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Meriwether v. Coughlin

decided: June 30, 1989.


Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles E. Stewart, Jr., Judge, ordering the entry of j.n.o.v. on some of the appellants' claims and ordering a new trial on damages. A jury found that appellees violated the First, Fourteenth, and Eighth Amendment rights of appellants, who are prisoners of New York State, by transferring them to other prisons in retaliation for speech and by exposing them to beatings by guards. We reverse the entry of j.n.o.v. as to the First Amendment claim and affirm the entry of j.n.o.v. on the Fourteenth Amendment claim. We affirm the district court's decision ordering the payment of compensatory damages and setting aside the award of punitive damages on the Eighth Amendment claim. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Oakes, Chief Judge, Mahoney, Circuit Judge, and Wood, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Oakes

OAKES, Chief Judge

This class action involves the claims of New York State prisoners that their civil rights were violated when they were transferred to different prisons and beaten in 1980. After a jury found for the plaintiffs on all of their claims, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles E. Stewart, Senior Judge, entered judgment n.o.v. in favor of the defendants on the plaintiffs' First Amendment and due process claims. He accepted the verdict on their Eighth Amendment claim, but he set aside an award of punitive damages. Because the jury did not award Eighth Amendment damages separately from the damages for the other claims, he ordered a new trial on damages. See Meriwether v. Coughlin, No. 80 Civ. 4712 (S.D.N.Y. July 8, 1988) (hereinafter Mem.Decis.). In order to avoid the possibility of an unnecessary second trial, he certified his decision for interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), see Meriwether v. Coughlin, No. 80 Civ. 4712 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 12, 1988) (hereinafter Certification Order), and we accepted the appeal and cross-appeal.

We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for determination of one plaintiff's damages.


The fifteen members of the plaintiff class were prisoners at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in July of 1980. Green Haven, a maximum security state prison, is located in Dutchess County, New York, and is one of the most convenient prisons for prisoners from New York City to receive visitors; it is one of the six major maximum security prisons in New York. As the district court noted, Green Haven was a "troubled" institution in 1980.

Plaintiffs introduced into evidence a New York State Commission of Investigation report entitled "Corruption and Abuses in the Correctional System: The Green Haven Correctional Facility" (hereinafter Report). The Commission issued an interim report on July 15, 1980, see Report at 1, and a final report in May of 1981. The final report concluded that "corruption on a large and regular scale became institutionalized" at Green Haven, with prisoners buying favors from guards. "Security and morale . . . suffered a substantial breakdown," and "visiting rooms . . . became major staging areas for smuggling contraband." Id. at 3. Although not all correctional officials were corrupt, "honest officers failed to report the corruption and favor taking." They were demoralized. The malfeasance was institutionalized and seemed to be accepted even by certain supervisors." Id. at 5. On June 22, 1980, two prisoners escaped from Green Haven by walking out of the visiting area, and on July 18 a prisoner escaped by walking away from his job tending the grounds. Id. at 122-25, 130. The interim report, which was released on July 15, revealed that a 1978 escape had occurred after a prisoner bribed his guards to allow him to go to a hotel for sex. See id. at 90-91. The last page of the interim report, which was also admitted into evidence, concluded that "[in] the last analysis, then, [the prisoner] was able to escape because Green Haven Prison was permeated by a system of corruption." State of New York Commission of Investigation, Interim Report on the Escape of Albert Victory, at 31 (July 15, 1980).

The defendants presented evidence that during the spring of 1980, inmate informants warned of plans for a violent insurrection at Green Haven. The defendants claimed that a legitimate inmate group, the Creative Communications Committee, had become a front for the Black Liberation Army, an organization that, according to the defendants, advocated revolutionary violence. Many of the plaintiffs were members of the Creative Communications Committee. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that insurrection was not imminent. They argued that prison officials were disturbed by plaintiffs' exercise of their First Amendment rights, and they introduced evidence that some of them had tried to attract attention to the corruption at Green Haven by writing letters to a local newspaper, various officials, and public interest groups, and that many of the plaintiffs were members of inmate organizations.

On July 18, 1980, officials reduced the visiting hours at Green Haven. On Sunday, July 20, almost all of the prisoners participated in a silent meal strike. They went through cafeteria lines but did not select any food. That day, David Harris, who was then Superintendent of the prison, met with the Inmate Liaison Committee, which was a group of inmates elected to communicate grievances to officials. The committee members informed Harris that other inmates wanted to meet with him. He agreed to do so and directed that representatives of various inmate organizations and three representatives from each cell block (one white, one black, and one Hispanic) should attend.

The following day, July 21, thirty or forty inmates attended the meeting. Several of the plaintiffs attended. The meeting was taped and later broadcast over the prison's public address system. Several officials promised that no inmates would be transferred because of their attendance at the meeting. Although the inmates did not present their criticisms of Green Haven in, as the district court put it, "any systematic fashion," Mem.Decis. at 8, they requested an outside panel to review their concerns and sought interviews with the media. After the meeting with officials, some of the inmates met to attempt to formulate a list of grievances, and that meeting was broken up by guards.

On July 22, defendant Coughlin, who was then and is now the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, transferred Superintendent Harris to a different job and appointed defendant Scully to the position of Superintendent of Green Haven. Coughlin also authorized a "lockdown" and "frisk" of the facility, which lasted until July 24. During the lockdown, inmates were generally confined to their cells. The search was conducted by a Correctional Emergency Response Team ("CERT"). No weapons were discovered in the cells of the plaintiffs.

