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Williams v. Murphy

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2018

PETER MURPHY, ET AL., Defendants.


          MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.

         I. Introduction

         In 2016, a federal jury found that a Connecticut Department of Correction (“DOC”) employee maliciously violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmate Rashad Williams and awarded him compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 (“Section 1983”). After the judgment became final, the State of Connecticut chose to indemnify its employee and has since been clawing back from Williams the bulk of his award using state laws that allow it to recover the costs of incarcerating him and providing him with public defender services. I must decide whether the State's actions in indemnifying its employee from a civil rights judgment and using state laws to recoup most of its indemnity expense conflict with and are thus preempted by Section 1983, a federal law aimed at deterring state officials from violating citizens' civil rights and compensating victims of such violations. If federal law preempts the State's actions, then they are of no legal effect and Williams remains free to recover the judgment from the DOC employee who violated his rights; if not, then the judgment has been satisfied and that employee owes him nothing (other than a small amount of outstanding interest and costs).

         I conclude that the collective impact of the State's actions in this case, some of which are ongoing, will be virtually to nullify Williams's judgment, leaving it with little deterrent or compensatory value and thereby undermining Congress's purposes in enacting Section 1983. The message the State is sending to its DOC employees is that even when they maliciously violate an inmate's civil rights, neither they nor their employer will suffer significant financial consequences; instead, the State will hold them harmless and then recapture the cost of doing so from the inmate whose rights were violated. A Section 1983 lawsuit-even when found by a jury to have merit-will amount to little more than a nuisance. Because such a result would so starkly clash with the history and intent behind Congress's enactment of Section 1983-a federal remedy adopted in the wake of the Civil War to combat civil rights violations by state officials-, the State's actions in this case are preempted. Those actions have therefore done nothing to satisfy the judgment owed by the DOC employee.

         My conclusions are occasioned by Williams's Motion for Aid of Judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 69 and his related Motion to Unfreeze Assets, which ask me to (1) declare that the State's application of its incarceration cost recovery statute is preempted by Section 1983, (2) order the State of Connecticut to pay the outstanding judgment, (3) order the State to release monies in Williams's inmate trust account that it froze to secure payment of the cost of public defender services, and (4) order that his judgment not be reduced by the State's cost recovery efforts. The Eleventh Amendment, which sets forth a rule of state sovereign immunity in federal courts, bars me from granting much of this relief, but it does not prevent me from finding that the State's actions in this case cannot reduce the amount of the judgment against its employee, which remains due and owing.

         Williams's Motion for Aid of Judgment is therefore GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART, and his Motion to Unfreeze Assets is DENIED. Williams remains free to execute on the judgment, which, with interest, currently amounts to $287, 433.92. His requests for monetary relief against the State of Connecticut, including an order requiring payment and an order requiring release of funds in his inmate account, are denied.

         A fuller explanation of the reasons for this ruling is set forth below.

         II. Background [1]

         A. Underlying Litigation

         In 2010, Williams was an inmate at Northern Correctional Institution (“Northern”) serving a 30-year sentence. (ECF No. 214 at 5). Dennis Marinelli, the judgment debtor in this case, was a captain at Northern who helped oversee the Administrative Segregation program to which Williams was assigned. (Id.). From the time he arrived at Northern in November, 2009, until October, 2010, Williams “never had a cellmate.” (Id. at 6). In early 2010, Williams pleaded with prison officials not to “double cell” him-i.e., place him in the same cell-with a gang member. (Id. at 7). He “conveyed fears for his safety and, in particular, concerns about receiving a cellmate and the possibility of attacks by gang members” due in part to having “previously been attacked by other inmates.” (Id. at 7). In the months leading up to October of 2010, Williams also complained to multiple prison officials about the prison's “sequential uncuffing practice.” (Id. at 7). Under that practice, two inmates living in the same cell would have their handcuffs removed in sequence, leaving one inmate cuffed for a brief time after the other had been uncuffed. (Id. at 7-8). Williams specifically told prison officials “that he was afraid that he would be unable to defend himself from assaults” as a result of this practice. (Id. at 7). In particular, “he feared he would be assaulted while cuffed behind his back.” (Id. at 8). Although prison officials did little in response to Williams's concerns, he nonetheless remained living alone-until October 28, 2010. (Id. at 8).

