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Another Appeal in New York Post-Release Supervision Case

On October 14, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin held she would retain jurisdiction over a class-action civil rights lawsuit in order to determine the damages to be awarded former prisoners for the imposition or continuation of post-release supervision (PRS) by parole and prison officials after that practice was declared unconstitutional. The practice of imposing PRS on parolees when it was not ordered by a sentencing judge was found to violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2006, in Earley v. Murray, 451 F.3d 71 (2d Cir. 2006). [See: PLN, April 2010, p.46].

The Earley court held that, as a consequence of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, only a judge could impose PRS – and the only way to impose it on a prisoner whose original sentence contained no mention of PRS was to have a new punishment trial. In ensuing years there were no new trials on punishment for the purpose of imposing PRS.

Despite the ruling in Earley and the lack of new trials, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) continued to impose PRS, and the New York State Division of Parolees (DOP) continued to enforce those PRS terms. The plaintiffs, comprised of a class of all persons sentenced to prison in New York State whose sentences did not contain a PRS term, yet had PRS imposed by the DOCCS and enforced by the DOP, filed a federal civil rights action in May 2011. During the litigation, the district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs and held that certain high-ranking DOCCS and DOP officials could be held liable for damages.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment claiming qualified immunity; the motion was denied and they appealed. The plaintiffs asked the court to certify the defendants’ appeal as frivolous and retain jurisdiction, allowing a trial on damages to proceed.

Judge Scheindlin first said the defendants had thrice previously argued for qualified immunity, including before the Second Circuit, without success. She wrote that during the four years the lawsuit was pending no retrials had occurred. She noted the defendants had instructed DOCCS officials not to comply with the Earley ruling, which caused about 8,100 people to remain on PRS even though no PRS was imposed at sentencing. Finding the defendants had failed to show they had made reasonable attempts to comply with Earley, Judge Scheindlin certified their appeal as frivolous and retained jurisdiction under the doctrine of dual jurisdiction, so both the interlocutory appeal and trial on damages could proceed simultaneously.

The district court found that despite the defendants’ admitted awareness of Earley, they made institutional decisions to ignore and, in fact, obstruct that ruling – including informing prisoners that DOCCS would not follow Earley, opposing Earley when prisoners sought relief from administratively-imposed PRS, continuing to impose PRS terms, and failing to seek resentencing or expungement of illegal PRS sentences. Judge Sheindlin noted it would impose a “uniquely minimal burden” on the defendants to proceed to a “relatively succinct trial” on damages.

She also bolstered her decision by citing Vincent v. Yelich, 718 F.3d 157 (2d Cir. 2013), in which the Court of Appeals held that qualified immunity was unavailable absent “prompt action to comply with Earley.” See: Betances v. Fischer, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-03200-SAS.

On December 16, 2015, the Second Circuit granted the defendants’ motion to stay all proceedings in the district court pending the disposition of their interlocutory appeal; the Court of Appeals also held the appeal would be expedited. The defendants challenged whether the district court could determine whether the Second Circuit should not hear an interlocutory appeal on the ground it is frivolous. In September 2016 the appellate court issued a ruling on the merits, affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

“The questions we must resolve in this appeal are narrow. Our court has already concluded that Earley I itself clearly established that where the [sentencing] court has not included PRS in a defendant’s sentence, [DOCCS] may not add that term without violating federal law,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “In sum, we agree with the district court that the defendants did not make an objectively reasonably effort ‘to relieve [plaintiffs] of the burdens of those unlawfully imposed terms after [they] knew it had been ruled that the imposition violated federal law.’”

Regarding the district court’s decision to retain jurisdiction because it had determined the defendants’ appeal was frivolous, the Second Circuit held that issue was moot “because the defendants obtained a stay of further proceedings in the district court and thus there is no need to consider it.” The case remains pending. See: Betances v. Fischer, 837 F.3d 162 (2d Cir. 2016).

Additional source: New York Law Journal

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Betances v. Fischer

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