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Vidro v. Erfe

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 26, 2019

EDISON VIDRO, Plaintiff,
v.
SCOTT ERFE and AMONDA HANNAH, Defendants.

          RULING ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Charles S. Haight, Jr. Senior United States District Judge.

         Pro se Plaintiff Edison Vidro ("Plaintiff" or "Vidro"), a convicted prisoner currently incarcerated at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut, brings this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action seeking damages from two Connecticut Department of Correction ("DOC") officials: Warden Scott Erfe and Deputy Warden Amonda Hannah ("the Defendants"). Doc. 1 ("Compl."). Vidro alleges that the Defendants violated his federal constitutional and statutory rights by denying him adequate winter clothing during his outdoor smudging rituals for the winter seasons of 2016 to 2017 and 2017 to 2018. Id. at ¶¶ 9-14. On July 5, 2018, this Court issued its Initial Review Order permitting Vidro's First Amendment free exercise of religion claim to proceed against the Defendants in their individual capacities for damages. Doc. 11 ("IRO") at 10. The Defendants answered the complaint on January 18, 2019. Doc. 21 ("Answer"). Among the affirmative defenses asserted, the Defendants claimed that Vidro failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before commencing this action, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Id. at 4.

         Vidro filed a motion for summary judgment on April 2, 2019. See Doc. 23 at 1 ("Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J."); Doc. 23 at 3-5 ("Pl.'s Supp. Decl."); Doc. 23 at 8-13 ("Pl.'s Mem."). Vidro contends that the evidence establishes the Defendants' liability for placing a substantial burden on his ability to practice his Native American religion by denying him adequate winter clothing for outdoor smudging. Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. at 1, 9-13. The Defendants filed their opposition to the motion on April 16, 2019, contending that Vidro's motion "merely restate[s] the conclusory allegations in his Complaint and has not presented sufficient evidence to support his allegations." Doc. 24 ("Defs.' Opp'n"). The Defendants also claim that they are entitled to summary judgment because Vidro failed to exhaust his administrative remedies prior to commencing suit. Id. Vidro countered with a reply, asserting that the Defendants merely denied his allegations without presenting any evidence to support their opposition, and that the evidence shows that he exhausted his administrative remedies. Doc. 26 ("Pl.'s Reply").

         On May 30, 2019, the Defendants filed their own motion for summary judgment on the ground that Vidro failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the PLRA. Doc. 28 ("Defs.' Mot. Summ. J."); Doc. 28-1 ("Defs.' Mem."). Specifically, the Defendants contend that Vidro did not administratively challenge the denial of winter clothing for smudging until January 27, 2018, after which DOC officials agreed to provide such clothing for smudging in the Admitting and Processing ("A&P") area at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, where Vidro was confined at the time. Defs.' Mem. at 7-8. Thus, the Defendants argue that they did not have notice of Vidro's alleged constitutional deprivation until approximately two months prior to the commencement of this action. See Id . Vidro countered in his written opposition that the January 27, 2018 grievance satisfied the exhaustion requirement, and any failure on his part to grieve the matter was the result of his lack of knowledge of the DOC's Administrative Remedy procedure. Doc. 29 ("Pl.'s Opp'n"); Doc. 29-1 ("Pl.'s Opp'n Decl."); Doc. 29-3 ("Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n").

         For the reasons set forth below, because Vidro has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the PLRA, Vidro's motion for summary judgment is DENIED and the Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A motion for summary judgment may be granted only where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Redd v. New York Div. of Parole, 678 F.3d 166, 173-74 (2d Cir. 2012). A "genuine issue" exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law." Id.

         The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a disputed issue of material fact. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the initial burden is satisfied, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to present "specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact." Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., 781 F.3d 42, 34 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). While the Court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, the non-moving party nevertheless "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, " Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Instead, the non-movant must support any assertion disputing the veracity of a fact or existence of an alleged dispute with specific citation to the record materials. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).[1]

         Because Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the Court must read his submissions "liberally" and interpret them "to raise the strongest arguments" that they suggest. Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010). Nonetheless, "[p]roceeding pro se does not otherwise relieve a litigant of the usual requirements of summary judgment, and a pro se party's bald assertions unsupported by evidence, are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment." Rodriguez v. Hahn, 209 F.Supp.2d 344, 348 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         II. FACTS

