Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Second Circuit Reinstates Lawsuit over Sexual Abuse in New York State Prisons

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Since 2003, the Legal Aid Society has been pursuing a class-action suit on behalf of “present and future” female inmates in the New York state prison system, alleging a pattern of “sexual abuse—including forcible rape—of women prisoners by state correctional officers,” facilitated by inadequate staff screening, training, oversight, and grievance procedures. Claiming violations of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, the plaintiffs are asking a federal district court to issue an injunction requiring the New York DOC to implement more effective policies and procedures for preventing sexual abuse.

At the trial court level, the case had been dismissed by district judge Kevin Duffy, in part because some of the plaintiffs are no longer in prison, so their requests for injunctive relief are moot. Now the Second Circuit has reversed that ruling, reinstating the lawsuit as to those plaintiffs and sending it back to the district court for further proceedings to determine if the case can proceed as a class action. (Full opinion PDF here — note, the case has had a very complicated procedural history and this is mainly a procedural ruling, so the opinion may be hard to follow; I’ll translate some of the legalese after the jump, if you’re curious).

The AP reports on the stance of the New York Department of Corrections:

In April, Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer testified the department has adopted a series of directives and orientation materials for prisoners and notices to staff and inmates emphasizing zero tolerance sexual abuse. He noted the department’s inspector general has one of the few prison sex crimes units in the nation investigating allegations of misconduct by staff, as well as abuse by inmates on one another.

“The reality, however, is that while we do not willingly tolerate sexual abuse of our offenders, we may not be able to ever fully eradicate the occurrence,” he said. “Our approach is to take proactive preventive measures, immediately respond to all allegations and seek criminal penalties where appropriate believing that such efforts have a deterrent effect within the system.”

The Court’s Reasoning

The Second Circuit panel reasoned that the suit falls into the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to the mootness doctrine. To translate from the legalese:

Injunctions are about preventing future harms, so ordinarily, plaintiffs aren’t allowed to take up court time asking a judge to enjoin violations that can’t actually happen. If you’re suing to prevent something from happening to you in prison, but you’re not in prison anymore, your claim is moot. That’s the mootness doctrine.

But there’s an exception for class-action suits challenging practices that are likely to happen again to someone in the future, but where the precise group of currently-affected plaintiffs is likely to change faster than litigation can move — such as jails, prisons, public housing projects, and other institutions where people are constantly moving in and out. This exception allows plaintiffs with moot claims to stand in for future plaintiffs for class certification purposes, because otherwise it’s hard to see how anyone could ever effectively challenge the practices in question — you’d just get an endless cycle of suits being filed then thrown out as moot.

So applying that exception to this case, the Second Circuit explained that “the odds of an inmate” being sexually assaulted and then “being able to complete the grievance procedure and litigate a class action” all “while still incarcerated are rather small.” Thus, it makes sense to allow the formerly incarcerated inmates who’ve already filed suit to continue standing in for the class of current and future inmates who, if the plaintiffs’ allegations are true, remain at risk of sexual abuse and would benefit from injunctive relief.

(Note that there is a separate group of plaintiffs whose claims the district court dismissed, ruling that they hadn’t exhausted the prison system’s internal grievance procedures before filing suit, as required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The Second Circuit upheld that portion of the ruling. But that leaves three plaintiffs who did exhaust their remedies, so the suit can continue as to them.)

The docket info is Amador v. Superintendents of Dep’t of Corr. Servs., 08-2079-pr, 2d Circuit, Aug. 19, 2011.

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