another inmate to permit them to exit for exercise. In the few seconds
following, Breaziel stabbed Matthews while out of sight of the
corrections officer, the only corrections officer on duty in the IPC
unit. Matthews survived this attack but died in custody of unrelated
causes in July 1994. This action was continued by his widow. At the
conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict awarding one dollar
for plaintiff against Senkowski and Costello. The jury found no liability
against defendant David B. Armitage. The pending motions followed.
II. Motion to Amend the Judgment
The judgment entered by the Clerk of the Court erroneously indicated
that Armitage had been held liable along with Senkowski and Costello.
Docket No. 64. Plaintiff does not oppose Armitage's motion to correct the
judgment. Pl.'s Mem. of Law (Docket No. 71), p. 1. The motion to correct
the judgment is granted.
III. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law
A. Legal Standard
Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), the district court may direct the entry of a
judgment as a matter of law following a jury verdict that is not
supported by legally sufficient evidence. This Is Me, Inc. v. Taylor,
157 F.3d 139, 142 (2d Cir. 1998). Judgment as a matter of law should be
entered when "(1) there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting
the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of
sheer surmise and conjecture, or (2) there is such an overwhelming amount
of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded
[jurors] could not arrive at a verdict against [it]." Cruz v. Local Union
No. 3 of the Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1154 (2d Cir.
1994) (citations omitted); Mendoza v. City of Rome, N.Y, 872 F. Supp. 1110,
1114-15 (N.D.N.Y. 1994) (Hurd, M.J.).
The movant's burden on a postverdict Rule 50 motion is a high one.
Concerned Area Residents for the Env't v. Southview Farms 34 F.3d 114,
117 (2d Cir. 1994). In considering the motion, a court must view the
evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, giving the
non-movant the benefit of all reasonable inferences the jury may have
drawn from the evidence. Jones v. Spentonbush-Red Star Co., 155 F.3d 587,
591 (2d Cir. 1998). A court may not re-weigh the evidence or assess the
credibility of witnesses. Id.*fn4
B. Eighth Amendment Claim
The Eighth Amendment places a burden on prison officials to "take
reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of . . . inmates." Hudson v.
Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 526-27, 104 S.Ct. 3194, 82 L.Ed.2d 393 (1984). That
burden includes an obligation to protect prisoners from violence at the
hands of other prisoners. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833, 114
S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994); Hendricks v. Coughlin, 942 F.2d 109,
113 (2d Cir. 1991). Not every injury suffered by one inmate at the hands
of another imposes constitutional liability, however. Farmer, 511 U.S. at
834, 114 S.Ct. 1970. A prisoner asserting an Eighth Amendment claim must
establish both that the deprivation alleged is sufficiently serious and
that the defendant acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind.
Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298, 111 S.Ct. 2321, 115 L.Ed.2d 271
In the context of a failure to protect claim, the deprivation is
if the inmate is incarcerated under conditions imposing a substantial
risk of serious harm. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834, 114 S.Ct. 1970.*fn5 The
state of mind requirement in this context is one of deliberate
indifference to the inmate's health and safety. Wilson, 501 U.S. at
302-03, 111 S.Ct. 2321. Under the Farmer formulation of deliberate
indifference, prison officials are liable for a failure to protect
inmates only when they "know of and disregard an excessive risk to
inmate health and safety; the official must both be aware of facts from
which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious
harm exists, and he must also draw the inference." Farmer, 511 U.S. at
837, 114 S.Ct. 1970.
Direct evidence that prison officials knew of and disregarded a serious
risk of harm to a prison inmate will rarely be available. Coppage v.
Mann, 906 F. Supp. 1025, 1036 (E.D.Va. 1995). Deliberate indifference may
be established by circumstantial evidence. Spruce v. Sargent, 149 F.3d 783,
786 (8th Cir. 1998). Nor must a prisoner demonstrate that he lodged a
specific complaint that he was at risk of attack from a certain inmate.
