Thursday, July 18, 2013

Suing the warden: an inmate's dream

An inmate in New Haven sued the warden, complaining of unconstitutional jail conditions, like poor ventilation, not enough food, no law library, a cold cell with no blankets or sheets, no toothpaste or soap or a ladder to reach the top bunk bed. He sued the warden, but the claim was dismissed because the lawsuit did not adequately allege that the warden knew but did nothing about the problem. The lawsuit is reinstated.

The case is Grullon v. Cityof New Haven, decided on June 19. In order to sue an individual, you have to show that he was personally involved in the constitutional violation. This guy alleged that he sent the warden a letter complaining of the Eighth Amendment problems, but the district court said this was not enough because plaintiff did not allege that the warden received the letter. The Court of Appeals (Kearse, Katzmann and Rakoff [D.J.]) reverses.

The district court would not let the plaintiff amend the complaint following a Rule 12 dismissal. This decision provides a nice overview of that area of the law. Since these motions should be freely granted, especially when a pro se plaintiff brought the case, he gets another shot at the apple. The letter to the warden plus the other allegations in the complaint may give him a valid claim. As the Court of Appeals reminds us, "personal involvement is a question of fact." Under Rule 12, we give the plaintiff the benefit of the doubt. Here's the reasoning:

At the pleading stage, even if Grullon had no knowledge or information as to what became of his Letter after he sent it, he would be entitled to have the court draw the reasonable inference--if his amended complaint contained factual allegations indicating that the Letter was sent to the Warden at an appropriate address and by appropriate means--that the Warden in fact received the Letter, read it, and thereby became aware of the alleged conditions of which Grullon complained. It is of course possible that the Warden read the Letter and took appropriate action or that an administrative procedure was in place by which the Warden himself would not have received the Letter addressed to him; but those are potential factual issues as to personal involvement that likely cannot be resolved without development of a factual record.

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