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Second Circuit: Denial of Exercise Over Four Months Defeats Summary Judgment

Before the court was the appeal of New York prisoner Lionel McCray. Proceeding pro se, McCray alleged that while at Green Haven Correctional Facility (GHCF) in 2013-2014, he was on “keeplock” status, which allowed him out of his cell for one hour of daily exercise. GHCF had several outdoor exercise yards and one indoor gymnasium that was restricted to prisoners in other categories.

McCray alleged that in the winter of 2014, one or more of GHCF’s outdoor recreation yards was closed, which when combined with the prison’s maximum capacity population and the waist-high snow and ice accumulations that blocked access to exercise equipment, “prevented McCray from moving sufficiently freely to be able to exercise” for four months. McCray also alleged he was injured during a slip and fall on the ice.

After the district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, McCray appealed.

The Second District affirmed dismissal of the Eighth Amendment claim related to the slip and fall, finding McCray failed to make any claims of circumstances that would elevate GHCF’s “yard conditions beyond the typical level of danger presented by a slippery sidewalk or a wet floor.”

It reversed, however, judgment on the monetary claim on the denial of exercise claim. As McCray had been transferred to another prison, his declaratory and injunctive relief claims were moot.

On the merits, the Second Circuit agreed with the district court that deprivations of physical exercise for short periods are not unconstitutional, but it cited cases that periods of less than four months were viable. McCray’s claim that “more than 75 percent of yard space with snow and ice at waist high” prevented him from “any meaningful exercise opportunity for four months” was sufficient to state an Eighth Amendment claim.”

In holding the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity, the Second Circuit noted the district court improperly narrowed the level of specify for the right. “[T]he right to a meaningful opportunity for exercise is not confined to a particular season; though not constant, the right is ongoing,” wrote the court. Reasonable prison officials “understand that climatic features may necessitate responsive measures to ensure that the right … not be denied.”

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Related legal case

McCray v. Lee