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Second Circuit Rejects New York’s Interlocutory Appeal of Prisoner's $7.65 Million Failure-to-Protect Jury Verdict

by John E. Dannenberg

The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected a belated attempt by the New York Department of Corrections (NYDOC) to invoke a claim of qualified immunity to thwart a prisoner's substantial jury verdict for NYDOC?s having failed to protect him.

Don Juan Britt, while imprisoned at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, was attacked and seriously injured by another prisoner. When he returned from the hospital he was placed in protective custody but was nonetheless attacked again. Later, his cell was set on fire. Britt sued NYDOC under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Eighth Amendment claims of failure to protect, and under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) for conspiracy to violate his civil rights. At the same time he raised pendent state law claims, including negligence.

A federal jury awarded Britt $100,000 against NYDOC Commissioner Glenn Goord and $50,000 against NYDOC's head of security, William Connolly.
Additionally, the jury awarded Britt $5 million and $2.5 million in punitive damages against those defendants, respectively. The district court subsequently responded to the defendant's motion for reduction of punitive damages by cutting them to $200,000 and $100,000, respectively. Britt declined to accept this reduction and moved for a new trial on punitive damages.

The defendants also moved, post trial, for judgment as a matter of law on qualified immunity grounds, which the district court rejected. Before the new damages trial the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal to the Second Circuit asking for judgment on the qualified immunity claim, and requesting that the court exercise pendent appellate jurisdiction to review the district court's decision that the evidence was sufficient at trial on the § 1985(3) conspiracy charge.

The appeals court first wrestled with the question of its jurisdiction. The question was novel due to when the issue was raised: after trial but before judgment was entered. Normally a qualified immunity claim should be raised and adjudicated before subjecting the parties to trial. Here, although it was too late for that, it was nonetheless timely to prevent an unnecessary second trial on the issue of damages. Hence the Second Circuit reasoned that it had jurisdiction. However, the court concluded that on the merits, the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity.

As to the separable question of pendent appellate jurisdiction to review the evidentiary sufficiency of the § 1985(3) conspiracy verdict, the court concluded that it did not have jurisdiction because the underlying jury determination was non-final. Only if such a question is "inextricably intertwined" with another issue over which an appellate court does have jurisdiction will such a question be entertained, pre-judgment.

The court found in this case that because the defendants would enjoy a second trial on the merits of their case, they would have ample opportunity to preserve any objections at that time. Hence, the appellate court did not presently have pendent jurisdiction on the evidentiary sufficiency question.

The Second Circuit noted that this ruling would have no bearing on the merits of such a future challenge, when preserved by objection and timely raised on appeal. As of December 2007, the new trial on punitive damages had not yet been held and settlement discussions were proceeding. See: Britt v. Garcia, 457 F.3d 264 (2nd Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Britt v. Garcia