         On that date, Williams was informed that he would be moved to another cell and would live with a cellmate, inmate Darnell Walker. (Id. at 10). Walker “was an active member of the Bloods” and was also designated by the DOC as a “Security Risk Group Threat Member, which means that he was an active gang member who had engaged in violence in the prison system and who potentially pose[d] a threat to institutional operations.” (Id. at 11 (internal quotation marks omitted)). Marinelli was involved in the plan to move Williams to a double cell and was aware of his background. (Id. at 9-10). Further, Marinelli “would have reviewed Walker's [DOC] designations and disciplinary history before the move.” (Id. at 11). He nonetheless did nothing to prevent Williams from being celled with Walker. Despite Williams's protestations, he was being placed in the very situation he most feared.

         Upon learning of the plan to place him with Walker, Williams immediately asked to speak to mental health staff, who had promised him numerous times that he would remain living alone. (Id. at 8-11). Williams was told to calm down and that his situation would be investigated prior to his moving into the cell. (Id. at 10). Nonetheless, Williams was escorted to his new cell shortly thereafter. (Id. at 11). As he approached the cell, he informed the officers escorting him that “he had been told by mental health that he would be living alone, ” and he urged them to contact various mental health staff members to confirm this guarantee. (Id. at 12). They informed him that they would do so and left him in the cell, uncuffed, with inmate Walker. (Id.).

         For the first few minutes, Williams's double celling with Walker was uneventful. He and Walker remained in the cell for four to six minutes, uncuffed, without incident. (Id.). Then the officers returned and escorted Williams to the day room. (Id.). One of the officers then went to speak with Marinelli, and subsequently “reported that Marinelli had instructed that Williams be returned to the cell with Walker and that, if he refused, he would be issued a disciplinary report, ” amongst other sanctions. (Id.). Facing sanctions should he choose otherwise, Williams allowed the officers to escort him back to the cell. (Id. at 13).

         Williams then returned to the cell while cuffed behind his back. (Id.). Walker, who was waiting in the cell, was then cuffed prior to Williams's entrance into the cell. (Id.). However, once both inmates were in the cell together and the door locked, “Walker went immediately to . . . uncuff” through a slot in the cell door. (Id.). The officers uncuffed Walker, who then proceeded to assault Williams while he remained cuffed behind his back. (Id.). Walker “punched [Williams] in the head, knocked him to the floor, kicked him, and stomp[ed] on him.” (Id. (internal quotation marks omitted)). Williams suffered injuries to his head, ankle, back, and knee as a result of the assault. (Id. at 12). Immediately after the assault, Walker angrily said “that the correctional staff knew what [they] were doing when they put him into a cell with an inmate on single cell status doing 30 years.” (Id. at 13-14 (internal quotation marks omitted)). After the assault, Marinelli approached Williams and told him that he would receive another cellmate, leaving Williams “‘terrified' that he would be assaulted again.” (Id. at 14).

         In the months after the assault, Marinelli repeatedly threatened Williams that he would be receiving a cellmate. (Id. at 14). Marinelli at one point told another inmate-who was also a gang member-that he was going to be housed with Williams. (Id.). Even after the deputy warden “specifically told Marinelli that he could not place anyone in the cell with Williams- following a written complaint by Williams about Marinelli's threats-Marinelli continued to tell Williams he would receive a cellmate.” (Id.). Marinelli also spoke to another prison official “in an attempt to persuade her to take Williams off single cell status.” (Id. (internal quotation marks omitted)). To make matters worse for Williams, Walker was placed a few cells away from him. (Id.). Walker and other prisoners taunted Williams about the assault, and threatened that it would happen again. (Id.). “When Williams complained to Marinelli about being housed with gang members, Marinelli told him to shut up and to lie down on his bunk.” (Id. (internal quotation marks omitted)). All the while, Williams had “recurring nightmares about being killed by cellmates” and constant anxiety. (Id. at 13).

         Williams filed a complaint under Section 1983 on August 9, 2013, alleging, among other things, that Northern personnel had been deliberately indifferent to unsafe conditions in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. (ECF No. 1 at 9). Marinelli, along with the other defendants, was represented by the Connecticut Attorney General's Office. (See ECF No. 21).[2] Williams's claims were ultimately submitted to a jury with respect to four defendants in their individual capacities: Marinelli, Lieutenant Melvin Saylor, and Correctional Officers Alphonso Lindsey and Dishana Robinson. (ECF No. 214 at 4). I instructed the jury that it could award punitive damages against a defendant if it found that the defendant “engaged in any of the following conduct: a. [m]alicious or oppressive violation of Mr. Williams's constitutional rights; or b. [r]eckless disregard or callous indifference as to whether he or she was violating Mr. Williams's constitutional rights.” (ECF No. 171 at 24-25). On July 19, 2016, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Williams against Marinelli in the amount of $250, 000.00 in compensatory damages and $400, 000.00 in punitive damages; and in favor of defendants Saylor, Lindsey, and Robinson against Williams. (ECF No. 178).

