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Ingles v. Toro

April 3, 2006

ADAM INGLES ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ELMER TORO ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chin, District Judge

OPINION

In this prisoners' civil rights case, twenty-two present and former inmates in the New York City correctional system allege that they were subjected to a pattern and practice of excessive force by uniformed employees of the New York City Department of Correction ("DOC") in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the laws and Constitution of the State of New York. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief on a class basis as well as damages for their individual injuries. Following four years of hard-fought litigation, including extensive discovery, motion practice, and settlement negotiations, the parties entered into a settlement agreement (the "Agreement"), subject to approval by the Court, resolving the class claims for equitable relief. The parties now seek approval of the Agreement, as required by Rule 23(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Court finds that the proposed settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. Indeed, much good will be accomplished. The Agreement will result in far-reaching and extensive remedies and initiatives that will address, in a concrete and effective way, the very difficult issue of the use of force in our prisons. To its credit, although it has steadfastly denied any liability or wrongdoing, the City of New York has agreed to these measures, recognizing the importance of continuing its on-going efforts to manage and reduce the use of force by corrections officers. The Agreement is approved.

BACKGROUND

A. Summary of Facts

This is the fifth in a series of federal class actions against the City alleging the use of excessive force in its prisons and detention facilities. The City has been litigating these cases for a quarter of a century. See Sheppard v. Phoenix, 210 F.Supp.2d 450 (S.D.N.Y.2002) (Central Punitive Segregation Unit); Jackson v. Montemagno, No. 85 Civ. 2384(AS) (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 26, 1991) (order approving stipulation for entry of judgment covering Brooklyn House of Detention); Reynolds v. Ward, No. 81 Civ. 101(PNL) (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 1, 1990) (order and consent judgment covering hospital prison wards); Fisher v. Koehler, 718 F.Supp. 1111 (S.D.N.Y.1989) (Correctional Institute for Men).

The present case involves institutions operated by DOC on Rikers Island and in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx that were not already subject to court orders or consent decrees obtained in the prior lawsuits. (Compl.¶ 2).*fn1 The individual defendants include the uniformed staff, supervisory staff, wardens of the several DOC institutions, and other DOC officials alleged to have been engaged in, or to have acquiesced to, a pattern and practice of excessive force against plaintiffs and other inmates. ( Id. ¶¶ 6-18).

Plaintiffs are present and former DOC inmates who allege that they have suffered physical injury while in DOC custody as a result of defendants' use of excessive force.*fn2 Specifically, plaintiffs allege that they have suffered unjustified beatings at the hands of DOC personnel, as punishment for minor misconduct, verbal complaints, protests, or perceived disrespect. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 2, 20). They allege that DOC personnel routinely falsified documents and fabricated claims of provocation to cover up the assaults. ( Id. ¶ 24). Plaintiffs contend that defendants have either ordered, participated in, or acted in complicity with or acquiescence towards this pattern of excessive force. ( See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 20-49).

Defendants have denied the allegations of wrongdoing. In particular, the City has argued, and provided statistical evidence to show, that the number of reported use of force incidents declined substantially prior to and during the pendency of this lawsuit. ( See, e.g., Larkin Decl. ¶ 6) (decline of 33% from 1,463 incidents in 2000 to 974 incidents in 2004). The City maintained throughout the lawsuit that DOC's systems for reporting, investigating, and monitoring the use of force met constitutional and other applicable standards. ( Id. ¶ 18).

B. Prior Proceedings

This case was filed on September 5, 2001, by Adam Ingles pro se. Ingles thereafter obtained counsel. On September 6, 2002, Ingles filed an amended complaint adding twenty-one additional plaintiffs and asserting class allegations. By memorandum decision filed February 20, 2003, I certified the class. Ingles, 2003 WL 402565, at *9. Eventually, plaintiffs filed the Fourth Amended Complaint.

The parties engaged in massive discovery, during which some 400,000 pages of documents were exchanged, numerous expert reports were produced, six site inspections of detention facilities were conducted, and some 140 fact and expert witnesses were deposed. (Larkin Decl. ¶¶ 19-29; see Abady Decl. ¶ 9). Several high-level DOC officials, including the Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioner for Investigations and Trials, the Inspector General, and a former Commissioner were deposed. (Larkin Decl. ¶ 23). There were numerous discovery disputes and the parties engaged in extensive motion practice, including a bifurcation motion, Daubert motions, in limine motions, and defendants' summary judgment motion. A trial date was set and then adjourned several times as the parties engaged in settlement discussions.

