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Pennsylvania Guards and Their Attorneys Spanked for Discovery Abuse in Prisoner’s Excessive-Force Suit

by David M. Reutter

On May 18, 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania imposed sanctions for discovery abuse upon defendant state prison guards and their counsel, in a lawsuit alleging the guards employed unwarranted and excessive force upon prisoner Corey Bracey.

Bracey’s suit claimed that while he was held at the State Correctional Institution in Greene in October 2017, guards including Corey Valencia and Christopher Colgan used excessive force upon him during an escort to medical triage. It was further alleged that due to an ongoing investigation into previous complaints of abuse by Valencia and Colgan, a separation order was in place as of September 8, 2017, directing both defendants not to have any contact with Bracey.

According to the complaint Bracey later filed, Valencia violated the separation order on October 17, 2017, when he entered the prisoner’s cell to exchange cell property, causing Bracey such fear that he suffered a “mental health episode.” After Bracey “blacked out and exited the cell,” Valencia and other responding guards, including Colgan, “punched and applied knee strikes” to his head while also pepper-spraying him. Bracey conceded he bit one of the guards during the scuffle. But once restrained, he said, he offered no resistance, while the two guards punched him repeatedly in the head and face. During an escort to the medical unit, Colgan and Valencia allegedly then concocted a cover story and “fabricated” incidents of resistance by Bracey, for which they “repeatedly drove his head into the concrete floor.”

Bracey was criminally charged for assaulting guards. Four years later, the case was dismissed after the state Department of Corrections (DOC) repeatedly failed to provide discovery materials or comply with court orders to provide that information to Bracey.

The defendants’ obstinance continued after Bracey filed his pro se civil rights complaint in the Court. Answering an interrogatory question, Colgan stated there was no separation order in place at the time of the incident. Valencia stated he did not participate in the medical escort.

Bracey also moved to compel production of sealed disciplinary documents against Valencia. But state Assistant Attorneys General Sarah Simkin and Matthew Gill filed responses stating Valencia was not disciplined as a result of the incident, so there were no such documents. Gill also said there was no separation order in place.

The Court relied on representations by the defendants and their counsel that there were no documents to produce. But Bracey moved for a more extensive search for documents related to the separation order. Still proceeding pro se, he dug up and submitted Colgan’s testimony from a state court hearing that confirmed a separation order was in place at the time of the incident, along with copies of the separation order, as well as a statement from a guard captain that he personally directed Valencia and Colgan not to have any contact with Bracey. Valencia’s statement during a DOC investigation that he participated in the medical escort was also produced, along with records of resulting DOC disciplinary action launched against him.

Bracey then moved for sanctions, and the Court granted motion. It found Colgan and Valencia’s discovery request responses “were evasive, misleading, and constitute a failure to disclose or answer.” As sanction, it stipulated for trial that Valencia was present during the medical escort, that Valencia and Colgan were issued a separation order, and that Valencia was disciplined for violating the separation order.

The Court further found Simkin and Gill failed to make “a reasonable inquiry … into the factual basis of a discovery response and that responses to discovery be complete and correct when made.” In response to Bracey’s demand for the separation order, Gill said no “order” was sent to the guards, only an email “message.” To Bracey’s request for records of Valencia’s discipline, Gill said none was ever “received” from DOC because Valencia had by then resigned.

The Court found then “that both Defendants acted with willful intent to shirk their discovery obligations and that their failure to answer or supplement responses was not substantially justified by any objective measure.”

As for their attorneys, “the obligation to provide candid objections and identify responsive documents cannot be required to turn on the use of ‘magic words,’” the Court added, citing Younes v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 312 F.R.D. 692 (D.N.J. 2015). As sanction, the Court gave them seven days to hand deliver the documents Bracey sought and 30 days to deposit $50 in his inmate trust account to reimburse his costs in the motion. They were also ordered to take eight hours of Continuing Legal Education on discovery obligations and discovery procedures, plus four hours on the ethical obligations of counsel during discovery.

After that, Defendants moved for summary judgment. The Court denied that on September 11, 2022. See: Bracey v. Valencia, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168259 (W.D. Pa.). Unsurprisingly, the parties also reported on January 11, 2023, that attempts at mediation had failed. The case remains open, and PLN will report developments as they are available.  See: Bracey v. Valencia, USDC (W.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:19-cv-01385. 

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