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NY: Prisoner's Abuse Claim Survives Motion to Dismiss

On December 2, 2014, a federal judge denied New York City's attempt to dismiss a suit filed by a Riker's Island prisoner who claimed he was attacked and beaten by a jail guard without provocation or justification.

The excessive force case was actually the third of four lawsuits filed by Hugh Smith, now 40. In his first case, Smith sued because jail officials changed his telephone PIN number without notice. While that case was pending, Smith filed another case against Riker's Island alleging improper religious accommodations. In late May 2012, Smith and the city of New York entered in to a settlement agreement in Smith I for $750. Smith, acting pro se -- and who has a history of mental problems -¬signed a general release discharging the city from "any and all liability, claims or rights of action alleging violation of my civil rights, from the beginning of the world to the date of this general release."

At the time he signed the release, Smith had retained an attorney who had already filed notices of claim on two other actions against the city, including the excessive force case (Smith III) and a negligence claim alleging improper supervision by guards when Smith suffered self-inflicted injuries (Smith IV). The city had already successfully convinced a judge that Smith's general release in Smith I controlled his religious accommodations case (Smith II), and won dismissal of that case.

Now the city was back, again arguing that Smith's release in Smith I governed Smith III.

Federal Judge Edward Korman, sitting in the Eastern District of New York, heard the city's motion. He first noted that Smith, who suffered from schizophrenia, major depression, and has suicidal tendencies, claimed that while in a cell at the Queens County Courthouse, guard Anthony Lindsay repeatedly struck him in the face and head, slammed him in to a bench, and lacerated his ear with a sharp object. Smith further alleged that another guard, Magarita Smith, witnessed the assault but did nothing to intervene.

Korman said Smith's documented mental condition rendered the general release questionable at the outset. Korman then noted that at the time Smith signed the release in Smith I, he was represented by counsel in two other cases, and that the city had knowledge of both that fact and that Smith had mental problems.

"Thus, with actual or constructive knowledge that he had obtained an attorney in Smith III and Smith IV, the Corporation Counsel secured Smith's release from those suits without consulting counsel," wrote Korman.

The judge also noted the serious nature of Smith's claims in Smith III, compared with the relatively "minor" complaints in Smith's I and II. Korman said the $750 the city paid to settle the telephone PIN claim in Smith I was "insignificant" in light of the fact that the Smith III lawsuit alleges "a brutal assault and battery [by a prison guard] as well as failure to supervise resulting in extreme physical and emotional damage."

"The release of these claims for a nominal amount is a cause for concern when coupled with plaintiff's pro se status and mental condition," Korman said.

In concluding that the city was not entitled to dismissal of Smith III based on the general release signed in Smith I, Korman pointed out that the documents were ambiguous, at best. This was due to the fact that while the release purports to bar "all civil actions," it also included a limiting provision which stated, "This stipulation shall not be admissible in, nor is it related to, any other litigation."

Attorney Brett Klein of Levethal & Klein represented Smith in Smith III. See: Smith v. City of New York, No. 12-cv-4851- ERK-LB (EDNY, Dec. 2, 2014).

Additional source: New York Law Journal

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Related legal case

Smith v. City of New York