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Rikers Island Excessive Force Monell Claims Survive Dismissal

A New York federal court refused to dismiss Monell Claims in a Rikers Island excessive force case.

On September 28, 2013, Bobby White was incarcerated at Rikers Island, when guard Marlene Ocasio sprayed him with a chemical agent and slammed his hand in a metal cell door. The incident was caught on surveillance video and an investigation determined that Ocasio's use of force was "unwarranted and unnecessary." Investigators recommended disciplinary action, including additional training. Ocasio is no longer a Rikers guard.

White brought federal suit against the City of New York and Ocasio, alleging that his constitutional rights were violated. He brought vicarious liability and Monell claims against the City. His Monell claim asserted that Ocasio's misconduct "arose from the City's 'deliberate indifference' towards a 'pervasive culture of violence' disregard for the rights of Rikers prisoners.

White cited "newspaper articles from 2009 and 2014 from The New York Times, The Associated Press, the Village Voice, and the New York Daily News." More importantly, "to support his allegations regarding the City's policy and custom of unrestrained use of force against" Rikers prisoners "and its failures" to train and supervise guards, White also relied heavily upon a 79-page Department of Justice (DOJ) Findings Letter detailing an investigation of excessive force against Rikers adolescent prisoners between 2011 and 2013. There were 1,057 prisoner injuries in 565 reported incidents in 2013 alone, according to the DOJ. White alleges that "these figures support the existence of a 'deep-seated culture of violence" against inmates,' in which 'brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort."'

"The DOJ determined 'that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior," the court observed. "The DOJ . . described the 'systemic deficiencies that contribute to, exacerbate, and indeed are largely responsible for the excessive and unnecessary use of force by DOC staff.'

"The DOJ Findings Letter 'concludes with recommendations to address the poor training and lack of accountability among officers," the court observed. White also "cited lawsuits in recent years by Rikers Island inmates claiming to have suffered beatings by guards," the court noted. This included a suit in which the City paid a prisoner $97,500 in 2014 because a guard broke his "jaw after becoming angry that the inmate was 'taking too long on a call to his mother.' White alleged "that these lawsuits suggest that the City 'was and is aware of the problems but has decided to ignore the situation.'

The City moved to dismiss, arguing that the court should not consider the DOJ Findings Letter because it focused on juveniles, but White "was in his mid-twenties when he was at Rikers Island."

The Court dismissed White's vicarious liability claim but refused to dismiss his Monell claim against the City, finding that White adequately alleged a "policy or custom."

"In the Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff has adequately alleged use of excessive force against inmates at Rikers Island that was sufficiently pervasive that supervisors must have been aware of it, and yet failed to take the necessary actions to curb it," the Court found.

"Second, Plaintiff adequately alleges a failure by the City to provide adequate training and supervision to corrections officers that amounts to deliberate indifference to Rikers Island inmates." See: White v. City of New York, USDC No. 13 Civ. 7421 (KPF) (SD NY 2015).

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Related legal case

White v. City of New York