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“Liberal” Pleading Construction Reveals Negligent Guard Theory Claim

"Liberal" Pleading Construction Reveals Negligent Guard Theory Claim

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a New York federal district court?s dismissal of claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), finding that the court failed to "liberally" construe the plaintiff prisoner's submissions to be "interpreted so as to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest."

While held at the Federal Correctional Institution at Ray Brook, New York, prisoner Ben Gary Triestman was assigned to share a cell with Gerald Harris. Triestman was a first-time, non-violent prisoner. He alleged that Harris "was known to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to be a violent criminal and a sexual predator." On January 26, 1995, at approximately 4:00 a.m., "after a night of escalating cajoling, advances, and threats to convince [Triestman] to participate in homosexual intercourse and sodomy," Harris assaulted Triestman. During the assault Harris dislocated Triestman's shoulder and burned his hand with lit cigarettes.

The BOP has a program statement that provides "signaling devices will be available for inmate use in all locked housing units that do not have continuous staff coverage." Further, "inmates will not be left unattended in locked areas unless a signaling device is available to them for emergencies." Triestman alleged that BOP "neglected its duty of care" by failing to "adhere to its own regulations." Specifically, he asserted that staff at Ray Brook "did not provide either emergency signaling devices or continuous staffing in areas where inmates were left unattended in locked areas."

The district court granted dismissal of the case on the ground that it lacked jurisdiction, for Triestman's complaint was barred by the FTCA's "discretionary function" exception to the federal government?s limited waiver of sovereign immunity. Triestman appealed.

The Second Circuit held that "special solicitude" should be accorded to pro se plaintiffs. As such, Triestman's claims not only asserted a negligent staffing policy, but also a "negligent guard" claim "that the officer on duty when the incident occurred failed to patrol or respond diligently to an emergency situation out of laziness or inattentiveness."

The Court held Triestman's submissions were "broad enough to cover" the negligent guard theory, and the district court had failed to consider such a theory when considering Triestman's complaint. While the Second Circuit did not express a view on the merits of the claim, it held the case could not be dismissed at this point.

Moreover, the appellate court found the claim was so complex that upon remand the district court should consider appointing counsel to represent Triestman. The lower court's order was reversed and remanded; the case is still pending. See: Triestman v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471 (2nd Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Triestman v. Federal Bureau of Prisons