On July 24, forty inmates, including the plaintiffs, were transferred out of Green Haven. Coughlin gave general instructions that inmates should be transferred. Three of Scully's subordinates created a list of candidates for transfer. Scully and another official then chose the forty inmates that were transferred. Although none of the officials admitted that attendance at the July 21 meeting was considered as a criterion for transfer, the preliminary list of candidates, which was introduced into evidence, indicates whether inmates attended the meeting.

Many of the plaintiffs testified that they were physically abused by CERT officers as they were being prepared for transfer. The inmates were taken to Downstate Correctional Facility for approximately two weeks, and several of the plaintiffs also testified that they were physically abused at Downstate. They were then transferred to other maximum security facilities. Those transferred to Comstock testified that they were beaten upon arrival by a gauntlet of correctional officials wielding batons. Plaintiffs introduced evidence that Coughlin's office had described them to the press as terrorists who had created a "hit list" of correctional officers to kill at Green Haven, and they argued that the press releases caused the physical abuse.

The trial was held in 1987. The jury found that Coughlin and Scully had violated the First Amendment rights of fourteen of the original class of twenty-one plaintiffs by transferring them in retaliation for speech, but that Scully had established the defense of qualified immunity for that claim. The seven plaintiffs who attended the July 21 meeting also claimed that their due process rights had been violated. The jury found that Coughlin and Scully had transferred five of them in violation of their due process rights, but it found that Scully had also established qualified immunity on this claim. Finally, the jury found that twelve of the plaintiffs were deprived of their Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, and the jury found both Coughlin and Scully liable on this claim. The jury awarded the prevailing plaintiffs individual damages varying from $500 to $5,025, and it awarded punitive damages of $500,000 from Coughlin and $250,000 from Scully.

Judge Stewart entered j.n.o.v. on the First and Fourteenth Amendment claims, reasoning that any constitutional infringements that might have occurred would have been justified by legitimate penological goals. He set aside the award of punitive damages and certified his decision for appeal. The plaintiff-appellants seek to have judgment entered in accordance with the verdict. The defendants, in addition to arguing in support of Judge Stewart's decision, argue that the elements of First and Fourteenth Amendment liability were never proven, and on their cross-appeal argue that Eighth Amendment liability was not proven and that various evidentiary errors and examples of jury confusion justify a new trial.

II. Discussion

A. The Timeliness of the Motion for Judgment N.O.V.

Plaintiffs argue that the district court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the defendants' motion for j.n.o.v. because, plaintiffs claim, the motion did not comply with Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), which required the motion to be made "[not] later than 10 days after entry of judgment." We conclude that the motion was timely.

The jury returned its verdict on July 6, 1987. This exchange then occurred between the court and defendants' lawyer:

MR. COHEN: I would, your Honor, like to at this time note that defendants wish to move for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

THE COURT: You are going to file some papers?

MR. COHEN: I would like, your Honor -- I know the usual Federal Rules are ten days. You also know that I'm not going to be able to comply with that ten day rule since I'm going to take a two week vacation after this. I would like your Honor's indulgence, and I would like to file papers in this matter.

THE COURT: When would you propose to file them?

MR. COHEN: If possible, your Honor, sometime in August.

Judge Stewart then set August 17 as the date for defendants to file their papers. Judge Stewart later wrote that he gave the parties until August 19 "to file their post-trial motion papers" and that he granted a further extension at defendants' request. See Mem.Decis. at 2; see also Certification Order at 2 (noting that court granted several extensions for briefing of post-trial motions because of attorneys' vacations and illnesses). An order dated August 5 stated, "[The] defendants shall submit their motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on or before September 17." A judgment based on the jury's verdict was filed August 19. On August 28, defendants filed a "Notice of Motion" for j.n.o.v. or a new trial. We cannot treat this notice as a timely motion for j.n.o.v., even though it was filed within ten days of the entry of judgment, because it states that defendants "will move . . . [on] October 1." On September 18, defendants filed a memorandum of law in support of the motion, and that memorandum sought j.n.o.v., a new trial, or other relief.

In the opinion ruling on the motion, Judge Stewart wrote that defendants had made an oral motion for j.n.o.v. "sufficient to meet Rule 50(b)'s time structures" on July 6. Mem.Decis. at 3 n. 3 (citing Warkentien v. Vondracek, 633 F.2d 1, 2 n. 1 (6th Cir. 1980)); see also Certification Order at 2 (saying defendants moved orally for j.n.o.v.). Plaintiffs, pointing to Mr. Cohen's language in the exchange quoted above, argue that no motion was made on July 6. They note that Mr. Cohen said that defendants wished to move for j.n.o.v. and that he admitted that he could not "comply with that ten day rule." Defendants answer that Judge Stewart properly viewed Mr. Cohen's statement as a motion which was supplemented by the papers filed later.

We begin by acknowledging, as did the district court, see Mem.Decis. at 3 n. 3, that the trial court cannot enlarge the ten-day time period specified by Rule 50(b). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b) states that a court "may not extend the time for taking any action under Rule[] 50(b) . . . except to the extent and under the conditions stated in [it]," and Rule 50(b) has no provision for enlargement. In Lapiczak v. Zaist, 451 F.2d 79 (2d Cir. 1971), we held that the rule against the discretionary enlargement of certain time periods is "mandatory and jurisdictional and . . . cannot be circumvented regardless of excuse." Id. at 80 (improper to enlarge time period allowed by Rule 59(d)); see also 9 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2537, at 601 (1971). A request for an extension of time to file a motion seeking j.n.o.v. or a new trial is ineffective even if it is received without objection and granted by the court. Hulson v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry., 289 ...

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