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Judge: City must pay for failure to produce documents

Sanction an unusual development in legal battle over inmate-on-inmate brutality at a Rikers Island detention facility for juveniles

A federal judge has castigated New York City’s Law Department and imposed a $10,000 fine for failing to produce documents relevant to an ongoing lawsuit brought against the city by a former Rikers Island inmate, Kadeem John.

The sanction imposed last week is an unusual development in a legal battle that has drawn attention to ongoing inmate-on-inmate brutality at a Rikers Island detention facility for juveniles, and alleged collusion by Department of Corrections employees.

In June 2010, 18-year-old John was severely beaten by another inmate while serving time at the Robert N. Davoren Complex for a probation violation resulting from jumping a turnstile. He suffered bleeding in his brain and internal organs, including a laceration to a kidney.

In a civil rights complaint filed one year ago in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, John’s legal team claims the assault was part of a perverse and pervasive practice at the facility that is “sanctioned at the highest levels of the New York City Department of Correction…in which corrections officers at a New York City jail engage inmates or allow them to assault other inmates as a way to control and discipline those held in custody.”

Two years before the assault on John, 18-year-old inmate Christopher Robinson was beaten to death by inmates at the facility and despite claims by the DOC of a crackdown, The New York World has found that at the facility remains rampant.

John’s lawsuit seeks a jury trial and entered the discovery phase (in which attorneys seek information including documents and facts to support their case) in November of last year, according to his attorneys. But on July 8, Judge Robert P. Patterson found that city had repeatedly failed to comply with the court’s discovery orders, inhibiting the ability of the parties to reach a possible settlement before a June 27 deadline.

In addition to the $10,000 fine, Patterson imposed $300 fines on the city’s counsel, Diep Nguyen, and her supervisor Dara Weiss, and threatened a $1,000 fine for each day beyond July 20 that the remaining documents aren’t delivered.

“Sanctions in general are something that is unusual, especially for discovery,” said Adam Pulver, a lawyer with John’s legal team. “It takes violation of a number of orders before a court will issue them.” Pulver said he could not speculate on the causes or motives of the Law Department in failing to produce materials, but said that the city is generally “resistant to providing what they consider wide ranging discovery about incidents.”

In a statement on Monday, the Law Department said in an email, “We take our discovery obligations very seriously, and as we advised the Court, we made good faith efforts to comply with the orders in this case.” In a letter to the court on June 22, the department stated it had produced 14,000 documents to the plaintiff, and believed it had complied with the court’s orders.

But in letters to the court, John’s legal team claims that the Law Department was essentially practicing “a document dump,” giving them thousands of pages of “undifferentiated pages” and withholding others. In his decision, Patterson agreed, chastising the department for repeatedly failing to comply with court orders, or to provide adequate justification for not cooperating with the discovery requests.

“The time has long passed for Defendants to be conducting searches for relevant documents which should have been turned over to Plaintiff months ago,” wrote the judge.

Among others, the decision cites missing documents related to the DOC’s extensive investigations of inmate-on-inmate assault, personnel files of DOC employees, as well as copies of all complaints and allegations brought to the DOC about inmate violence going back to 2007.

This is not the first sanction imposed on the city in the case. Patterson also sanctioned the city for destroying the only video recording of the assault on John. The video was purportedly destroyed after 60 days as a matter of DOC procedure. At the time, Nguyen claimed that the city’s order to preserve the recording had not “trickled down.”

As a result, Patterson prevented the city from providing DOC employee testimony about what was on the recording, and should the case go to trial, a jury will be informed that the recording would have supported John’s version of events.

The number of severe injuries inflicted on inmates at Rikers juvenile facility meanwhile, is increasing, according to Jonathan Chasan, an attorney with the Prisoner’s Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society and a member of John’s legal team.

“The problem is pervasive, it’s systemic and it’s not an individual lawsuit that will address the problem,” said Chasan. “It’s steps that have to be taken by the Department of Correction to address the problems in the jails. Unfortunately, they have not taken those steps in recent years.”