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Third Circuit Reverses Dismissal of New Jersey Prisoner’s Suit

On November 16, 2015, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a civil rights action brought by a former New Jersey state prisoner who was housed at a community corrections facility and allegedly mistreated when she was repeatedly returned to prison.

Alexandra Chavarriaga was in the custody of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) at the Garrett House, a residential community release program, when she was transferred three times to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility between 2010 and 2011 due to rule violations. During each transfer she was held en route at the New Jersey State Prison, where she was kept naked in a cell that had no potable water and was not offered any water to drink for up to three days. She claimed that guards “told her to drink from the cell’s toilet bowl.” To receive a shower, she was required to walk naked, handcuffed and manacled, down a hallway in full view of male prisoners. She was also denied medication for migraines and menstrual cramps, and denied sanitary napkins.

During her second transfer and stay at the New Jersey State Prison, she was subjected to a body cavity search of her rectum and vagina that was so painful she cracked a molar clenching her teeth. She alleged much of this mistreatment was in retaliation for having filed an excessive-use-of-force lawsuit against Somerset County detectives.

Chavarriaga brought a state civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986 and parallel New Jersey state law against the DOC, New Jersey’s attorney general and commissioner of corrections, as well as named and unnamed DOC employees. The case was removed to federal district court, which granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Chavarriaga appealed.

The Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of the attorney general and DOC commissioner as they were neither directly involved in the abusive incidents nor had they formulated a policy that resulted in Chavarriaga’s mistreatment. It also affirmed the dismissal of the named DOC employees due to a lack of their direct involvement; however, the Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the unnamed defendants.

The Court held that being required to remove clothing and remain naked was likely not a violation of a prisoner’s civil rights, assuming that shelter from the elements was provided. However, parading a nude female prisoner in front of male prisoners did implicate civil rights violations, “because forcing her to be naked in these circumstances would be a malicious act intended to humiliate her for no legitimate penological reason.” Being denied potable water for multiple days, being denied medication and sanitary napkins, and being subjected to an excessively painful body cavity search conducted in violation of prison policy also stated causes of action.

Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of Chavarriaga’s Eighth Amendment claim and parallel state law claims alleging the abusive body cavity search constituted cruel and unusual punishment. It also reversed the dismissal of her equal protection claims and related state law claims over the denial of potable water, sanitary napkins and medication, and being exposed naked in the presence of male prisoners. The dismissal of the remaining claims, the attorney general, DOC commissioner and the named defendants was upheld, and the case remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Chavarriaga was represented on appeal by attorneys Fredric J. Gross and Noel C. Crowley. See: Chavarriaga v. State of New Jersey Department of Corrections, 806 F.3d 210 (3d Cir. 2015).

The case remains pending on remand, but a magistrate judge has recommended dismissal with prejudice after Chavarriaga’s attorney withdrew and she failed to comply with court orders to retain new counsel and appear in court. 

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Related legal case

Chavarriaga v. State of New Jersey Department of Corrections