Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Was the inmate framed?

Did you know that inmates have a right to a due process hearing if they are accused of misconduct at the jail? They do, and there is a body of case law to draw from. This inmate's lawsuit was dismissed on summary judgment, and he wins the appeal pro se, prevailing against the Attorney General's office.

The case is Kotler v. Donelli, a summary order decided on June 19. Kotler was an elected inmate representative on the grievance committee at the jail. One day, on an anonymous note, corrections officers searched his cell and allegedly discovered a weapon. I said "allegedly." Kotler said it wasn't his, but no one believed him. He lost at the hearing and was banned from serving on the grievance committee for three years. The Appellate Division affirmed the guilty findings, but Kotler than filed a Section 1983 claim and discovery revealed a letter between jail officials who "sought a way to remove Kotler from the committee and ban him from future elections. One jail official said that a disciplinary hearing was the only want to accomplish that. That email was sent only a few days before the officers "found" the weapon in Kotler's cell. Kotler also alleged that right after the disciplinary hearing, the hearing officer told him off-the-record, "when the boss says get rid of you, I got to get rid of you."

So, after the Appellate Division affirmed the in-house finding of guilt, the case got a lot more interesting. The issue on appeal is whether the disciplinary determination that the weapon belonged to Kotler collaterally estops him from alleging in federal court that the weapon was planted. It does not. Kotler did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate that issue at the disciplinary hearing, which did not allow him the benefit of any discovery that would have revealed that damaging email. Plus, the hearing officer's damaging admission took place off-the-record, when the hearing ended. This is why the Court of Appeals has held in the past that "there is a substantial question as to whether, under New York law, collateral estoppel should ever apply to fact issues determined in a prison disciplinary hearing and reviewed for substantial evidence in an Article 78 proceeding, given the procedural laxity of such prison hearings and the limited nature of substantial-evidence review."

Whether or not Kotler got screwed at the hearing is ripe for consideration under Section 1983. The Second Circuit (Chin, Lohier and Keenan [D.J]) says that "he should have a chance now to present all of the evidence to a jury."

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