Inmates win their civil rights cases in the Second Circuit more often than you would think. Some win their appeals pro se, which is noteworthy because they are not lawyers and face off against highly skilled state lawyers. Others win their appeal because, after handling the cases pro se in the district court, the Second Circuit assigns them counsel who know what they are doing. In this case, the inmate is represented on appeal by one of the largest law firms in New York City.
The case is Shapard v. Attea, a summary order decided on October 12. Plaintiff says the correction officers punched and kicked him and beat him with a baton, causing serious injuries that required medical treatment. He says this was in retaliation for the grievances that he filed. While the complaint asserts that prison officials found after a hearing that plaintiff had initiated the incident by assaulting an officer, the complaint does not admit nor deny this finding, though the complaint attaches documents produced in connection with the incident in which plaintiff contemporaneously denied any misconduct. He also denied any wrongdoing at his deposition. Eventually, plaintiff pleaded guilty to assault arising from the incident.
Based on that guilty plea, the district court threw plaintiff's case out the window, reasoning that under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), "Shapard’s version of the facts 'clearly impl[ies] the invalidity of his assault conviction, which has not been set aside, and consequently [his claims] are
barred by Heck[.]” In other words, the guilty plea means that plaintiff is responsible for his injuries and there is no case because he had assaulted an officer. The district court concluded that plaintiff's civil rights case is undermined by the guilty plea.
The Second Circuit (Jacobs, Cabranes and Wesley) reinstates plaintiff's case. It reasons, "Shapard’s excessive force claims are not Heck‐barred because their favorable adjudication would not 'necessarily imply the invalidity'” of his prior assault conviction." In addition, "the complaint does not deny that Shapard assaulted Officer Attea. Although attachments to the complaint reflect Shapard’s previous denials, the complaint does not necessarily adopt those denials (which were made years earlier, before Shapard pleaded guilty)." Nor do Shapard’s civil rights claims depend on the invalidity of his assault conviction. His lawyer argued in the district court that "nothing in Plaintiff’s guilty plea or allocution precludes him from testifying as to what happened next, including testifying as to force used against him by the Defendants and testifying as to the injuries he sustained."