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Second Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in New York Prisoner’s Due Process Lawsuit

Elder was found guilty of forgery and stealing. As a result, he was placed in the Special Housing Unit for six months, which included loss of recreation, package receipts, and commissary privileges. He also was ordered to pay Lawrence $630 in restitution.

Upon his administrative remedies being denied, Elder, acting pro se, challenged the evidentiary sufficiency in an Article 78 proceeding in New York Supreme Court. The Appellate Division vindicated Elder’s claim, finding the disciplinary decision was not supported by substantial evidence. See: Elder v. Fischer, 115 A.D. 3d 1177 (4th Dep’t 2014).

Elder, on May 1, 2014, sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming five prison officials as defendants. He alleged Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the due process claims and dismissed the Eighth Amendment claim. Elder appealed.

Elder alleged the hearing officer, Kenneth Kling, denied him due process by failing to make reasonable efforts to identify witnesses Elder sought to call. At issue were the “hall captains” who approved the disbursement forms. By rule, they were required to verify the identity of the prisoner who submitted the form. Kling said he could not identify the staff members from their signatures or initials.

The Second Circuit said the burden fell on Kling “‘to prove the rationality of declining to take the obvious step of consulting staffing records to identify Elder’s requested witnesses.” The record showed that, at most, Kling would have to interview two officers, but he failed to do so. The court ordered summary judgment be entered in Elder’s favor on that claim.

Next, Elder claimed guard T. MacIntyre denied him due process by failing to identify and locate witnesses. MacIntyre, as a staff assistant, was required under due process to prove Elder assistance by “gathering evidence, obtaining documents and relevant tapes, and interviewing evidence. Because it was disputed as to whether Elder actually asked MacIntyre to identify and interview witness, the issue was remanded for a trial.

The record was clear on the claim the Elder requested Kling and MacIntyre to provide him copies of the disbursement forms that he allegedly forged. MacIntyre never provided copies to Elder. At the disciplinary hearing, Kling kept those documents “by his side” and merely “flipped through them.” He did not allow Elder to review the documents. The court held Elder was entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

The court, however, held that Elder received adequate notice of the charges brought against him, so it affirmed the district court’s judgment on that claim. In turning to Elder’s sufficiency of the evidence claim, the Second Circuit pointed to the state court proceeding that found the evidence was insufficient to support the charges.

It, therefore, ordered summary judgment in Elder’s favor on this claim also. It further held the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. As to Elder’s Eight Amendment claim, which challenged the unsanitary conditions while he was in SHU, the court remanded to allow him to amend the claim to show the defendants knew about and were deliberately indifferent to those conditions.

The district court’s order was affirmed in part and vacated and reversed in part. See: Elder v. McCarthy, 967 F.3d 113 (2d Cir. 2020). 

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Related legal cases

Elder v. McCarthy

Elder v. Fischer