         B. Relevant Post-Judgment Procedural History

         After the jury's verdict, Marinelli filed motions for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, and remittitur. (ECF No. 190). I rejected Marinelli's motions for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial, but granted in part and denied in part the motion for remittitur. (ECF No. 214 at 2-3). With regard to the latter, I offered Williams the choice of accepting a remittitur of the punitive damages award to $50, 000 or having a new trial on damages. (ECF No. 214 at 3). Williams accepted the remittitur, leaving a total award of $300, 000 in damages. (ECF No. 216; ECF No. 220). On July 27, 2016, Williams filed an “objection to [the] State of Connecticut's claim for repayment of cost of incarceration, ” in which he preemptively objected to the State of Connecticut's applying a lien against his judgment to recover the cost of his incarceration. (ECF No. 185). I construed this as a “motion to enjoin the State from setting off the costs of his incarceration, ” and denied it without prejudice “to refiling the motion when issues arising from collection of the judgment bec[a]me ripe. . . .” (ECF No. 214 at 3).

         The defendants initially filed a notice of appeal (ECF No. 224) but withdrew the appeal on July 5, 2017. (ECF No. 231). On July 13, 2017, the Assistant Attorney General who had defended Marinelli at the trial contacted Williams's counsel, [3] informing him by email that the amended judgment would be paid as follows: “1) $15, 140 made payable to Connecticut Child Support for fulfilling his statutory obligation to reimburse a child support lien;[4] 2) $142, 430 made payable to the Department of Administrative Services to fulfill statutory obligation for cost of incarceration; [and] 3) $142, 430 made payable to Williams.” (ECF No. 241-1 at 3). Williams's counsel objected, asking that the State “not issue any checks at this time.” (Id. at 2).

         On July 18, 2017, Williams's counsel filed a motion to extend the time to file a bill of costs until 14 days “after adjudication of Williams'[s] forthcoming motion concerning the State of Connecticut's attempt to seize a portion of Williams'[s] award under Connecticut's cost of incarceration statute.” (ECF No. 234 at 1.) The Court granted the motion and scheduled a telephonic status conference, which it held on July 26, 2017. During that conference, I discussed briefly with all counsel Williams's “forthcoming motion, ” which I directed his counsel to file by August 18, 2017, and the need to give notice to the State, a non-party, regarding the anticipated challenge to the constitutionality of its cost of incarceration statute. (ECF No. 279; ECF Nos. 234 & 236; ECF No. 252 at 12-13); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.1 and 28 U.S.C. § 2403(b).[5]

         On July 27, 2017, the Assistant Attorney General sent a check for $142, 430 to the DOC with instructions that it be deposited into Williams's inmate account.[6] (See ECF No. 241-2 at 2). The check was deposited into the inmate account on August 1, 2017. (See ECF No. 241-3 at 2).

         On August 17, 2017, Williams filed a “motion for aid of judgment” requesting “that the Court declare that Connecticut's cost of incarceration statute, codified at Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-85b, [7] conflicts with 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in such a way as to stand as a substantial obstacle to Congress's goals and that, as a result and as applied to Williams's[] judgment, § 18-85b is preempted by federal law.” (ECF No. 240 at 1). The motion also requested that “the Court order the State of Connecticut to pay the remainder of the outstanding judgment” and “order that [Williams's] judgment not be reduced through the application of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-85b.” (Id. at 1, 11). A day later, the Court “certifie[d] to the Connecticut Attorney General that [Williams] ha[d] raised a constitutional challenge to Connecticut's cost of incarceration statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-85b, ” and that the State would have sixty days to intervene in the matter under 28 U.S.C. § 2403(b).[8] (ECF No. 243; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.1). The State of Connecticut eventually intervened and filed a brief averring that Williams's claim contained no merit and was, in any event, precluded by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. (ECF No. 268).[9]

