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More Damages, Costs & Attorney Fees Awarded in NH False Disciplinary Case

More Damages, Costs & Attorney Fees Awarded in NH False Disciplinary Case

Three prisoners involved in two federal civil rights lawsuits against officials of the Hillsborough County House of Corrections in New Hampshire (the jail) were awarded nominal, compensatory and punitive damages plus attorney fees and costs.

On July 14, 2002, jail guard Cesar Rivas, working alone in a medium-security housing unit, radioed in an alarm. He claimed to have been rushed or cornered by a group of at least twenty prisoners. Rivas picked out nine pre-trial detainees from the locked-down unit whom he claimed were involved in the incident. The nine were placed in solitary confinement.

The conditions in solitary were especially harsh, and included denial of all property except a mattress, sheet, pillow and prison uniform. Prohibited items included legal papers, writing instruments and personal hygiene items such as soap and toilet paper. The water supply to the cells was shut off and the nine prisoners had to rely on the largess of guards to turn it on briefly so they could wash their hands or flush the toilet.

They were subjected to up to five in-cell strip searches a day in which they were often required to first handle their groins, armpits and buttocks, then place their fingers in their mouths. Frequently they were not allowed to wash their hands following a strip search and prior to eating.

The prisoners in solitary were placed on a “three-day rotation,” only let out of their cells once every three days for a quick shower while wearing shackles. They were not allowed telephone calls, mail or non-attorney visits, and their food was half the normal portion.
The conditions were especially onerous for Palacio Paladin, a large man who lost 100 pounds while on the three-day rotation; he also suffered pain, cuts and bruises from the too-small shackles used during the rare occasions he was allowed out of his cell.
To make matters worse, all nine prisoners claimed, and presented evidence, that the incident involving Rivas had never actually occurred but was invented by Rivas and prosecuted by jail disciplinary officer Theresa Pendleton. Pendleton allegedly ignored proof in the prisoners’ favor and falsified evidence against them, relying on information from a confidential informant who later testified he didn’t see a confrontation between the prisoners and Rivas.

Jail prisoners Palacio Paladin and Richard West filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court, alleging false disciplinary charges. Another prisoner, Antonio King, filed a separate lawsuit. Three other jail prisoners settled their claims against the county, while prisoner Jason Surprenant won a $20,503 award against Rivas and Pendleton in 2004. [See: PLN, Aug. 2005, p.17; June 2006, p.26; July 2007, p.28].

Following a jury trial, Paladin and West were awarded $1.00 in nominal damages and $50,000 in punitive damages against Pendleton. Paladin was awarded $50,000 in compensatory damages and West received $1.00 in nominal damages against jail Superintendent James O’Mara, Jr., who had implemented the three-day rotation policy. The jury found in favor of Rivas.

Paladin and West moved for attorney fees and costs, while the defendants moved for remittitur of Paladin’s compensatory award, seeking to have it reduced to $1.00 in alignment with West’s award.

The district court held there was ample evidence to support the compensatory damage award of $50,000, and evidence that Paladin had suffered more than West and presented a more sympathetic figure to the jury, so the difference in the awards did not require remittitur. The court granted the full requested amount of $33,952.50 in fees and $1,247.32 in costs for representation by attorney Michael J. Sheehan, noting his expertise in and willingness to take on prisoner litigation.

A separate jury initially awarded King $1.00 in nominal damages and $500 in punitive damages against Rivas, finding in favor of O’Mara and Pendleton. The court granted King’s motion for a new trial on compensatory damages since the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Following retrial, the jury awarded King $5,000 in compensatory damages for a total award of $5,500.

Because King had refused a $10,000 plus costs and attorney fees unapportioned settlement offer prior to trial, Rivas moved for costs and fees he incurred after the offer was rejected pursuant to Rule 68, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court held that the $10,000 unapportioned offer to settle with all defendants could not be compared with King’s $5,500 award against a single defendant. Therefore, Rivas’ motion was denied.

On March 26, 2008, the district court awarded costs to O’Mara and Pendleton as prevailing parties, and costs and attorney fees to King as the prevailing party against Rivas. The amounts were not specified; Rivas has since appealed the fee ruling. See: Paladin v. Rivas, U.S.D.C. (D.NH), Case No. 05-cv-079-SM (2007 WL 2907263) and King v. Rivas, U.S.D.C. (D.NH), Case No. 04-cv-356-SM (2008 WL 822236).

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Related legal cases

King v. Rivas

Paladin v. Rivas