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Second Circuit Says New York Prisons Must Answer for Denying Court-Ordered Rehab

by David M. Reutter

On July 4, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed denial of qualified immunity (QI) to New York state prison officials who refused a prisoner’s judicially ordered enrollment in the state’s Shock Incarceration Program.

For a controlled substance offense, Michael Matzell was sentenced to four years in custody of the state Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS) on July 9, 2015, followed by three years of post-release supervision. The sentencing judge also ordered Matzell enrolled in the six-month Shock Program, a “bootcamp” rehab effort that, if successfully completed, allows early release from prison.

To be eligible for the program, a prisoner must be under 50 and within three years of release for a conviction that cannot include any violent felony. Prior to 2009, DOCCS had sole authority to determine eligibility, but when the state legislature passed the Drug Law Reform Act of 2009, it gave sentencing judges the power to order defendants to the Shock Program.

New York Correction Law §60.47(7)(a) provides that when a defendant is sentenced to the Shock program, prison officials may screen out only those prisoners who have “a medical or mental health condition” that would prevent successful completion. In such a case, they must notify the prisoner and propose an alternative. In Matzell’s case, prison officials told him he was ineligible due to “disciplinary tickets” he received—for substance abuse while incarcerated.

That’s right; his need for drug rehab was the excuse used to deny it to him.

Matzell’s attorney wrote DOCCS officials, arguing that Matzell was not only sentenced to the Shock Program but also that the law entitling him to enrollment was disregarded by officials. On the prisoner’s behalf, Article 78 proceedings were begun in state court to compel enrollment. The court granted relief, an order upheld by the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court of New York. Finally, 506 days after he became eligible, Matzell was enrolled in the program; upon completion he was immediately released from prison.

With the aid of attorneys from Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP in Manhattan, Matzell then filed a complaint accusing DOCCS of violating his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming QI, which was denied by the federal court for the Northern District of New York. They appealed.

Taking up the case, the Second Circuit disagreed on the Eighth Amendment claim, saying that prison officials were entitled to QI because it was not clearly established at the time that they couldn’t cost a prisoner his opportunity to obtain early release by denying or delaying judicially ordered entry into the Shock Program. However, the Court agreed with Matzell that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to his substantive due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment. The sentencing court’s order implicated a liberty interest, evidenced by the fact Matzell was released upon completing the program. Thus, he was deprived of the opportunity for release 506 days earlier.

“Given the liberty interest at stake and the clarity of the statutory law, we hold that Matzell plausibly alleged that Defendants’ actions were egregious, shocking to the conscience, and unreasonable,” the Court said. Denying Matzell program entry effectively extended his sentence, and the Court had already held in Earley v. Murray, 451 F.3d 71 (2d Cir. 2006), that no alteration to a sentence is valid unless imposed by a judge. Therefore, the district court’s order was affirmed as to the Fourteenth Amendment claim and reversed as to the Eighth Amendment claim. See: Matzell v. Annucci, 64 F.4th 425 (2nd Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, where mediation and settlement efforts have so far failed. Magistrate Judge Christian F. Himmel also permitted Matzell to move for sanctions on November 13, 2023, noting that DOCCS has for two and a half years refused to reveal the number and names of prisoners similarly situated to Matzell—information he needs to petition for certification of his suit as a class-action. That motion remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Matzell v. Annucci, USDC (N.D.N.Y.), Case No. 9:20-cv-01605.  

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Related legal case

Matzell v. Annucci