         In November of 2017, Williams filed a motion to unfreeze assets (ECF No. 256) claiming that the State of Connecticut had “unilaterally and without due process seized $65, 000 of [his] judgment by unilaterally ordering a freeze on his inmate trust account.” (ECF No. 257 at 1). A printout of the transaction history of Williams's inmate account demarcated this hold as the result of a “Court Order, ” although the record does not reflect the issuance of any such order by this Court or any other court. (ECF No. 257-2 at 2). Williams's motion also included an attached complaint by the State of Connecticut in Connecticut Superior Court for “at least $48, 842.42 for the services” rendered to Williams by the Connecticut “Division of Public Defender Services.” (ECF No. 257-3 at 3). The State filed an objection to Williams's motion to unfreeze assets, in which it represented that the hold on Williams's account was initiated as part of the State's ongoing effort to recover, by means of a lawsuit recently initiated in state court under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-298[10], the costs of state public defender services he has utilized over the years. (ECF No. 266 at 1-2). Williams later removed that lawsuit to this Court. See Connecticut v. Williams, 17CV02023 (MPS). In a ruling issued today, however, I grant the State's motion to remand that case to state court. (See Id. at ECF No. 212).

         I held a hearing on Williams's motions in this case and the State's motion to remand in Connecticut v. Williams on March 14, 2018. Counsel for the State represented at the hearing that the $48, 000 amount mentioned in the complaint in Connecticut v. Williams covered only a portion of Williams's prior public defender services. He estimated that the total amount of the recoverable public defender costs would likely be higher and that, in particular, the $48, 000 did not include expert costs, which he reserved the right to seek.[11]

         III. Discussion

         Williams's Motion for Aid of Judgment and Motion for Release of Funds seek various forms of relief, including: (1) “that the Court declare that Connecticut's cost of incarceration statute [Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-85b] . . . as applied to Williams's judgment . . . is preempted by federal law, ” (2) “that the Court order that his judgment not be reduced through application of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-85b”; (3) that the Court order “that the State of Connecticut pay him the remainder of [his] judgment” (id.); and (4) that the Court “order that the State of Connecticut release its hold on monies in his inmate trust account” on the ground that “the State's efforts to reduce Mr. Williams's § 1983 judgment to recover public defender fees suffers from the same constitutional defect as the State's cost of incarceration claim.” (ECF Nos. 240 at 1, 241 at 11, 256, & 257 at 3.) As shown below in Section III.B, the Eleventh Amendment bars granting monetary relief against the State and thus forecloses some of Williams's requests. But the Eleventh Amendment does not affect the Court's jurisdiction over Marinelli, the actual defendant and judgment debtor in this case. See Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 31 (1991) (“We hold that state officials, sued in their individual capacities, are ‘persons' within the meaning of § 1983. The Eleventh Amendment does not bar such suits. . . .”). Also, Williams's request that I order that “his judgment not be reduced through application” of the State's cost recovery statutes raises the question whether the State's actions in this case have reduced or satisfied Marinelli's obligation to pay the judgment. Indeed, any “Motion for Aid of Judgment”-under Rule 69 or otherwise- raises the question whether the judgment debtor has satisfied the judgment, because, if he has, there is of course no need for aid and no basis to grant the motion. See Zamani v. Carnes, 491 F.3d 990, 996 (9th Cir. 2007) (holding that Rule 69 “applies to satisfaction of judgments”).

         A federal court possesses inherent authority to enforce its judgments. See Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820, 823 (1996) (“Courts invested with the judicial power of the United States have certain inherent authority to protect their proceedings and judgments in the course of discharging their traditional responsibilities.”); Young v. United States ex. rel. Vuitton et Fils S.A., 481 U.S. 787, 809 (1987) (noting that courts' ability to enforce their orders and judgments is “a subject that directly concerns the functioning of the Judiciary”); Peacock v. Thomas, 516 U.S. 349, 356 (1996) (noting the existence of “a federal court's inherent power to enforce its judgments”). Implicit in that authority is the power to determine whether the judgment has been satisfied. See Bryan v. Erie Cty. Office of Children & Youth, 752 F.3d 316, 323 (3d Cir. 2014) (“In ongoing litigation, district courts have the jurisdiction to decide whether the parties have settled the action or have satisfied the judgment.”); Jarvis v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2008 WL 2757608 at *5 n.7 (W.D. Mich. July 11, 2008) (“[I]t appears that this court would retain jurisdiction [in post-judgment proceedings involving questions over the proper payee] to determine whether the judgment has been satisfied.”); Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(5) (permitting relief from judgment if court concludes “the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged”).

         To answer the question whether the judgment has been satisfied-or even reduced-in this case, I must decide the legal effect of the State's actions in indemnifying Marinelli and recovering the associated expense from Williams through its use of the cost recovery statutes. Specifically, I must decide whether those actions have served (or will serve, with respect to the ongoing efforts to recover costs of public defender services) to reduce Marinelli's obligation to pay Williams or whether, as Williams contends, those actions are preempted by Section 1983 and thus of no legal effect. It is to that issue I turn now.