Farmer, 511 U.S. at 848, 114 S.Ct. 1970 ("failure to give advance notice
is not dispositive"). "[T]he issue is not whether [a plaintiff]
identified his enemies by name to prison officials, but whether they were
aware of a substantial risk of harm to [him]." Hayes v. New York City
Dep't of Corrections, 84 F.3d 614, 621 (2d Cir. 1996).
Here, defendants contend that the record is devoid of any evidence from
which they should have inferred that Breaziel posed a substantial risk to
Matthews on August 21, 1991. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837, 114 S.Ct. 1970.
Plaintiff concedes that prior to the assault on August 21, 1991, neither
Matthews nor either defendant knew or could have known that Breaziel
posed a threat specific to Matthews. Pl.'s Mem. of Law (Docket No. 71),
p. 4 ("the parties all agree that the defendants likewise could not have
known, prior to this assault, that Mr. Breaziel posed a particular threat
to Mr. Matthews."). Plaintiff contends, however, that as known to the
defendants, Breaziel's general propensity for violence made Breaziel a
threat to the safety of any inmate, including Matthews, who happened in
The Supreme Court noted in Farmer that a plaintiff could demonstrate
deliberate indifference by evidence that "a substantial risk of inmate
attacks was `longstanding, pervasive, well-documented, or expressly noted
by prison officials in the past. . . .'" 511 U.S. at 842, 114 S.Ct.
1970; Street v. Corrections Corp. of Am., 102 F.3d 810, 815 (6th Cir.
1996); Coronado v. LeFevre, 886 F. Supp. 220, 224 (N.D.N.Y. 1995). Such
evidence does not require proof of a "specific risk." Street, 102 F.3d at
815. It does require proof, however, that whatever the source of the
risk, the particular plaintiff entered within the zone of that risk as
known to the defendants. See Street, 102 F.3d at 816 (defendants aware
that inmate with propensity for violence had ongoing dispute with
plaintiff); Candelaria v. Coughlin, No. 93 Civ. 3212 (RWS), 1997 WL
171256, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Apr.10, 1997) (complaints to defendant prison
official "were too general to have put [defendant] on notice of any
particular risk of assault on [plaintiff]. . . ."); Murchison v. Keane,
No. 94 CIV. 466 (CSH), 1996 WL 363086, at *7 (S.D.N Y July 1, 1996)
(claim stated where plaintiff alleged that defendants aware he was
repeatedly robbed and once assaulted by unknown inmates); Coronado, 886
F. Supp. at 224 (plaintiff's claim insufficient although alleging four
assaults by unknown inmates within two years).
Plaintiff's proof fails here in two respects. First, even viewing the
evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, there was no evidence
that Senkowski or Costello knew that Matthews was within the zone of risk
posed by Breaziel on August 21, 1991. The risk existed by virtue of
Breaziel's propensity for violence. Matthews and Breaziel had coexisted
in each other's presence in the general prison population at least fifty
times without incident prior to August 21, 1991. On that date, Breaziel
himself was under
protection as the victim of a stabbing. No basis existed on that date for
Senkowski or Costello to conclude that Matthews was at substantial risk
Second, the operations of IPC block on August 21, 1991 refute
plaintiff's claim. On that date, each inmate in IPC, including Matthews,
was assigned to his own cell. Each cell permitted its occupant to close
an open cell door behind him if the inmate perceived a need for
protection from other inmates in the vicinity. There had never previously
been a stabbing in the Clinton IPC block. Additional precautions might
have prevented the stabbing here, but the failure to institute such
precautions at most constituted negligence. There is no evidence that on
August 21, 1991, Senkowski or Costello had any reason to believe that
Matthews was at substantial risk of attack by Breaziel in the IPC block.