C. The Settlement Negotiations

Settlement negotiations began in October 2002, but little progress was made at first. (Abady Decl. ¶ 13). In November 2003, I referred the case to Magistrate Judge Debra C. Freeman to supervise settlement negotiations, and she was enormously helpful as she held several full-day settlement sessions with the parties. ( Id.; Larkin Decl. ¶ 36). The parties were unable to agree on many significant issues, however, including, as discussed more fully below, whether any settlement would take the form of a consent decree or a private settlement agreement.

In mid-2005, I offered to participate in the settlement discussions in an effort to help the parties resolve their disagreements. Both sides welcomed my involvement. The parties executed a stipulation agreeing that my participation in settlement discussions would not be a basis for any objection to my presiding over the rest of the case, including the trial, and agreeing further that no party would seek my recusal based on my involvement in the settlement process. (Abady Decl. ¶ 14; Larkin Decl. ¶¶ 40-41 & Ex. 7).

Beginning in June 2005 and continuing through February 2006, the parties engaged in extensive discussions, as they continued to litigate the case and prepare for trial. I conducted no less than eighteen settlement conferences, meeting with the two sides both together and separately, sometimes for several hours at a time. Of course, the parties met many more times on their own, for a while on a weekly basis and in the end almost on a daily basis. (Abady Decl. ¶ 14; Larkin Decl. ¶¶ 41-43). DOC's General Counsel, Florence Hutner, attended many of the settlement conferences and played an instrumental role. The Commissioner, Martin F. Horn, personally attended one of the settlement conferences with the Court.

D. The Settlement

In mid-February 2006, with trial scheduled to start in just a few weeks, the parties finally reached agreement on all terms and language. The Agreement was signed on February 17, 2006. (Larkin Decl. ¶ 44 & Ex. 1; Abady Decl. ¶ 10).

The Agreement calls for a number of important measures covering DOC's use of force policy, investigations, training, and monitoring and tracking, including the following:

• The City will install wall-mounted recording cameras in numerous agreed-upon locations. (Agreement ¶¶ 14-16). The cameras will employ a recording capability sufficient to produce smooth action footage with an image quality sufficient to permit the identification of persons captured in the recordings. ( Id. ¶ 10). The locations were selected with the consent of plaintiffs' counsel, who sought the placement of cameras in areas where they contend there have been higher numbers of use of force incidents. The locations are set forth in a sealed exhibit to the Agreement, and the precise locations are being kept confidential. DOC's agreement to install these cameras is significant, as the City will be expending what undoubtedly will be millions of dollars to purchase and install new cameras and upgrade or replace existing ones. Plaintiffs' attorneys believe, based on the results in other facilities that were the subject of prior litigation, that "these cameras will be effective in deterring staff misconduct in these locations." (Abady Decl. ¶ 18).

• DOC will continue to require its Emergency Services Unit (the "ESU") to carry hand-held cameras when conducting searches and to record searches and any related uses of force. (Agreement ¶ 18). This was a practice that began as a result of a command-level order during the pendency of this lawsuit. (Abady Decl. ¶ 20). It was plaintiffs' contention that ESU searches often resulted in the use of force, and this requirement will ensure that a hand-held camera will be available to capture incidents when the ESU is called into action.

• DOC will issue a revised use of force directive. The revised directive will more clearly state that corrections officers may not "use more force than is necessary" and that "[f]orce may not be used to punish an inmate." (Agreement ¶ 19(b)). The revised directive will more clearly instruct staff to "start with the minimum amount of force needed," advising that staff may "escalate the amount of force used only if the situation requires escalation." ( Id. ¶ 19(c)). The revised directive strives to maintain operational flexibility and explicitly recognizes that "there are occasions when the use of force is necessary," but it will help provide important clarification. ( Id. ¶ 19(b)). The use of force directive must be followed by DOC personnel and will be enforced, like all DOC directives, through the DOC disciplinary process. ( Id. ¶ 19; see Abady Decl. ¶ 24).

• The City will make certain changes to its training of corrections officers in the use of force, at the initial recruit stage and during in-service training. Attendees will be required to demonstrate that they can perform proper defensive techniques. In addition, at least once a month, roll-call training will include review and reinforcement of the use of force policy. (Agreement ¶¶ 38-40).

• In the area of investigations, DOC will create a new Investigation Division Manual, with the assistance of an outside consultant, that will address use of force investigations; DOC will adopt a forty-hour training program for new investigators as well as an annual fourteen-hour program; new criteria have been set for the opening of investigations of use of force incidents; and DOC has agreed to maintain no more than an eight-month average for the completion of investigations, to reduce the delays that plaintiffs' counsel maintains have marked these investigations in the past. ( Id. ¶¶ 22-32).

• Unless circumstances do not permit, DOC staff will take, from no more than four feet away, "clear" photographs of inmates immediately following use of force incidents. ( Id. ¶ 35). DOC staff will also use a form that includes a diagram of the human body so that the locations ...


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