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Second Circuit Affirms $600,000 Punitive Damage Award to New York Prisoner Brutally Beaten by Guards

by Kevin W. Bliss

On July 18, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed an earlier ruling for the federal court for the Southern District of New York by Judge Cathy Seibel, who decided that punitive damages awarded to state prisoner Nicolas Magalios for an unwarranted attack by guards at Fishkill Correctional Facility (FCF) were excessive. That left standing Seibel’s decision handed down on February 10, 2022, granting remittitur to defendant officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and reducing Magalios’ punitive damages by $400,000.

On September 3, 2017, Magalios was violently beaten by guards Matthew Peralta and Timothy Bailey as fellow guard Edward Blount looked on. Represented by attorney Edward Sivin of Sivin, Miller & Roche LLP in New York City, Magalios took the issue to the district court. After a four-day trial, the jury ruled in his favor on April 30, 2021, awarding $50,000 in compensatory damages collectively from the three guards and $950,000 in punitive damages – $350,000 from Peralta, $350,000 from Bailey and $250,000 from Blount.

The following year, when Judge Seibel took up Defendants’ motion for remittitur, she called what the guards did reprehensible. It was violently malicious, she said, and their obfuscation of facts on the witness stand was deceitful. But while calling it “one of the strongest cases for excessive force” she had ever seen, Judge Seibel found the punitive award egregious.

Under generalized guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court for a jury awarding punitive damages, the award must be both reasonable and proportionate in amount to general damages awarded. Most courts have used a 4:1 ratio to determine “reasonableness” of punitive damages, and Seibel interpreted that to mean each defendant individually.

Remittitur allows the magistrate to offer a litigant the choice of a reduced punitive award or a new trial only on damages. Seibel offered Magalios a reduced award of $600,000 – $250,000 each from Peralta and Bailey and $100,000 from Blount – and gave him until March 3, 2022, to accept it.

Seibel ended her ruling by asking whether Defendants would be responsible for award payment themselves or whether the state of New York would indemnify them – effectively shunting costs off to the state’s taxpayers. She stated, “(A)ny fair-minded analysis of the situation would have to recognize that on the egregious facts here – where there is no arguable justification for the force used and no arguable construction of the verdict other than that Defendants lied at trial – the State’s payment of punitive damages would entirely defeat their purpose.” See: Magalios v. Peralta, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24265 (S.D.N.Y.).

Plaintiff accepted the remittitur the following day, on February 11, 2022, but he and Defendants both appealed to the Second Circuit. Magalios objected to the remittitur. DOC objected to the judge’s decision not to inform the jury of the prisoner’s prior conviction for promoting prison contraband. Defendants also claimed Judge Seibel erred in advising a witness of her Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination, after which she refused to testify.

Taking up the case, the Second Circuit noted that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 609 “creates a presumption that felony convictions committed within the past ten years are admissible as impeachment evidence in civil cases.” However in this case, it said that admitting evidence of Magalios’ prior conviction “risk[ed] confusing the jury because of the possible suggestion that it was known to Defendants and thus motivated the assault.”

Defendants also objected to Judge Seibel’s Fifth Amendment warning to Magalios’ wife, whom they expected to recant testimony corroborating his version of events. As held in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), the Court noted, a witness cannot “testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about details.” But this case was different; the witness “did not waive her Fifth Amendment right by testifying at her deposition,” the Court said, “because her risk of self-incrimination did not arise from the subject of her deposition testimony but rather from the proposed new trial testimony that her deposition testimony had been a lie.”

As for Magalios’ appeal to remittitur, the Court found Judge Seibel’s “analysis was properly guided by the three factors announced in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996).” They are “(1) the ‘degree of reprehensibility’ of the defendants’ conduct; (2) the ‘disparity between the harm … and the punitive damages award’; and (3) ‘the difference between the remedy and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.’” Finding no error under either factor, the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision. See: Magalios v. Peralta, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 18299 (2d Cir.).