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Qualified Immunity for NY Prison Officials who Failed to Award Parole Jail Time

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held on August 7, 2012 that prison officials who failed to properly award parole jail time (PJT) credits to two prisoners serving concurrent prison and jail sentences were entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established at the time that they were required to award the credits.

The appellate ruling was entered in consolidated lawsuits filed by Terence Sudler and Timothy Batthany. Both were on parole after serving state prison sentences and were arrested for parole violations and new misdemeanor charges. They pleaded guilty to the violations and were sentenced to serve the remainder of their original prison terms.

They also subsequently pleaded guilty to the new misdemeanor offenses. Sudler received a nine-month jail sentence while Batthany received six months. In each case, the judge ordered the jail sentence to be served concurrently with the parole violation sentence.

When their jail sentences expired, Sudler and Batthany were transferred from Rikers Island to the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NY DOCCS). Prison officials determined that neither was entitled to PJT for the time served on their jail sentences.

Both Sudler and Batthany complained. Sudler got nowhere with his complaints and served about six months longer than if he had been awarded PJT. Batthany, however, who had help from counsel at Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, secured his release after showing the NY DOCCS a copy of his Sentence and Commitment form. Batthany served six weeks longer than he would have had he received a timely PJT award.

Sudler and Batthany filed suit in federal court, alleging their constitutional rights had been violated. Their cases were consolidated and the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.

The Second Circuit declined to resolve the questions of state law or application of federal case law that the parties asserted were applicable. Rather, the appellate court held the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the plaintiffs’ claim that their due process rights had been violated when NY DOCCS officials failed to properly apply PJT credits for the time served on their concurrent jail sentences.

As to Sudler’s case, the Court of Appeals held that at the time his sentence was calculated it was not clearly established in law that a custodial sentence could not be extended except by a judge. While that right was clearly established in Earley v. Murray, 451 F.3d 71 (2d Cir. 2006) [PLN, April 2010, p.46] with respect to post-release supervision, Earley did not become final until after Sudler’s release; thus, the defendants did not have notice that failure to promptly award PJT credits was unconstitutional.

Batthany’s sentence was calculated 19 months after the ruling in Earley. However, the Second Circuit found that New York courts struggled with the implications of Earley and issued conflicting rulings until April 2008, when the issue was resolved by the New York Court of Appeals. The Second Circuit said that under those circumstances, “we cannot fairly say that the illegality of failing to afford such [PJT] credit should have been apparent to reasonable prison officials.”

Because the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, the district court’s order of dismissal was affirmed. Sudler and Batthany filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, which was denied on June 3, 2013. See: Sudler v. City of New York, 689 F.3d 159 (2d Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Sudler v. City of New York