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Once Again, Former Florida DOC Secretary Faces Liability in Prisoner Beating; Case Settled for $400,000

by David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the former warden of the Florida State Prison (FSP) was not entitled to qualified immunity in a civil rights suit brought by a prisoner who alleged his beating by guards was not an isolated incident, but that such beatings occurred with sufficient regularity to demonstrate a history of widespread brutality at FSP. The appellate court also affirmed an award of costs to defendants who had been voluntarily dismissed from the suit.

This case involves a pattern of abuse by guards that reached its climax with the brutal murder of FSP prisoner Frank Valdez. [See: PLN, October 1999, p.1]. The plaintiff in this action, Willie Mathews, was one of five prisoners who were transferred to FSP for assaulting two guards at the Hamilton Correctional Institution. Immediately after their July 4, 1999 arrival at FSP, guards began beating the Hamilton Five. Mathews’ complaint states he was assaulted on July 4, 5 and 10.

Not all of the guards at FSP agreed with the beatings, as one of them sent a letter to Mathews’ mother advising her that her son was being abused by prison staff. She called FSP’s warden, James V. Crosby, and informed him of the letter she received on July 12. That same day Mathews was visited by FSP’s inspector, Tim Geibeig.

Geibeig testified that he spoke daily with Crosby about “everything going on at FSP,” and that he spoke to Crosby “concerning the Mathews allegations” between July 13 and 16. Mathews filed an emergency grievance on July 15, 1999, stating he was in fear for his life and was suffering from an untreated broken jaw following repeated assaults by FSP guards. He requested that he be moved “before [he is] killed.” Despite a dental examination on July 16 that confirmed Mathews had a broken jaw, no treatment was provided or action taken on his grievance.

From the time the Hamilton Five arrived on FSP’s X-wing, which imposed solitary confinement on prisoners accused of serious disciplinary problems, death row prisoner Frank Valdez had been trying to alert outside authorities and the me-dia about the abuse being inflicted by X-wing guards. His vocal complaints led guards to beat Valdez to death on July 17, 1999. Although a number of guards were later prosecuted in connection with his murder, they were acquitted. It was only after Valdez’s death that Mathews was transferred from FSP and surgery performed on his broken jaw.

The Florida federal district court granted Crosby and Geibeig’s motion for summary judgment in Mathew’s suit. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found the facts in this case could allow a jury to determine that FSP guards had committed constitutional violations. The issue before the court of appeals was whether Crosby could be held liable as a supervisor for such violations.

The Eleventh Circuit held that Crosby could be held liable. The rationale was the same as that used to find Crosby liable in an earlier lawsuit filed in the Valdez murder, which eventually resulted in a $1,169,923 settlement. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.18]

In that case, as here, it was shown that one of the FSP guards, Timothy Thornton, was known to abuse prisoners; at one point he put a prisoner in the hospital for nine days. Crosby was aware of Thornton’s history but nevertheless pro-moted him to Captain shortly after becoming warden at FSP.

While serving as FSP’s warden, Crosby initiated a “hands-off” approach. He discontinued videotaping of cell extrac-tions; he failed to review abuse of force grievances or use of force reports, delegating that task to his secretary; and he transferred an assistant warden who was fighting FSP’s “notorious reputation” for abusive guards.

In sum, the appellate court held that Mathews had presented sufficient evidence that Crosby was not only aware of a “good old boys network of guards [that] mistreat [prisoners]” at FSP, but that he fostered that network. As such, a jury could find Crosby had established customs and policies that resulted in constitutional violations and had failed to take reasonable measures to correct those alleged violations. The duty to so act was clearly established in 1999; thus, Crosby was not entitled to qualified immunity. Because Mathews had failed to address Geibeig’s liability on appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment as to Geibeig.

The district court, upon entering summary judgment, had awarded the defendants a total of $33,181.28 in costs. The appellate court vacated $11,333 of the cost award related to Crosby and Geibeig, but allowed Geibeig to seek costs on remand. The other prison officials named in the suit had been voluntarily dismissed by Mathews. The Eleventh Circuit held the district court had properly analyzed the costs and Mathews’ indigent status, and upheld the remaining cost award. See: Mathews v. Crosby, 480 F.3d 1265 (11th Cir. 2007), petition for rehearing en banc and petition for certiorari denied.

Following remand, Mathews settled his claim against Crosby for approximately $400,000. The defendants who had been voluntarily dismissed from the case filed a motion for writ of execution for the cost award, seeking to attach the funds paid to Mathews in his settlement with Crosby. A garnishment order in the amount of $6,780.29 plus accrued interest was entered against Mathews on May 23, 2008. See: Mathews v. Crosby, U.S.D.C. SD Fla., Case No. 3:99-cv-01117-TJC-HTS.

Note that it may be a better course of action for plaintiffs to reach an agreement with opposing parties to waive costs in exchange for a voluntary dismissal before such a dismissal is entered.

Following his tenure as warden at FSP, Crosby served as Secretary for the Florida DOC. He was convicted on corrup-tion charges in 2007 and sentenced to 31 months in federal prison [see: PLN, Dec. 2007, p.32].

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Mathews v. Crosby

Mathews v. Crosby