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New York Prisoner’s $150,001 Judgment Reversed Due to Hearsay Evidence

In April 2016, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a $150,001 judgment awarded to a New York prisoner, holding the district court had erred in admitting a hearsay report as evidence.

Isidro Abascal filed a civil rights action alleging that while housed at the Attica Correctional Facility he was subjected to retaliation from guards for filing grievances. He claimed that between November 2003 and March 2005, he was prevented from leaving his cell during 14 meal times and several recreation periods. He further alleged guard Dennis Fleckenstein had physically assaulted him.

Prior to trial, the district court ruled admissible a report by the Correctional Association of New York (the “Association”).

The report was based on interviews conducted over several weeks in March 2005; it was released six months later and found a “widespread sense of fear and intimidation among inmates” at Attica. Specifically, it noted that “prisoners who make complaints about abuse or file grievances are retaliated against by staff and many are too intimidated to even raise allegations of abuse.”

At trial, the jury found the defendants had violated Abascal’s constitutional right to nutritionally adequate meals and awarded him $1 in nominal damages plus $150,000 in punitive damages. The jury did not find Fleckenstein liable for excessive use of force. On appeal, the defendants argued the district court’s admission of the Association report constituted reversible error that warranted a new trial.

The Federal Rules of Evidence prohibit the admission of hearsay. The Second Circuit found the report was hearsay, so it could only be admitted under an exception to the rule. The district court had allowed it under the “business records” exception.

The Court of Appeals noted the Association report was not issued until six months after the interviews conducted at Attica, which was too long for it to be considered a contemporaneous recording. Further, the report did not indicate the incidents described by prisoners had happened close to March 2015 (when the last act of retaliation alleged by Abascal occurred), and the report was not made by someone with personal knowledge of the information, as the Association was listed as the author. Nor was the report the kind of “regularly conducted activity” contemplated by the business records exception.

Finally, the defendants “show[ed] that the source of the information or the method or circumstances of preparation indicate a lack of trustworthiness,” because the prisoners who were interviewed for the report were not identified.

The Court of Appeals further held the report could not be admissible under the public records exception, because the Association is a private, not a public, entity. During his trial summation, Abascal had pointed to the report to show the defendants had acted with malice, and said it “‘tipped the scales’ in his favor.” Thus, the district court’s decision to admit the report into evidence was not harmless error.

“Considering that Abascal was awarded $150,000 in punitive damages, [ ] it is highly likely that the jury considered the Report’s information pertaining to Attica’s pervasive culture of abuse when calculating punitive damages,” the Second Circuit wrote.

Accordingly, the judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Abascal v. Fleckenstein, 820 F.3d 561 (2d Cir. 2016). 


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Related legal case

Abascal v. Fleckenstein