Accordingly, plaintiff failed to offer any evidence from which a
reasonable and fair minded jury could find that either defendant acted
with deliberate indifference. Defendants' motion must be granted on that
C. Qualified Immunity
Defendants also seek judgment as a matter of law on the ground of
qualified immunity. They contend that qualified immunity is appropriate
here because (1) reasonable persons would find that housing Breaziel and
Matthews on the same cell block was entirely reasonable, and (2) the
attack occurred pre-Farmer when clearly established law held defendants
liable for a failure to protect only under higher standards than
established in Farmer.
Qualified immunity shields state actors from liability for civil
damages provided that their conduct when committed did not violate
"clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a
reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald 457 U.S. 800,
812, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982); Ayers v. Ryan, 152 F.3d 77,
82 (2d Cir. 1998). The contours of the right must be established to the
extent that a reasonable official would recognize his acts violated that
right. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97
L.Ed.2d 523 (1987); Williams v. Greifinger, 97 F.3d 699, 703 (2d Cir.
"In determining whether a right was clearly established at the time
defendants acted, [courts] examine whether the right was defined with
reasonable specificity; whether decisional law of the Supreme Court and
the applicable circuit court supports its existence; and whether, under
preexisting law, a defendant official would have reasonably understood
that his acts were unlawful." Rodriguez v. Phillips, 66 F.3d 470, 476 (2d
Cir. 1995). A public official is entitled to qualified immunity when, at
the time the officer was acting, the right in question was not clearly
established or, even if the right was established, it was not objectively
reasonable for the official to have known that his or her conduct
violated the right. Connell v. Signoracci, 153 F.3d 74, 80 (2d Cir.
The conduct of these defendants must be judged against established law
as of August 21, 1991. Walentas v. Lipper, 862 F.2d 414, 423 (2d Cir.
1988). The right at issue is the right to be protected from attacks by
other inmates, a right clearly established in 1991. Hendricks, 942 F.2d
at 113. The exact contours of that right, however, were not made clear
until the 1994 decision in Farmer. Especially significant for this case
is the degree of knowledge required of prison officials before liability
may be imposed. This question was not resolved before Farmer. See
Farmer, 511 U.S. at 835-38, 114 S.Ct. 1970.
Prior to Farmer the majority of cases addressing the issue imposed a
higher standard of liability than ultimately imposed by the Supreme
Court.*fn6 See Gibbs v. Franklin, 49 F.3d 1206, 1207 (7th Cir. 1995)
(liability required that prison officials intended for prisoner to be
hurt); Ruefly v. Landon, 825 F.2d 792, 794 (4th Cir. 1987) (liability
only when prison officials had knowledge of a "specific known risk of
harm" to the particular
plaintiff). The Second Circuit had not yet definitively addressed the
proper standard of liability. This fact as well weighs in favor of finding
defendants qualifiedly immune because the law in this circuit was not
clearly established at the time they acted. See Price v. Sasser,
65 F.3d 342, 346 (4th Cir. 1995) (officials acting in 1990 immune from
suit where there was no specific knowledge of a particularized risk); see
also Prosser v. Ross, 70 F.3d 1005, 1007 (8th Cir. 1995) ("[P]rison
officials are entitled to qualified immunity from claims arising out of a
surprise attack by one inmate on another. This is true even if the
official knows (as [plaintiff] alleges) that the attacking inmate may be
dangerous or violent.").
Therefore, both because the law on August 21, 1991 was unclear as to
the level of knowledge required by defendants for liability and because
it had not been clearly established as of that date that prison officials
could be held liable under the Eighth Amendment based solely on the
propensity for violence of the attacking inmate, Senkowski and Costello
are entitled to qualified immunity on plaintiff's claim. Defendants'
motion is granted on that ground as well.
For the reasons stated above, it is hereby
1. Defendants' motion to correct the judgment is GRANTED, and the Clerk
shall amend the judgment to delete the entry of judgment against
defendant Armitage and shall enter judgment in favor of defendant
2. Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law is GRANTED, and
the Clerk shall enter judgment in favor of defendants Senkowski and
IT IS SO ORDERED.