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New York Prisoner Gets Mixed Verdict in Retaliatory Beating Ruling

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a mixed verdict in an appeal by New York state prisoner Cesar A. Espinal. Espinal’s § 1983 suit, which was filed pro se, accused a total of 14 guards and other prison officials of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) of excessive force, denial of medical services, retaliation and conspiracy.

The district court had granted summary judgment to 12 of the 14 defendants on September 1, 2005, stating that Espi-nal failed to exhaust his administrative remedies pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), as he had not spe-cifically named them in his grievance. The two remaining defendants, Surber and Frasher, were granted summary judg-ment on Espinal’s conspiracy and retaliation claims, though not on the excessive force claims. In a three-day trial that concluded on November 1, 2006, a jury found Surber and Frasher had not used excessive force, and the court denied Espinal’s motion for a new trial.

On appeal, the Second Circuit found the district court had erred in dismissing Espinal’s claims against the 12 de-fendants, because the DOCS grievance procedures do not require that prisoners name specific individuals. Instead, they are directed to provide a “concise, specific description of the problem and the action requested.” There is no ex-press requirement that prisoners name specific officials responsible for misconduct; therefore, Espinal’s failure to name the individual defendants in his grievance did not preclude their inclusion in his § 1983 complaint.

Similarly, the district court based the dismissal of Espinal’s conspiracy claims on his failure to assert a conspiracy in his grievance. Again pointing to the DOCS grievance procedures, the appellate court held that a prisoner is not required to “articulate legal theories” but must only supply a brief, accurate description of the alleged misconduct.

Espinal’s retaliation claim was based on the fact that one of the prison guards, Surber, who was involved in a Decem-ber 17, 1999 assault that resulted in the current lawsuit, also was named in a previous suit filed by Espinal which had been dismissed six months prior to the assault. The district court found that Espinal failed to raise any triable issues of material fact relative to his retaliation claim.

The Second Circuit disagreed, holding that a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the assault by Surber and other guards “would deter a person of ‘ordinary firmness’ from exercising his rights.” The Court of Appeals further deter-mined that “the passage of only six months between the dismissal of Espinal’s lawsuit and an allegedly retaliatory beating by officers, one of whom (Surber) was a defendant in the prior lawsuit, is sufficient to support an inference of a causal connection.”

In its decision, the Second Circuit reversed the dismissal of Espinal’s § 1983 claims and his retaliation claims against Surber and Frasher. However, the district court’s denial of a new trial on the excessive force claims was affirmed. The appellate court entered an amended order on February 27, 2009, though the outcome remained the same. See: Espinal v. Goord, 558 F.3d 119 (2d Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Espinal v. Goord