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Former Puerto Rican Prisoner Wins Release but Loses § 1983 Action

Former Puerto Rican Prisoner Wins Release but Loses § 1983 Action

By Derek Gilna

Angel Luis Feliciano-Hernandez, sentenced by a Puerto Rican court in 1981 to a "term of perpetual imprisonment for treatment" for a "record of sexual abuse," for a minimum of ten years, finally won his release in 2008.

Shortly thereafter, he filed his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, but the Puerto Rican district Court dismissed his complaint. The 1st Circuit affirmed, ruling that the former prisoner failed to satisfy the pleading standard set forth in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

According to the Appellate Court's opinion, the 1st Circuit "focus(ed) on the allegations which are pertinent to whether the individual defendants were ever given or put on adequate notice" of plaintiff's claims. The opinion also stated that although the plaintiff had completed his sentence in 1993, and the Parole Board reviewed his case annually thereafter, nevertheless each year it denied his requests for release.

Since all attempts by the plaintiff to win parole-board relief failed, he filed his petition for habeas corpus in 2007, alleging that he had been rehabilitated, and alternatively that the required annual analysis of his progress toward rehabilitation had never taken place. In 2008, a Puerto Rican court agreed, ruling that he be transferred to a halfway house within thirty days. He was subsequently released, and filed the § 1983 lawsuit.

According to the Appellate Court, the § 1983 case was "premised on a theory of supervisory liability and allege[s] violations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments' Due Process clauses.

The defendants, who included several former officials and employees of the Puerto Rican Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, responded that they were entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that would bar suits against them unless it could be shown they had actual knowledge of the alleged wrongs committed against the plaintiff, and actively participated in the wrongdoing. Maldonado v. Fontanes, 568 F.3d 263, (1st Cir. 2009). .

The Appellate Court held that "Feliciano-Hernandez's complaint fails under Iqbal to plead adequately that the individual defendants violated his constitutional rights," and also fails to show "an objectively reasonable public official situated as defendant would not be on notice of violation of any constitutional rights." The court further noted that the named defendants are "very high-level officials," and "may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondent superior," Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1948. "Some of the named defendants were not even in office at the time of the filings… and so could not plausibly have been put on notice… the complaint contains no factual allegations to support even a minimal showing of deliberate indifference."

The plaintiff's appeal of the district court's decision to deny his motion to reconsider its ruling was also dismissed by the appellate court, "the factual allegations that (he) argues 'were not considered… are either legal conclusions couched as fact or facts that the court did indeed include in its opinion."

The plaintiff's case also suffered from the fact that at the time he filed his habeas corpus case with the Puerto Rican court which resulted in his release, only one defendant was even in office, and the complaint did not allege that any of the defendants had been personally put on notice that his rights had been violated. The Puerto Rican court, although it released him, never made a finding of wrongdoing naming any of the 1983 defendants.

In conclusion, the court said that just because "plaintiff has failed to state a federal claim in this case does not mean he has no claims under Puerto Rican law. The district court dismissed these claims without prejudice." See: Feliciano-Hernandez v. Pereira-Castillo, 663 F. 3d 527 (1st Cir., 2011).

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Related legal case

Feliciano-Hernandez v. Pereira-Castillo