is context specific, " Crawford, 796 F.3d at 256 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "Sexual abuse may violate contemporary standards of decency and can cause severe physical and psychological harm." Boddie, 105 F.3d at 861. Therefore, "severe or repetitive sexual abuse of an inmate by a prison officer can be 'objectively, sufficiently serious' enough to constitute an Eighth Amendment violation." Id. Moreover, "sexual abuse of a prisoner by a corrections officer has no legitimate penological purpose." Id.

         Second, as to subjective state of mind, "[w]here no legitimate law enforcement or penological purpose can be inferred from the defendant's alleged conduct, the abuse itself may, in some circumstances, be sufficient evidence of a culpable state of mind." Id. "Accordingly, allegations of sexual abuse may meet both the subjective and the objective elements of the constitutional test, thereby stating an Eighth Amendment claim under Section 1983." Id.

         "[N]ot every malevolent touch by a prison guard gives rise to a federal cause of action, " but the Eighth Amendment is nevertheless violated by "conduct that is repugnant to the conscience of mankind." Crawford, 796 F.3d at 256 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Actions are deemed "repugnant to the conscience of mankind" if they are "incompatible with evolving standards of decency" or involve "the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." Id. (citation omitted).

         In order to determine whether alleged sexual abuse rises to the level of an Eighth Amendment violation, one must examine the particular facts set forth in the claim. In Boddie, the Second Circuit held that the prisoner "failed to state an Eighth Amendment claim after a female corrections officer made a pass at an him, squeezed his hand, touched his penis, called him a 'sexy black devil, ' and bumped into him 'with her whole body vagina against penis.'" Crawford, 796 F.3d at 257 (discussing Boddie, 105 F.3d at 859-60). "We concluded [in Boddie] that no single incident was sufficiently serious and that the series of incidents were not 'cumulatively egregious' enough to reach constitutional dimensions." Id. (citing Boddie, 105 F.3d at 861).

         In Crawford, the Second Circuit expanded the standard for sexual abuse of prisoners, holding that "[a] corrections officer's intentional contact with an inmate's genitalia or other intimate area, which serves no penological purpose and is undertaken with the intent to gratify the officer's sexual desire or humiliate the inmate, violates the Eighth Amendment." 796 F.3d at 257. "[T]he principal inquiry is whether the contact is incidental to legitimate official duties, such as a justifiable pat frisk or strip search, or by contrast whether it is undertaken to arouse or gratify the officer or humiliate the inmate." Id. at 257-58. Concluding that the latter had occurred - when Corrections Officer Prindle "fondled" and "squeezed" the penis of prisoner Corley and thereafter "fondled [inmate] Crawford's penis and roamed his hands down Crawford's thigh, " with no connection to "any legitimate duties - the Second Circuit held that such "unjustified conduct . . . [was] unquestionably repugnant to the conscience of mankind and therefore violate[d] the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 258 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In so holding, the Crawford court confirmed that the "standard set forth in Boddie . . . remains the same today[;] [b]ut in determining the application of that standard, the Eighth Amendment requires courts to 'look beyond historical conceptions to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'" Id. at 259 (quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 58 (2010)). For example, in the intervening years since Boddie, "all but two states [have] criminalize[d] sexual conduct between inmates and corrections officers, " so that these "legislative enactments are the 'clearest and most reliable objective evidence of contemporary values.'" Id. at 260 (quoting Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 315 (2002)). Such consistency in the direction of change in the law reflects society's "deep moral indignation" regarding sexual abuse of prisoners. Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Despite the evolving standards of decency regarding sexual abuse, the facts alleged by Abrams do not rise to the level of being "repugnant to the conscience of mankind" so do not constitute a constitutional harm under either Boddie or Crawford. Unlike in Crawford, there has been no alleged sexually suggestive or any other kind of physical contact between Trapp and the Plaintiff. Rather, Abrams alleges that Trapp gave him soap and envelopes, watched him work out in his gym shorts, observed him through his cell window, smiled at him during times of partial privacy (as he carried out acts of hygiene), and on at least two occasions, posed in allegedly seductive or provocative manners in Abrams's presence. None of these incidents was "severe" enough to be deemed "objectively, sufficiently serious." In particular, Plaintiff has alleged that Trapp watched him work out while wearing only his gym shorts. Doc. 1, ¶17. At such times, she allegedly smiled at him, giving the "thumbs-up" signal of approval. Id. Trapp also allegedly "would stop by [Abrams's] cell while his cell window was partially covered for privacy" and watch him "urinate, masturbate, and wash up while [he was] fully naked" after working out. Id., ¶18. According to Plaintiff, on one occasion, a shadow went by his cell window when he was "manscaping, " standing naked before his toilet, but he was unable to identify the shadow. Id., ¶¶ 35-42.