         A. Preemption

         1. The Supremacy Clause

         Preemption involves the enforcement of the Supremacy Clause, which provides that the laws and treaties of the United States “shall be the supreme Law of the Land . . . any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” U.S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2. Under the Supremacy Clause, “state laws that conflict with federal law are without effect.” Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, 555 U.S. 70, 76 (2008); see also Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1, 211 (1824) (“The appropriate application of [the Supremacy Clause] is to such acts of the State Legislatures . . . enacted in the execution of acknowledged State powers, [that] interfere with, or are contrary to the laws of Congress, made in pursuance of the constitution. . . . In every such case, the act of Congress, or the treaty, is supreme; and the law of the State . . . must yield to it.”). The “state laws” in question include more than just statutes. Also preempted by federal law are actions of state executive branch officials and state courts that conflict with federal law. See Cuomo v. Clearing House Ass'n, L.L.C., 557 U.S. 519, 536 (2009) (National Banking Act preempted New York Attorney General from issuing letters to banks threatening to subpoena them concerning their lending practices); Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 384 (1992) (noting that the Airline Deregulation Act preempts “[s]tate enforcement actions having a connection with or reference to airline rates, routes, or services” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Power & Light Co. v. Mississippi ex rel. Moore, 487 U.S. 354, 377 (1988) (state inquiry into reasonableness of FERC-approved prices for sale of nuclear power to wholesalers of electricity preempted due to conflict with FERC's jurisdiction); Appalachian Power Co. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of W. Virginia, 812 F.2d 898, 904 (4th Cir. 1987) (“Preemption principles deny state authority to act in a way that would undermine the purposes of federal law.”); Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312, 323-30 (2008) (holding that FDA regulation preempted plaintiff's state common law claims).

         A federal law may preempt state law in at least three ways. First, Congress may include an express preemption provision in a statute clearly indicating its intent to preempt contrary state law. See, e.g., Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, 134 S.Ct. 1422, 1426 (2014) (concluding that state common law claim fell within ambit of Airline Deregulation Act's preemption provision); Gobeille v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 136 S.Ct. 936, 947 (2016) (concluding that preemption provision in Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) preempted state law as applied to ERISA plans). Second, Congress may “occupy the field” regulated by a statute, thereby preempting all contrary state law. See, e.g., Schneidewind v. ANR Pipeline Co., 485 U.S. 293, 310 (1988) (holding that Natural Gas Act occupied field upon which state act impinged and therefore preempted state act). Congress's intent to occupy the field “can be inferred from a framework of regulation ‘so pervasive . . . that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it' or where there is a ‘federal interest . . . so dominant that the federal system will be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject.'” Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387, 399 (2012) (quoting Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947)). Third, a federal law may conflict with state law, thereby preempting it. See, e.g., Crosby v. Nat'l Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363, 387 (2000) (holding state law regulating trade with Burma was preempted because it conflicted with federal law addressing same subject); PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensins, 564 U.S. 604, 619 (2011) (holding state law claims conflicted with federal drug regulations and were therefore preempted).

         Williams invokes only the third of these theories-conflict preemption-in support of his motions for aid of judgment and release of funds. (ECF No. 241 at 11; ECF No. 257 at 3.) Conflict preemption involves situations in which “compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility, and those instances where the challenged state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” Arizona, 567 U.S. at 399 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Williams argues that the State of Connecticut's actions in this case fall under the latter category of conflict preemption, known as obstacle preemption. (ECF No. 241 at 11; ECF No. 257 at 3).

         Because “in all pre-emption cases . . . we start with the assumption that the historic police powers of the States were not to be superseded by the Federal Act unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress, ” Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555, 565 (2009), “the party asserting that federal law preempts state law bears the burden of establishing preemption.” In re Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) Prod. Liab. Litig., 725 F.3d 65, 96 (2d Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). That burden is a heavy one when obstacle preemption is at issue: “[F]ederal law does not preempt state law under obstacle preemption analysis unless the repugnance or conflict is so direct and positive that the two acts cannot be reconciled or consistently stand together.” Id. at 102 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The mere fact of tension between federal and state law is generally not enough to establish an obstacle supporting preemption. . . .” Madeira v. Affordable Hous. Found., Inc., 469 F.3d 219, 241 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). Nonetheless, ...

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