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United States District Court in New York Sides with Prisoners in § 1983 Action against Former New York Governor George Pataki and Others

United States District Court in New York Sides with Prisoners in § 1983 Action against Former New York Governor George Pataki and Others

By Derek Gilna

In a July 6, 2010 decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York the Court rejected a motion for summary judgment and found that genuine issues of fact existed as to whether prisoners' civil confinements comported with Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process, and whether state prisoners' right to pre-deprivation hearing was clearly established.

The case arose as a result of the actions of former New York State Governor George Pataki and other officials in his administration in "unilaterally... promulgating on September 12, 2005, an executive initiative requiring indefinite civil confinement in State psychiatric hospitals of criminal inmates who, at the completion of their terms of imprisonment, were deemed to be ‘sexually violent predators...’ this was known as the Sexual Violent Predator initiative...." according to the decision of Judge Jed S. Rakoff, District Judge.

The unilateral action on the part of former Governor Pataki followed a seven-year campaign to convince the State Legislature to enact legislation that sanctioned the post-conviction confinement of prisoners. The action never came to a vote, and Pataki and his administration proceeded with their initiative. As a result of these actions, and a lawsuit filed on behalf of the prisoners affected by this executive order, the judge found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether Pataki and others were entitled to qualified immunity, and that a motion filed by the defendants for summary judgment was denied.

The Pataki order permitted involuntary civil commitment of prisoners based upon the procedures and standards set forth in Section 9.27, et seq., of the New York Mental Hygiene Law, rather than those set forth in Section 402 of the New York Correctional Law. Under the former, two state-employed psychiatrists could find a prisoner qualified for further confinement, without any prior judicial hearing or determination, whereas, "Correction Law Sec. 402 permits transfer of an inmate to civil confinement in a psychiatric facility only upon a judicial determination made after notice, hearing, and examination by court-appointed psychiatrists," the judge said.

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P 12(b)(6), which was granted in part, but also denied in part, leaving intact the claim against Pataki under 1983, against Pataki and others.

To successfully state a claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, plaintiffs have to show that they (1) possessed and actual liberty interest and (2) were deprived of that interest without being afforded sufficient procedural safeguards. Defendants' principal argument that their actions were objectively reasonable was based upon the "two-decade practice of civilly committing inmates," and said that the initiative of Pataki could be justified by a reasonable state official upon that fact.

That argument failed, according to the judge for several reasons: "First, as a factual matter, plaintiffs have strenuously challenged the assertion that there was such a practice..." and "Second, the basic proposition that due process requires a pre-deprivation hearing unless there is an immediate danger to society was so well established by 2005, indeed, for decades prior, ..." that "Due Process does ... demand reasonable notice and an opportunity to be heard in advance of confinement or restraint."

According to the judge, "Qualified immunity serves a critical function of ensuring that public officials can perform their duties without interference from the threat of litigation and monetary liability... Here, however, the Court concludes that that taking the record most favorably to plaintiffs, the procedures used for plaintiffs' involuntary commitment rather blatantly violated plaintiffs' constitutional rights and that no reasonable defendant official at the time could objectively believe that these procedures comported with procedural due process."

As a result of this decision, the plaintiffs may proceed to prosecute their case, take discovery, and proceed to trial if the matter is not settled in the meantime. See: Bailey v. Pataki, 722 F.Supp.2d 443 (2010).

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Related legal case

Bailey v. Pataki