         In addition, Plaintiff claims that Trapp posed suggestively in front of him on a number of occasions - bending over with her back to Plaintiff, sitting with her legs apart, and exposing her cleavage by wearing loose, low-cut blouse. In Plaintiff's words, Trapp would "bend over at the waist, " "spread her legs while seated in front of him, " and/or "lean forward with her loose-fitted, low-cut blouse" exposing her cleavage. Id., ¶¶ 24-26. At such times, rather than being traumatized, humiliated or sexually aroused by such conduct, Abrams states that he "would laugh to himself" because he "found her unattractive" due to her "masculine, Caitlin Jenner-like features" and childlike build. Id., ¶¶ 20, 25.

         Construing the facts liberally, accepting Plaintiff's allegations as true, the Court finds that Trapp's actions - viewing Abrams in his cell during her rounds and posing provocatively - do not rise to the level of sexual abuse. Granted, such actions might potentially be viewed as unprofessional, inappropriate, and/or offensive. However, being observed by a guard during rounds while an inmate is in semi-privacy, receiving a thumbs up or a smile, and/or being forced to witness a comical display of provocative poses (causing admitted laughter, rather than suffering) are not events which are "objectively harmful enough or sufficiently serious" to reach constitutional dimensions.[4] Crawford, 796 F.3d at 257 See also Boddie, 105 F.3d at 861.

         To constitute a constitutional violation, there must be "severe or repetitive sexual abuse" which is "cumulatively egregious, " Boddie, 105 F.3d at 861, or conduct which is "repugnant to the conscience of mankind" such that it is "incompatible with evolving standards of decency, " Crawford, 796 F.3d at 257.[5] See also Keaton v. Ponte, No. 16 CIV. 3063 (KPF), 2017 WL 3382314, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 4, 2017) (dismissing prisoner's Eighth Amendment claims of sexual abuse against female corrections officers where there was no "illicit physical contact between a corrections officer and an inmate" and the corrections officers' alleged "verbal harassment, " encouraging the inmate to use the shower, watching him shower, and making sexual gestures with lipsticks and tongues, "without more, [were] not actionable" as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment).

         Moreover, a valid penological interest in the officer's conduct militates against a finding of sexual abuse. See, e.g., Grant v. Norfleett, No. 3:17-CV-328 (AWT), 2017 WL 1902150, at *3 (D. Conn. May 9, 2017) (Plaintiff's complaint failed to state a plausible Eight Amendment sexual abuse claim against defendants who allegedly subjected him to a body cavity search "for their own sexual gratification" - "watch[ing] him like a piece of meat" - where search occurred during prisoner's transfer to a restrictive housing unit after he engaged in a fight with his cellmate). Trapp allegedly made her observations of Abrams during her rounds as a guard at Corrigan. Observing prisoners through their cell windows is incidental to one's official and necessary duties as a prison guard.

         In sum, Plaintiff has alleged no "cumulatively egregious" or sufficiently "repugnant" conduct by Trapp in this case.[6] Accordingly, Plaintiff's allegations fail to state a plausible claim against Trapp for Eighth ...

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