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Santiago v. Costa

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 3, 2019




         Plaintiff Hector Santiago brought this pro se Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against defendants Lori Costa and Erin Wylie alleging that they, acting under the color of law, “retaliated against [him] when he invoked the petitioning clause of the First Amendment.” Compl. at 1. Santiago also names Costa and Wylie in their individual capacities. Santiago states that he has “fully exhausted all available administrative remedies pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 127 §§ 38E and 38F; and 42 U.S.C. § 1997(e).” Id.


         NEADS is a private organization that trains and places service dogs for deaf and disabled Americans. NEADS runs the Prison Pup Partnership in various correctional institutions throughout New England. The Partnership employs inmate volunteers to train dogs to become service animals. During the week, the dog/trainee lives with his or her assigned inmate in a single cell designated for the program. On weekends, the dogs are housed by private citizens (Weekend Puppy Raisers or WPRs) who pick them up and deliver them back to the prison. The prisoner handlers “are model inmates with exceptional institutional records.” Costa Aff. ¶ 7. The number of inmates who want to participate in the program exceeds the available spots. “The handler[s] serve at will and can be removed from the program at any time at the discretion of staff.” Id. ¶ 8.

         Santiago is in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) at MCI-Norfolk and was an inmate dog handler in the NEADS program from November of 2008 through January of 2010. Santiago “took a leave of absence from the program in order to finish his degree at Boston University and returned to NEADS in March of 2013.” Compl. ¶ 5. Defendant Lori Costa is a DOC employee serving as the liaison to the NEADS program at MCI-Norfolk. Compl. ¶ 2. Defendant Erin Wylie is employed by NEADS as a trainer and, on its behalf, conducts the Prison Pup Partnership at MCI-Norfolk.

         In March of 2017, Costa and Wylie took note of Santiago's perceived shortcomings as a dog handler, including his failure to timely deliver his dog Montana to his weekend partner (“forcing the WPR to wait for an extended, unacceptable length of time”), as well as Montana's poor classroom performance. Costa Aff. ¶ 14. Costa states that Wylie “urged [her] to remove Mr. Santiago from the program, ” and that Wylie “had decided that she did not intend to give [him] another dog to train.” Id.

         On the morning of June 6, 2017, Santiago and several other inmate trainers were working with their dogs in the two NEADS-designated classrooms on the second floor of the Voc-Ed building at MCI-Norfolk. Building security officer John Hunter accused Santiago of loitering in the hallway outside the NEADS classroom. Santiago attempted to explain that he was practicing “stay” commands with Montana and had left the classroom as part of the training. Santiago avers that “Officer Hunter threw his hands into Santiago's face and yelled (with profanities) that he did not want to hear an explanation. Officer Hunter then walked into another NEADS classroom and berated the trainers within for excessive noise.” Compl. ¶ 17; see also Cintron Aff. ¶¶ 18-19. Joshua Cintron, one of the inmate trainers, states that Hunter called him into the hallway and “threw his hands in [his] face as if he were about to hit [him] and threatened [him] with a disciplinary report if [he] could not maintain an acceptable level of noise in the classroom.” Id. ¶ 17. Santiago, Cintron, and several other trainers went across the hall to Costa's office seeking her support, “accusing Officer Hunter of misconduct, ” and asking Costa to explain to him the dog-training techniques that they were practicing. Compl. ¶ 18; see also Cintron Aff. ¶ 22. Unwilling to become involved, Costa told them that Hunter's actions were beyond her control.

         That afternoon Costa reported the incident, in writing and verbally, to her superiors.[1] The following day she discussed the incident with the Deputy Superintendent, and on June 8, 2017, with the Director of Treatment. At that point, Costa and Wylie jointly decided to remove Santiago from the Prison Pup Partnership.

         On June 9, 2017, Santiago filed two grievances - one against Hunter and another against Costa for “ignor[ing] his plea for help, ” and “not report[ing] the incident, ” when he was “in crisis.” Costa Aff. - Ex. B. Cintron also filed a grievance against Hunter. Costa was told by several unnamed sources that Santiago had been part of unauthorized group meetings in the dog yards, including one on Saturday June 10, 2017, where he encouraged other NEADS inmates to file grievances against Costa for her failure to intercede with Hunter on their behalf.

         On June 14, 2017, Santiago was dismissed from the NEADS program and, as a result, moved from the designated housing unit where the dog handlers reside.[2] Costa testified that “[o]nce Mr. Santiago was removed from the program, there was a dramatic improvement in the performance of Montana.” Id. ¶ 40. However, Montana's subsequent handler testified that, when he received her, she was “current in her training at or above levels required for weeks 1-19 . . . [and] graduated normally and without any remedial actions needed.” Gonzalez Aff. ¶¶ 7-8. Cintron was also removed from NEADS.[3]

         On June 25, 2017, Santiago filed another grievance “for the retaliatory actions of being terminated from the NEADS program and transfer to another unit.” Compl. ¶ 25. Deputy Superintendent Kristi Ladouceur denied Santiago's grievance finding that he was “terminated based on [his] overall performance and NEADS request.” Costa Aff. - Ex. E. Costa testified that she had no knowledge of Santiago's grievance against her until “at least July [of] 2017.”[4] Costa Aff. ¶ 25.

         On September 21, 2017, Santiago received a disciplinary report for the incident involving Officer Hunter. On October 13, 2017, the Institutional Grievance Coordinator (IGC) rejected Santiago's grievance against Costa as false, finding that she had appropriately reported the incident. Santiago's appeal was denied.

         Santiago filed this action on November 20, 2018, averring that all his grievances were denied and that his administrative remedies had been fully exhausted. His Complaint contains a single count under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting “retaliation for reporting staff misconduct and filing grievances.” Compl. ¶ 29. Santiago asserts that “[i]f not for the defendants' ...

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