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Second Circuit Holds Connecticut Can’t Indemnify Guard in Assault Case Then Seek Cost of Incarceration; $650,000 Awarded in Failure to Protect Case

The court’s February 4, 2021 opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Dennis Marinelli, a former captain at Connecticut’s Northern Correctional Institution. Marinelli and three other prison guards were sued in 2013 by prisoner Rashad Williams for violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Williams informed prison officials in early 2010 that he feared for his safety, especially if he was placed in a cell with a gang member. He was concerned he would be unable to defend himself and assaulted due to Northern’s “sequential cuffing” practice. Under that practice, upon returning prisoners to a shared cell, guards remove handcuffs from one prisoner at a time through a hole in the cell door after both are secured in the cell. That leaves one prisoner cuffed and defensively exposed to the risk of violence from the other prisoner.

Williams was informed on October 28, 2010 that he would be placed in a cell with Darnell Walker, an active member of the Bloods. Walker was designated as a security risk based on past acts of violence in prison. Marinelli was involved in the decision to move Williams and would have been aware of the fact of Walker’s history and Williams’ single-cell status.

Despite his protests, Williams was placed in a cell Walker. Per the sequential cuffing procedure, Walker was handcuffed and Williams was placed in the cell. Once the cell was secured, Walker’s handcuffs were removed. He then punched the defenseless Williams in the head, knocked him to the floor, kicked him, and stomped on him. Guards had to await the control room to open the cell. Williams suffered recurring injuries to his head, ankle, back, and knee, as well as anxiety and recurring nightmares, as a result of the attack.

After Williams sued, the matter proceeded to a jury trial. The jury found that of the four defendants, only Marinelli was liable. It awarded Williams $250,000 in compensatory damages and $400,000 in punitive damages. The district court granted Marinelli’s motion for remittitur, ordering a new damages trial if Williams rejected a reduced award of $300,000 ($250,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages). Williams accepted the reduced award.
The state of Connecticut then informed Williams’ attorney that it would pay the judgment against Marinelli. It said it would make payments of (1) $15,140 to satisfy a child support lien against Williams, (2) $142,430 to the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services as partial payment for Williams’ cost of incarceration, and (3) $142,430 to Williams.

Williams filed a “motion for aid of judgment” with the district court. He agreed to the child support payment but objected to the cost of incarceration assessment. While that motion was pending, the state, on October 16, 2017, ordered a freeze on $65,000 in Williams’ account.

About a month later, it sued Williams in state court to seek recovery of “at least $48,843.42” in public defender fees and reserved the right to seek more for a pending habeas petition. Williams moved the district court to unfreeze his account.

The district court denied that motion, but it partially granted the motion for aid of judgment. It found the state was preempted under § 1983 form indemnifying Marinelli and then trying to recoup the majority of the judgment. It ordered Marinelli to pay Williams $270,983.70 after deducting the child support payment and $16,800 that Williams had spent. Marinelli appealed.
The Second Circuit rejected Marinelli’s claim that the Eleventh Amendment, which grant states sovereign immunity, would bar the district court’s ruling. The district court’s order took nothing from the state of Connecticut. Its relief was directed at Marinelli, who was sued in his individual capacity under § 1983.

The court applied the obstacle preemption analysis, which provides federal law does not preempt state law “unless the repugnance or conflict is so direct and positive that the acts cannot be reconciled to consistently stand together.”

The Second Circuit concluded Connecticut’s actions conflicted with Section 1983’s goals, “particularly the goal of deterring state officers from abusing prisoners in their charge in violation of their constitutional rights.” The court’s ruling was ‘‘very much dependent on the facts of this case.”

It noted the jury found Marinelli engaged in malicious or reckless violations of Williams’ rights. The state, under that circumstance, was not obligated to indemnify Marinelli, making its indemnification voluntary. The court also noted the seriousness of Williams’ injuries. The state’s recoupment of at least 60% of the judgment was troubling. The length of Williams sentence ensured the cost of incarceration would be high, which informed guards that the risk of suit against them was diminished by the likelihood that any recovery would be substantially reduced by the state’s cost recovery. Finally, cost of incarceration and public defender costs apply broadly to significant portions of the prisoner population.

Williams met the high bar to establish obstacle preemption, the court found. “By ensuring that neither it nor Marinelli will bear the bulk of the consequences of Marinelli’s malicious or reckless violations of Williams’ constitutional rights, the state’s actions have severely undermined the incentives that the judgment is meant to produce and the jury wished to generate when it awarded punitive damages.” The district court’s orders were affirmed. See: Williams v. Marinelli, 987 F.3d 188 (2nd Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Williams v. Marinelli