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New York Prisoner’s Suit Over Thirteen-Year Solitary Stint Survives

by David M. Reutter

On March 21, 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York denied state prison officials’ motion to dismiss a lawsuit seeking damages for alleged Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations that stranded Kayson Pearson in solitary confinement without periodic reviews for 13 years.

Pearson was released in June 2019 from the Special Housing Unit (SHU) where he was held in solitary confinement under “Administrative Segregation.” After he filed suit on September 25, 2019, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) moved to dismiss, arguing the statute of limitations barred any claims prior to September 25, 2017, and that the complaint failed to detail officials’ personal involvement.

The district court recognized that a claim accrues when the “plaintiff either has knowledge of his or her claim or has enough information that a reasonable person would investigate and discover the existence of a claim,” citing Gonzalez v. Hasty, 802 F.3d 212 (2d Cir. 2015). However, the continuing violation doctrine “provides an exception to the normal knew-or-should-have-known accrual date,” the Court continued, pointing to Harris v. City of New York, 186 F.3d 243 (2d Cir. 1999).

That doctrine applies to Eighth Amendment claims premised on prolonged solitary confinement, the Court said. Therefore, the accrual date for such a claim is a determination that cannot be made at the pleading stage; rather it is “a question of fact determinable only by a close assessment of the conditions to which [the prisoner] was subjected as a function of the length of that confinement.” As such, Defendants’ motion to dismiss Pearson’s Eighth Amendment claim was denied. The Court also denied dismissal of Plaintiff’s procedural due process claims for events predating September 25, 2017, since Pearson brought no Fourteenth Amendment claims prior to that time.

Finally, as to officials’ personal involvement, the Court issued a mixed ruling.

It first found Pearson made specific allegations that Defendant Donald Venettozzi had policymaking and supervisory authority with regard to SHU and the DOCCS disciplinary processes that included reviewing, affirming, modifying, or reversing disposition imposed at Tier III hearings, like the one where the prisoner was disciplined. The Court also denied dismissal to “Doe” defendants who were members of review committees that made determinations concerning Pearson, since his complaint made specific allegations against them.

It also denied with leave to renew the motion to dismiss certain defendants where the allegations related to indirect actions of those officials. The parties did not adequately address that issue, the Court said, so those defendants were given 30 days to renew the issue if they desired. See: Pearson v. Annucci, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50114 (N.D.N.Y.).

The case remains open, and PLN will report further developments as they are available. Pearson is represented in his suit by attorneys Caitlin Matheny and Melissa Verne with Sidley Austin LLP in Manhattan. See: Pearson v. Annucci, USDC (N.D.N.Y.) Case No. 9:20-cv-01175. 

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