New York City to Pay in Another Prisoner Suit

Date of Alert: 
Wednesday, September 12, 2012


New York City will pay $850,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from the beating of an inmate at Rikers Island that fit a rogue disciplinary pattern cited by law enforcement officials in which favored prisoners, in a system known as the Program, received tacit approval to keep order by assaulting and threatening other prisoners.

The resolution of the case comes after the city agreed in July to pay $1.5 million to settle a suit stemming from the death of an inmate under different circumstances — a struggle with correction officers in the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital Center; and in June, a $2 million settlement of another Program lawsuit that involved a fatal beating.

In settling the matters, the city admitted no wrongdoing. But the cases point to what lawyers and other advocates for prisoners say is a wider and disturbing problem of unjustifiably harsh treatment of prisoners in city jails.

In May, the Legal Aid Society, and two law firms, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady and Ropes & Gray, filed a separate lawsuit seeking class-action status and citing a “deeply entrenched” pattern of brutality in the jails.

The suit says correction officials have tolerated and even condoned inmate beatings by guards, an assertion the city strongly denies. That suit is still pending.

In the Rikers case, Kadeem John, then 18, said that in 2010 he had been beaten in a unit for teenagers at the Robert N. Davoren Center after he refused an order by another prisoner who was described as an inmate enforcer.

That enforcer led a team of prisoners who controlled access to phones, the seating arrangements in a day room and the distribution of cigarettes, the lawsuit said. Correction officers failed to intervene or adequately protect Mr. John, the suit charged, and he suffered a lacerated kidney and a brain injury as a result of the attack.

“We wish that this was an anomaly, but apparently it isn’t,” said Jonathan S. Abady, a lawyer with the Emery firm, which represented Mr. John along with the Legal Aid Society.

“Program violence has been and continues to be a persistent and intractable issue at the city jail,” Mr. Abady said.

He added that Mr. John was “still recovering, both emotionally and physically, and the long-term consequences of his injuries are uncertain.”

Muriel Goode-Trufant, a senior lawyer with the city’s Law Department, said, “The nature of Mr. John’s injuries was serious, and the settlement resolves this litigation.

“There is no evidence of D.O.C. staff complicity in this situation,” she added, referring to the Department of Correction.

The settlement was approved on Friday by Judge Robert P. Patterson Jr. of Federal District Court in Manhattan. The case took an unusual twist this year when Judge Patterson reprimanded and sanctioned the city for various actions.

In one instance, the city acknowledged that it had destroyed a recording on which Mr. John’s beating had been captured by a surveillance camera.

The city claimed it had not expected litigation in the matter, and had destroyed the recording as part of a record-retention schedule. “Unfortunately, the order to preserve the tape did not trickle down,” a city lawyer told the judge in March.

The city said that a supervisor who had seen the video could testify about what it showed. But another of Mr. John’s lawyers, Adam R. Pulver, argued that a videotape was unique, irreplaceable and neutral, and that the jury should be entitled to see it. The judge said he would bar the city from offering testimony about what the video showed.

Then, in early July, Judge Patterson found that the city had “repeatedly failed to adhere” to court orders pertaining to the provision of evidence in the discovery process. The judge again imposed sanctions and ordered the Law Department to pay $10,000 and two of its lawyers $300 each.

“The time has long passed for defendants to be conducting searches for relevant documents which should have been turned over to plaintiff months ago,” Judge Patterson wrote.

On July 19, Ms. Goode-Trufant of the Law Department wrote to the judge that the parties had reached an agreement in principle to settle the case, and asked that the financial sanctions be vacated, which Mr. John’s lawyers did not oppose. The judge agreed that the sanctions would not be enforced.

Ms. Goode-Trufant said Friday: “We are gratified the court lifted the sanctions. We take our discovery obligations very seriously and fulfilled them to the best of our ability in this case.”


A version of this article appeared in print on September 1, 2012, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: New York City to Pay In Another Prisoner Suit.