Sunday, July 20, 2008

Supreme Court to review NY law shielding corrections officers from suit

If you look hard enough, you'll find all kinds of anomalies in the New York statutes. One of them is Corrections Law section 24, which says that New York courts have no jurisdiction to handle any lawsuits for money damages against corrections officers for actions taken in the scope of their employment. You can't bring these claims in Federal court, either. The way around this prohibition is to sue the State in the Court of Claims.

The problem for plaintiffs' lawyers is section 24 conflicts with 42 U.S.C. section 1983, the general Federal civil rights law which allows you to sue individuals for constitutional violations. The cases that come to mind here are those alleging the excessive use of force by corrections officers. (Section 24 does not prohibit sexual harassment suits against corrections officers because that tort is outside the scope of an officer's employment, under a case I argued ten years ago, Ierardi v. Sisco, 119 F.3d 183 (2d Cir. 1997)).

Does section 24 violate the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, which says that Federal law trumps State law? The Supreme Court is going to decide that issue in the 2008-09 term. The case is Haywood v. Drown, 9 N.Y.3d 481 (2007). The New York Court of Appeals rejected the Supremacy Clause challenge to Section 24 on November 27, 2007. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 16, 2008.

The New York Court of Appeals summarized the competing positions as follows:

Plaintiff contends that when Congress enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1983, it imposed a national policy that was intended to allow persons who are injured by others acting under color of law to seek judicial redress. He claims that by prohibiting section 1983 actions for money damages, Correction Law § 24 impermissibly discriminates against the federal cause of action contrary to the purpose of the Supremacy Clause. Defendants submit that there is no constitutional violation because the states are free to limit the subject matter jurisdiction of their courts. They maintain that section 24 treats all state and federal monetary claims identically since none can be brought against a correction officer personally and, therefore, section 24 does not discriminate against a federal cause of action in favor of a state cause of action.

Citing Supreme Court authority, the New York Court of Appeals says that the legal standard for determining whether a State law conflicts with Federal policy under the Supremacy Clause "is when a state court lacks jurisdiction due to a neutral state rule regarding the administration of the courts. . . . A corollary to this principle is that a state rule will be deemed 'neutral' and 'valid' if it does not discriminate against federal claims in favor of analogous state claims. . . . Ultimately, what the Supremacy Clause prohibits is refusal by a state court to entertain a suit for the sole reason that the cause of action arises under state law."

Over a dissenting opinion, the Court of Appeals majority holds that Section 24 does not violate the Supremacy Clause because it prohibits all damages claims against corrections officers in State or Federal court. As the law does not favor State claims over Federal claims, it satisfies the constitutional standard.

Why did the Supreme Court take this case for review? The Court will not tell us until it decides the case. That day will come later this year or sometime in 2009. This is not a hot topic. There is not a lot of on-line commentary on this issue. There are few Supremacy Clause scholars out there, and the Supreme Court's decision to hear this case did not generate much press attention. But the issue is important. We all know that politicians can easily pass laws protection corrections officers from inmate lawsuits, but how far can they go in that effort? True, you can sue the State in the Court of Claims for prison abuses, but unlike cases brought under Section 1983, there are no attorneys' fees waiting for you at the end of the case, and most inmates cannot pay their way through cases like this. Most lawyers do not even know where the local Court of Claims is located, and that forum has special rules which few of us have mastered.

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