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New Trial and JNOV Denial Upheld in $15,545,000 Michigan Prisoner Sexual Harassment Case

New Trial and JNOV Denial Upheld in $15,545,000 Michigan Prisoner Sexual Harassment Case

by Matt Clarke

On January 27, 2009, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s denial of a motion for judgment nonwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or a new trial in a case that resulted in a $15,545,000 jury award for ten Michigan Dept. of Corrections prisoners who were victims of a systemic pattern of sexual harassment and abuse. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.42].

This class-action suit was brought by over 500 current or former female state prisoners. The case was originally filed in circuit court pursuant to the Michigan Civil Rights Act (CRA), MCL 37.2101, et seq. For background, see: Neal v. Department of Corrections, 232 Mich.App. 730, 592 N.W.2d 370 (1998). The state had attempted to kill the lawsuit by passing legislation to exclude prisoners from the CRA, an effort that was later deemed unconstitutional. [See: PLN, Jan. 2008, p.40; March 2000, p.22].

Due to the large number of plaintiffs and the fact that the locations and times of the alleged sexual harassment were spread out, the court opted to handle the case in stages, “bundling” plaintiffs according to when and where they were incarcerated. The $15.5 million jury award resulted from a January 2008 trial involving ten prisoners who were incarcerated at the Scott Correctional Facility from 1991 through 1999.

The defendants, composed of various prison officials, filed a motion for JNOV or a new trial, alleging that they were not given notice of the harassment, that the plaintiffs had failed to prove a violation of the CRA, that “bundling” the plaintiffs into separate trials was improper, that a necessary defendant was not sued, that the jury award was excessive and against the weight of the evidence, that evidence of pre-incarceration sexual assault should not have been admitted, that allowing a jury charge that a hostile environment was to be presumed due to the defendants’ destruction of evidence was improper, and that the defendants were improperly prevented from calling a witness and recalling a plaintiff. The circuit court denied the motion and the defendants appealed.

The Court of Appeals held the plaintiffs sufficiently proved their allegations of having been forced to dress, undress, shower, use the toilet and submit to medical examinations in full view of male prison guards. They also proved that male guards performed pat searches, including touching their breasts and genitals, and subjected them to offensive touching and verbal sexual harassment, including threatening the loss of privileges and rights or offering rewards in exchange for sexual favors. This proved their claim of sexual harassment, a CRA violation

The appellate court found the defendants were given notice of the harassment, bundling the plaintiffs for separate trials was proper, the defendant who was not sued was not necessary, the evidence supported the jury award (which was not excessive), evidence of pre-incarceration sexual assault was relevant, the jury charge was proper due to the defendants’ spoilage of evidence, the defendants were not improperly prevented from calling a witness as they failed to put her on their witness list, and they were not entitled to recall one of the plaintiffs to testify.

The trial court’s denial of the defendants’ motion for JNOV or a new trial was therefore affirmed. See: Neal v. Dep’t of Corrections, 2009 Mich. App. LEXIS 182 (Mich.Ct.App. 2009) (unpublished).

PLN has reportedly extensively on the systemic sexual abuse of female prisoners in Michigan. [See, e.g.: PLN, Jan. 2006, p.12]. The second set of prisoners in the Neal class-action suit went to trial in November 2008, resulting in a $8.45 million jury award. Michigan officials continue to fight this case and defend sexually abusive prison guards and the supervisors who ignored or condoned their misconduct. PLN will report the outcome of future trials in the Neal litigation. Over 400 more sexually abused women prisoners are awaiting trial on their civil rights claims.

Additional source: Detroit Free Press

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Related legal case

Neal v. Dep’t of Corrections