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$650,000 Jury Verdict Upheld in NY Prisoner’s Excessive-Force Claim; Motion for Fees Denied Due to Contingency Agreement

by David M Reutter

On October 20, 2020, a federal judge in New York refused to overturn a $650,000 award made by a jury earlier that year to a state prisoner on his excessive-use-of-force claim.

The action took place in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where a jury returned the verdict on February 14, 2020, after a four-day trial on claims asserted by the prisoner, Jerome Anderson.

The defendants, all guards at Green Haven Correctional Facility where he was held, moved as a matter of law to vacate the judgment or order a new trial or to remit the damage awards. The Court denied the motion, noting the facts were contested at trial but the evidence supported the jury’s verdict.

Anderson alleged that on April 11, 2015, at around 7 p.m., guard James Hennig came to his cell and took him to the F & G Corridor, where there were no surveillance cameras. But there were two other guards waiting there, Sgt. Robert Osborne and Matthew Ernst.

Two weeks earlier, an investigator from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s Office of Special Investigations had interviewed Anderson concerning “[s]omething about a sergeant and sexual harassment,” his complaint recorded. Now Osborne demanded to know what Anderson had told the investigator.

Anderson said he didn’t want to talk about it. Osborne then ordered the prisoner to put his hands on the wall, and when he did, punched him in the face. The other two guards piled on, and all three guards began to strike Anderson, pushing him to the floor, where they stomped, hit, and kicked him. Several other guards came and joined in the beating, which lasted several minutes.

The defendants presented a different story. They said Ernst observed Anderson acting suspiciously in the E & F recreation yard, and while in the F & G corridor, Hennig then conducted a search that yielded two Neurontin pain pills. When questioned by Osborne, Anderson allegedly punched him in the face and the three guards then used appropriate force to subdue the prisoner.

As the Court noted, the jury plainly credited Anderson’s version of events.

Jurors noted there was no evidence that Anderson was on medication at the time or that he had been issued medication from the infirmary. He was also on loss-of-recreation restriction and not allowed to go outside with the regular population, so the jury rejected the guards’ contention that Anderson snuck out of his cell, went to the medical unit to pilfer the pills, and then went to recreation with a group of prisoners escorted by Hennig.

The record also showed that Anderson’s injuries were more than de minimus. He sustained bruising on his hands and toes, scrapes to his body, was ambulating with a limp and complained of pain to his head, ribs, and other parts of the body. Medical staff at the prison sent him to an outside hospital to confirm he did not have any broken bones.

The jury found two other guards involved, Warren Freeman and Jose Morel, did not use excessive force. The Court concluded that this demonstrated jurors had carefully discriminated as to the evidence, which they also found supported Anderson’s contention that guard Robert Snedeker was one of the “other officers” to use excessive force on him and that Snedeker fabricated a story to cover up his role in the assault.

As such, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to vacate the jury’s award and entered judgment for $75,000 in compensatory damages to Anderson against Osborne, Ernst, Hennig, and Snedeker, along with $575,000 in punitive damages—$275,000 against Osborne, $125,000 each against Hennig and Ernst, and $50,000 against Snedeker. See: Anderson v. Osborne, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 194371.

The defendants elected not to appeal the verdict and Anderson’s attorney, Michael Diederich, filed a motion seeking $49,309 in fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1988. The court denied the motion in its entirety because Diederich had executed a contingency fee agreement with Anderson and had already been paid pursuant to the agreement by the time he filed the fee motion. “…when the Court asked Mr. Diederich if he was interested in representing plaintiff pro bono, it did not contemplate that Mr. Diederich would enter into a contingency fee agreement with plaintiff. The Court must emphasize its displeasure with Mr. Diederich’s contingency fee agreement, as the court is not in the business of referring clients to practicing attorneys.”

The court’s order of June 7, 2021, noted Anderson had already paid $216,667 in fees and Diederich sought $49,309 in additional fees which the court noted would increase his contingency from 33% to 41%. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, up to 25% of any court ordered fee must be paid by the prisoner plaintiff, which would have further reduced Anderson’s recovery. The court noted that Anderson filed the case pro se and litigated it to the eve of trial. Thus Diederich “incurred very little risk that he would expend significant time and effort pursuing a case that would not result in a verdict or settlement for plaintiff.” The court denied the motion in its entirety as granting would give Diederich a “windfall” and work to disadvantage Anderson. See: Anderson v. Osborne, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106343. 

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Related legal case

Anderson v. Osborne