Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Officer's threat to kill inmate may give him a day in court

I've represented prisoners who really loved the law library. They become experts in constitutional law, challenging their convictions and the conditions of their confinement. But there are procedural roadblocks to these cases. Inmates have to satisfy certain procedural requirements before going into court, particularly when they want to sue over prison conditions.

The case is Benjamin v. Commissioner of Correctional Department, a summary order decided on April 29. This case is notable because a pro se inmate defeats the State Attorney General's office. Benjamin certainly knows his way around the prison law library.

If you want to sue over prison conditions, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, you have to first file a grievance. After the grievance is undoubtedly rejected by prison officials, you can then sue in court. There are exceptions to this rule, i.e., if the prison makes it impossible for you to file a grievance, or you have good reason to fear retaliation for filing the grievance. That's the rule in Hemphill v. Goord, 380 F.3d 680 (2d Cir. 2004).

Benjamin claims that an officer threatened to kill him if he complained about him. That's right, officer O'Conner threatened Benjamin with death. Plaintiff testified that the officer said, "I will kill you if you complain about me." Let me ask you: is this alleged threat enough to deter an inmate from filing a grievance?

The Court of Appeals (Leval, Katzmann and Parker) says the threat might constitute sufficient justification for Benjamin's failure to file a grievance. In dismissing the case for Benjamin's failure to exhaust administrative remedies, the district court seems to have overlooked this allegation. The Court of Appeals is remanding the case so the district court can give it another look.

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