by Jacob Barret
On April 27, 2023, the Ways and Means Committee of New York’s Suffolk County legislature approved a $120,000 settlement with a former detainee assaulted by guards at the county lockup. In addition to the payout, the case is notable for the length of time it took for the wrong to be redressed – nearly 17 years – as well as the county’s long-game legal strategy.
Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, plaintiffs can pursue civil rights claims against jail guards and other municipal employees. However, recourse against the municipal employers requires showing a “pattern, custom or practice” that led to the violation, as laid out in Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). If the municipality successfully argues that the constitutional violation was caused by a lone “bad apple” employee, it avoids liability. But if the victim shows that the municipality permitted the circumstances under which the employee committed the violation, a court may hold the municipal government liable – providing powerful incentive for the municipality to mend its ways.
Yet municipalities often attempt to bifurcate such claims. They argue that it is more efficient to first prove a violation against an employee before undertaking more intensive legal discovery necessary to sustain a Monell claim. In practice, however, this allows the municipality to settle after the employee loses, but before any Monell violation is ever proven – meaning any incentive to change municipal policy is most likely lost.
That’s what might happen in the case brought against Suffolk County by Elden MacFarlane. After he was arrested and charged with murdering his wife in October 2005, he was held in a Mental Health Observation Unit (MHU) at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility (SCCF). A military veteran diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Paranoid Schizophrenia, he insisted that he loved his wife, but voices and colors had convinced him she was a “queen in hell” who must die.
During his stay in MHU, MacFarlane was allegedly subjected to physical and verbal abuse, also witnessing other detainees subjected to the same. He assisted some in writing grievances challenging their mistreatment. As a consequence, SCCF guards began noting in MacFarlane’s paperwork that he was “P.O.S.” – a piece of shit.
In June 2006, MacFarlane’s hands were cuffed in front of his body while he waited outside his cell as guards initiated a search. When it was over, they alleged that MacFarlane had too many books in his cell, in violation of SCCF policies.
MacFarlane attempted to dispute this, but a guard identified as “correctional officer Curcie” allegedly slammed MacFarlane’s head into his cell bars and told him to “shut the fuck up,” adding: ‘‘you don’t learn.”
Curcie then wrapped his hands around MacFarlane’s neck, the detainee said, choking him. Several guards who heard the commotion rushed to the area and allegedly began attacking MacFarlane, pepper-spraying him and beating and kicking him in the head. Then they dragged him to a hallway outside of the view of surveillance cameras and beat him some more.
MacFarlane was left with bruising, blood-shot eyes, swollen lips and lacerations to his face. He was also charged both administratively and criminally for assault. MacFarlane protested that the administrative charges should be dismissed as false and alleged they were brought to cover up the guard’s assault. But the charges were upheld.
Second Alleged Assault by Guards
Just over a year later, in July 2007, MacFarlane was sweeping as part of his orderly duties when Curcie sent him to speak with fellow guard Frank Mele in a sallyport – outside the view of surveillance cameras. There Mele proceeded to punch, kick and then restrain MacFarlane, the detainee said, as several other guards joined the assault, including Curcie, Christopher Dean, James Zahn, George Lynn and Douglas Gubitosi. MacFarlane was kicked, punched and beaten with ASP batons (night sticks). The beating stopped only when an unidentified guard intervened.
MacFarlane was taken to the Peconic Bay Medical Center and was treated for a perforated ear drum and contusions on his head and body. Again he received a false misconduct report alleging he had attacked staff with a broken broom. After being found guilty, MacFarlane was charged in Suffolk County for the assault. But before trial, Judge Robert W. Doyle dismissed all charges.
MacFarlane filed a pro se civil rights complaint in federal court for the Eastern District of New York in June 2010 against then-Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and his jail guards. The case was stayed the following year, after his murder conviction was tossed and prosecutors filed new charges to retry him. After agreeing to plead guilty to manslaughter, his civil case was reopened in March 2014. The Court then granted Defendants summary judgment on claims arising from the June 2006 incident on August 1, 2016; however, MacFarlane’s claims from the July 2007 incident were allowed to proceed. See: MacFarlane v. Ewald, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100393 (E.D.N.Y.).
After that, the Court granted Plaintiff’s request and appointed counsel, Great Neck attorney David A. Adhami. The Court then decided to bifurcate the case on November 9, 2022, holding MacFarlane’s Monell claim against the county until after trial on his claim against Mele.
According to Adhami’s co-counsel, attorney Cory Morris, Defendants refused to produce medical records and incident logs until the week of the trial. There also was no video of the incident, and no broken broom was produced.
On December 7, 2022, the jury returned a verdict against Mele, awarding MacFarlane $15,000 in compensatory damages and $30,000 in punitive damages. As Morris told PLN, “The jury was so baffled at the lack of evidence, my protestations [that] evidence was withheld, and the idea that [MacFarlane] attacked the guards with a ‘broken broom’ that could not be produced at a trial, they came back in [his] favor.”
At once Defendants moved for Judgment as a Matter of Law and to dismiss the Monell claim as unnecessary. Meanwhile the parties began negotiating a settlement. They reached one in principle on March 31, 2023, which the county then approved. That same day, the Court terminated Defendants’ remaining motions. See: MacFarlane v. Ewald, USDC (E.D.N.Y.), Case No 2:10-cv-02877.
Though the $120,000 payout is higher than the $45,000 jury verdict against Mele, it also saves the county from the cost of litigating MacFarlane’s Monell
claim and potentially paying out more to cover it, not to mention fees and costs for his counsel – which were included in the settlement. What was lost, of course, was any incentive that judgment might have provided the county to rein in its jail guards.
Additional source: Long Island Newsday
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