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Owens v. Haas

decided: July 9, 1979.

DEWITT OWENS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN HAAS, ALONZO QUARLES, PETER SKALKOS, JAMES J. BRITT, WILLIAM R. KESSLER, JOSEPH CHATOWSKI, MICHAEL ALLEN, WALTER J. FLOOD, DEFENDANTS, AND THE COUNTY OF NASSAU, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from a dismissal of civil action based on claims against the County of Nassau for violations of the Civil Rights Act and for breach of contract, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, George C. Pratt, Judge.

Before Kaufman, Chief Judge, Smith, Circuit Judge, and MacMAHON, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Smith

This appeal from the dismissal of a civil action against the County of Nassau, one of several defendants, comes to us following a direction for judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b). Plaintiff Owens sued corrections officers and the county for violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, and for breach of contract as a third party beneficiary. Judge Pratt found that Owens had failed to state a claim against the county under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), and dismissed the action. 456 F. Supp. 1009 (E.D.N.Y.1978). We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

Plaintiff Owens was a federal prisoner who was cooperating with the United States Government. In order to insure his safety, he was transferred from federal prison to the Nassau County Jail in Hicksville, New York in August, 1976. This transfer was pursuant to a contract between the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and Nassau County, authorized by 18 U.S.C. § 4002.*fn1

The incident at issue took place on October 27, 1976. According to plaintiff, he was asleep in his cell when he was visited by a guard and told to report to the court desk downstairs to acknowledge the lodging of a warrant against him. Plaintiff Owens refused to leave his cell to sign for the warrant, protesting that "There shouldn't be another warrant out for me. I already signed for a warrant. . . ." Owens apparently believed that there was no requirement that he sign if he did not wish to do so.

Owens related that the first guard left, and sometime thereafter, First Class Corrections Officer Haas came to his cell. When Owens against refused to leave his cell, the two men argued, and Haas told Owens to "pack (his) stuff up," indicating that Owens would be taken to a more secure locked cell on a different floor. Insults were exchanged when Owens refused to leave; then Officer Haas left.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, several officers returned to Owens' cell and ordered him to leave. An argument ensued, and Owens stepped out of his cell. Approximately seven guards were present. Owens was grabbed and beaten severely by the prison officials, resulting in lacerations, bruises, and lasting impairments which cause him to suffer blackouts to the present time.

Owens appeared before U.S. District Judge John R. Bartels of the Eastern District of New York for sentencing in an unrelated case shortly after the incident. Judge Bartels noticed that Owens was badly injured, and questioned him about the injuries. Judge Bartels then ordered a hearing on the circumstances of the incident resulting in the injuries, at which Owens and several of the prison officials testified.

Owens filed this damage suit in April, 1977, alleging violations of his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1985 and claiming damages for breach of contract as a third party beneficiary of the contract between the Bureau of Prisons and Nassau County, under 18 U.S.C. § 4002 and general contract principles. Judge Pratt rejected the § 1983 claim against the county because no official policy or pattern of constitutional violations had been pleaded so as to hold the county liable under the court's reading of Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978). Judge Pratt also found that Owens could not claim he was a third party beneficiary of the contract, and no private right of action existed under 18 U.S.C. § 4002. Consequently, the court dismissed the action against the county. We reverse and remand.

Section 1983 Claim

When Owens filed his complaint in 1977, municipalities could not be held liable for constitutional violations, under the immunity established as to such bodies in Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S. Ct. 473, 5 L. Ed. 2d 492 (1961). This general immunity was removed from local bodies when the Supreme Court in Monell overruled Monroe v. Pape and held that municipalities are "persons" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn2

The Court in Monell left open the exact dimensions of the grounds on which a municipality could be held liable. It is clear that

a municipality cannot be held liable Solely because it employs a tortfeasor or, in other words, a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a Respondeat superior theory. (Monell, supra 436 U.S. at 691, 98 S. Ct. at 2036.)

Therefore, municipalities could only be liable for "action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature (that) caused a constitutional ...


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