Monday, June 1, 2009

Supreme Court strikes down NY law shielding corrections officers from suit

The Supreme Court has struck down as unconstitutional a New York law that requires all lawsuits against state corrections officers to be filed in the state Court of Claims rather than in federal court under the Civil Rights Act. The case is Haywood v. Drown, 2009 WL 1443136, decided on May 26.

Under state Corrections Law sec. 24, any lawsuits against state corrections officers have to be litigated in the Court of Claims, sort of a subset of the state court system, where judges and not juries reach a verdict and procedural rules unique to that court can trip up even the most experienced attorney. If an inmate wants to bring the case against a corrections officer, that attorney would probably turn down the case in the first instance, since unlike civil rights cases brought under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, the prevailing plaintiff cannot recover attorneys' fees from the government defendant, and the Court of Claims cannot award punitive damages, either. Since most inmates have no money, it's not worth it for an attorney to bring the case.

As the Supreme Court points out, New York enacted Section 24 of the Corrections Law because state lawmakers believed that most inmate lawsuits against corrections officers are frivolous. That law has been on the books for many years, but someone decided to challenge that law as unconstitutional because it circumvents national policy, as expressed in Section 1983, that civil rights cases can be handled in federal court as well as the state courts which usually have authority to hear civil rights cases.

By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court holds that Corrections Law sec. 24 is unconstitutional to the extent it prohibits Section 1983 claims against corrections officers in state and federal court. Under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, federal law (such as Section 1983) is the law of the land, and it applies to all state courts. The only way that a state can exempt itself from a federal law is by proving that the contrary state law is a neutral rule of judicial administration. This means that a state cannot exempt itself from a federal law out of disagreement with the policies promoted by that law.

Justice Stevens writes that New York violates that rule because it "made the judgment that corrections officers should not be burdened with suits for damages arising out of conduct performed in the scope of their employment. Because it regards these suits as too numerous or too frivolous (or both), the State's longstanding policy has been to shield this narrow class of defendants from liability when sued for damages. The State's policy, whatever its merits, is contrary to Congress' judgment that all persons who violate federal rights while acting under color of state law shall be held liable for damages."

By the way, while Corrections Law sec. 24 is primarily associated with inmate lawsuits against officers, that law also prevents other plaintiffs from suing state corrections officers under Section 1983. These other plaintiffs include state employees who sued management over personnel practices. See, e.g., Gore v. Kulhman, 630 N.Y.S.2d 141 (3d Dept. 1995). While the Second Circuit carved out an exception for sexual harassment claims (on the basis that sexual harassment by a corrections officer is not within the scope of his employment), see Ierardi v. Sisco, 119 F.3d 183 (2d Cir. 1997), more routine employment cases were confined to the Court of Claims. That has now changed. Although the Supreme Court does not address this issue, I would assume that all civil rights lawsuits against state Corrections Officers can now be brought under Section 1983, and in federal court.

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