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Pennsylvania Prisoner’s $185,000 Jury Award Reduced to $75,005

by Matt Clarke

On June 7, 2011, a Pennsylvania federal judge issued an order reducing a prisoner’s jury award for destruction of legal materials to $75,005. The award had previously been reduced from $185,000 to $115,000.

Andre Jacobs, a Pennsylvania state prisoner, filed a pro se civil rights lawsuit in federal court alleging that guards at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Pittsburgh had seized and destroyed 151 pages of his legal materials. The suit claimed violations of Jacobs’ right of access to the courts, retaliation, conspiracy and defamation, and named SCI guards Thomas McConnell, Carol Scire and Gregory Giddens as defendants along with other state employees and agencies. The legal materials in question were part of a lawsuit Jacobs was preparing against SCI staff.

In 2008, an eight-member federal jury deliberated for three days before awarding a total of $120,000 in compensatory damages and $65,000 in punitive damages against Giddens on the defamation claim; against Giddens and McConnell on the access to courts claim; and against Giddens, Scire and McConnell on the conspiracy and retaliation claims. [See: PLN, Oct. 2010, p.36].

The defendants filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court granted the motion with respect to the conspiracy claims involving Scire and McConnell, and to the access to courts claims against Giddens, Scire and McConnell. Accordingly, the court reduced the jury award to a total of $75,000 in compensatory damages and $40,000 in punitive damages.

The defendants then filed a second or renewed Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law, requesting remittitur or a new trial. The motion essentially argued that without Scire or McConnell as co-conspirators, Giddens should also be dismissed as there was no party left for him to have conspired with. Further, as a lieutenant, Giddens was entitled to sovereign immunity on the defamation claim; under the PLRA, Jacobs could not be awarded damages for mental harm caused by retaliation, conspiracy or defamation absent physical injury; and Jacobs had failed to prove the value of the legal materials that were destroyed.

The district court granted the motion with respect to mental harm, reducing the awards for retaliation and conspiracy to nominal damages of $1 for each defendant for each claim.
The court also reduced the mental harm (mental anguish and humiliation) portion of the defamation claim to a nominal $1 award, but left in place the $10,000 award for harm to reputation. The defendants’ challenge regarding the value of the legal materials was waived because they had not previously raised that issue. Additionally, there was evidence that Giddens had conspired with someone but not necessarily a party, therefore the award for conspiracy was upheld.

Further, the district court found that Giddens was acting against policy and outside his scope of employment when he acted as the Grievance Officer for a grievance Jacobs had filed against him and decided the grievance was fabricated and false. Thus he was not entitled to sovereign immunity.

Accordingly, the jury awards for property damage (50% of the original retaliation and conspiracy awards), damage to reputation and punitive damages for retaliation, conspiracy and defamation remained for a total award of $75,005. The parties have since filed cross-appeals, which remain pending. See: Jacobs v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:04-cv-01366-JFC.

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Related legal case

Jacobs v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections