Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Refusal to testify can get your case dismissed at trial

An inmate sues corrections officers alleging racial discrimination. His jail cell at Auburn is 150 miles from the federal courthouse, so he is transported to a closer facility, at Great Meadow, 70 miles away. The inmate objects because Great Meadow is the very place where he claims he was abused by corrections officers. He's afraid that abuse will happen again, so on the morning of trial he decides he will not testify on his own behalf. What's a trial judge to do?

The answer is that the trial court can dismiss the claim. The case is Lewis v. Rawson, decided on April 28. Under the rules governing "failure to prosecute," the court has discretion to dismiss the case if the plaintiff will not testify and his account is the only evidence in support of his case.

The state wins the appeal. But this is not just an appeal about an inmate who refuses to testify. The reasoning would apply to any plaintiff who requests an adjournment or will not testify at his trial. The Second Circuit finds that the trial court has authority to dismiss the case if plaintiff will not testify and the jury has already been empaneled. A plaintiff simply cannot refuse to proceed at trial without a darned good reason.

The plaintiff here did request an adjournment of trial so that it could be held in Syracuse, not Albany, where he could be placed an a different prison during trial. But the trial court was allowed to presume that this guy was safe at Great Meadow and that he would be treated lawfully. The state also offered to place him in a special housing unit at Great Meadow.

In addition, the Court holds, the plaintiff should have known long before the first day of trial that he might be confined at Great Meadow during trial. His usual facility was 150 miles away, too far for the daily commute. The plaintiff was also a violent felon who could only be confined at a maximum security prison. Waiting until the first day of trial to object to this placement was unreasonable because it was always foreseeable that he would be at Great Meadow during trial. On this analysis, plaintiff waited too long to object, and the trial court was therefore able to reject that objection and dismiss the case on his refusal to testify.

Judge Berman dissents because the trial judge denied the plaintiff "his day in court" and a relatively brief postponement so the case could be heard in Syracuse is not significant considering this case has dragged on for more than a decade and it would only be a three day trial. Judge Berman also thinks the trial court acted too quickly, hearing from the plaintiff and both attorneys on the morning of trial and dismissing the case without any extended inquiry into the reasonableness of the plaintiff's security concerns about confinement at Great Meadow.

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