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$7,000 Settlement after Second Circuit Reverses Dismissal of New York Prisoner’s Suit

In 2007, prisoner Aaron Willey filed a pro se federal civil rights lawsuit against guards employed by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, alleging harassment, inadequate nutrition, theft of legal documents, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and unsanitary conditions of confinement.

Willey claimed that after he refused to give false testimony against another prisoner at the Wende Correctional Center, his legal papers were destroyed, he was harassed, he was confined in a cell with a stopped-up toilet and a Plexiglas shield that restricted airflow, and later placed in another cell with feces and urine on the walls and mattress. The district court dismissed the case and the Second Circuit reversed.

While housed at Wende in 2005, Willey said he was stopped by guards, frisked and then taken to an office for questioning, where a “shank” was placed in front of him. He was told that he would be charged with illegal possession of a weapon if he did not agree to be an informant against another prisoner. Willey refused.

He was then issued a false incident report and found guilty, but appealed to statewide Special Housing Unit director Donald Selsky, who vacated the charge and had it reset for another hearing. At that hearing, Willey was physically threatened by another guard, ejected from the hearing and again found guilty, in absentia. He was sentenced to 180 days in the Special Housing Unit (SHU).

Willey filed another appeal with Selsky, but while his appeal was pending he was subjected to further harassment, including verbal and physical threats, and unsanitary conditions. His appeal was denied and he was subjected to more punishment. Willey was also falsely accused of violence against guards at Wende, and criminally charged in New York state court with possession of a shank – a charge that was later dismissed. He was finally discharged from the SHU on February 9, 2006.

Despite having no previous history of mental health problems prior to entering the SHU, Willey attempted suicide while in solitary and was placed in a mental health cell for five months, also at Wende, where he was again forced to endure unsanitary housing conditions. After the warden refused to act on Willey’s complaints, Willey filed suit.

His pro se complaint survived the defendants’ initial motion to dismiss, but his requests for counsel were denied. The case was transferred to another judge and dismissed in January 2013 based on the court’s finding that there was “no genuine issue of fact” in dispute.

The Second Circuit’s de novo review found that the district court had committed numerous errors, including misapplying Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 in dismissing the case based on insufficient pleadings filed by the defendants, and failing to grant Willey an opportunity to meaningfully respond. The Court of Appeals declined to affirm the district court’s judgment upon “grounds not raised by the defendants.”

The appellate court also found that Willey had pleaded facts that established he had been denied due process in defending himself against what he claimed were false disciplinary charges and retaliation. The Second Circuit recommended that Willey be appointed counsel, and allowed to conduct additional discovery and file a second amended complaint. See: Willey v. Kirkpatrick, 801 F.3d 51 (2d Cir. 2015).

Following remand the case settled in March 2016, with the defendants agreeing to pay $7,000 to resolve all of Willey’s claims – a fairly paltry amount given the seriousness of his allegations against prison staff and the damages he suffered. 

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Related legal case

Willey v. Kirkpatrick