         Vidro is a devout Native American, who at all times relevant to this matter was incarcerated at Cheshire Correctional Institution ("Cheshire") in Cheshire, Connecticut while the Defendants were employed there as correctional officials. Doc. 28-4 ("Defs.' 56(a)(1) Stmt.") ¶¶ 1-2; Doc. 29-6 ("Pl.'s 56(a)(2) Stmt.") ¶¶ 1-2. Plaintiff participated in all Native American services at Cheshire, including smudging outdoors every day, as permitted by the DOC's "Native American Smudge Policy." Compl. ¶¶ 6-7; Doc. 1 at 8 ("Pl.'s Ex. A"). Smudging consists of burning sacred herbs and waving smoke over one's body as a cleansing technique. Compl. ¶ 7. The DOC's policy permits inmates to smudge once per day outdoors for up to twenty minutes depending on circumstances as determined by the Unit Manager or another appropriate supervisor. Pl.'s Ex. A.

         Vidro alleges that, during the winter of 2016-2017, he smudged outdoors daily without winter attire such as jackets and hats because officials at Cheshire did not provide such attire for smudging purposes. Compl. ¶¶ 9-11. He also alleges that he requested a jacket and hat on several occasions during the winter of 2016-2017, but his requests were denied. Id. at ¶¶ 12-14. Vidro claims that this situation forced him to choose between practicing an important religious ritual or remaining indoors during the cold winder months. Id. at ¶ 11.

         Vidro contends that he was never provided any verbal or written instructions regarding the grievance procedure, and only became aware of the grievance process when another inmate informed him of it in spring 2017. Pl.'s 56(a)(2) Stmt. ¶ 3. Consequently, during his confinement at Cheshire, Vidro did not file any administrative grievances until April 24, 2017. Id.; Doc. 28-3 ("Aff. of Monica Boyd-Carter") ¶ 5. On that date, Vidro filed a grievance regarding the whereabouts of a personal possession. Aff. of Monica Boyd-Carter ¶ 5; Doc. 28-3 at 5-6 (Inmate Administrative Grievance dated April 24, 2017).[2]

         Vidro filed a second grievance while at Cheshire on January 27, 2018, which was received by DOC officials on January 29, 2018. Aff. of Monica Boyd-Carter ¶ 7; Doc. 28-3 at 11-14 (Inmate Administrative Grievance dated January 27, 2018); Doc. 1 at 10 ("Pl.'s Ex. B"). In that written grievance, Vidro stated the following:

It is winter and extremely cold outdoors at smudge call, which I attend everyday. The thin tans and thermal [are] not warm enough to protect me from the brutal cold.I need a coat and a hat. I've already become sick once and wish not to become sick again. Enfield closed. [T]here must be hundreds of jackets there that could easily be brought here and wouldn't cost anything.

Doc. 28-3 at 11. Vidro requested that Cheshire officials issue him a coat and hat or make them available in the A&P room for smudging. Id. He attached to his grievance a letter he had sent to Deputy Warden Hannah on January 14, 2018, requesting that jackets be placed in the A&P room for daily smudging. Id. at 13. The letter includes a response at the bottom stating that Cheshire officials do not provide coats and hats for smudging.[3] Id. The January 27, 2018 grievance constituted the only grievance Vidro filed regarding his ability to practice smudging at Cheshire. Pl.'s 56(a)(2) Stmt. ¶ 4.

         On March 14, 2018, an official at Cheshire responded to Vidro's January 27, 2018 grievance, stating the following: "A review of your level one grievance was conducted and has been compromised. Coats and hats will be provided for Native American smudging in the A[&]P area." Doc. 28-3 at 11. The official checked off a box at the bottom of the document indicating that Vidro had "exhausted DOC's Administrative Remedies." Id. Afterward, several jackets and hats were placed in the A&P room at Cheshire for use during smudging. Doc. 29-4 ("Decl. of Marco A. Michalski") ¶ 3.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

          Because "[t]here is no question that exhaustion is mandatory under the PLRA and that unexhausted claims cannot be brought in court[, ]" Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 211 (2007), the Court addresses Defendants' motion for summary judgment before turning to Vidro's ...


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