New York Civil Rights And Criminal Defense Lawyers

Life After Rivera: Narrowing the Scope

Written by Edwin C. Torres, Legal Intern at Sivin, Miller & Roche, LLP

This is the first in a series of blogs addressing the issues raised in Rivera v. State of New York.  There will be a number of blogs following this that discuss, in depth, cases that the firm is currently handling and the issues that are present because of the Rivera decision.

Before the end of 2019, the highest court in the State, the New York Court of Appeals, handed down its decision on a case that has likely remained under the radar for most.  The case is Rivera v. State of New York, 142 N.E.3d 641 (2019), and I will be breaking down what the decision says, what it means for the people who must live with the decision, and what the dissenting Judge (the Judge who disagreed with the new rule) had to say about the case.

For too many Americans, particularly people of color, jails and prisons are a common concern while navigating through life.  There are hit shows across multiple streaming platforms which attempt to show what the inside is really like.  Unfortunately, these dramatizations can often touch upon realities in our system.  One such reality is inmate abuse at the hands of the guards tasked with securing the inmates and the facility itself.  While we have all seen videos and heard stories of the violence and rioting that occurs within prisons, there are other stories, which get left out of the narrative.  To begin, it is important to establish a baseline understanding: correction officers are permitted to use physical force on an inmate in self-defense, to discipline an inmate, or to “suppress a revolt” within the prison Id. at 646.  What that means is that if the officers feel as though the inmates are threatening their safety, not following the rules in place, or attempting to participate in an uprising against the guards, the guards are permitted to use physical force to stop them.  For anyone incarcerated, this likely means that if you are involved, or the officers believe that you are involved, in any form of disobedience, you can expect some pretty swift action.  It should be stated that current regulations require an officer to “exercise the greatest caution and conservative judgment in determining whether physical force against an inmate is necessary.” Id. But what happens when an officer goes too far?  What happens when an officer uses physical force when it’s not required or in such a way that goes beyond what any person would say is “reasonable”?  Well, thanks to the Rivera decision, that is a bit more difficult to answer these days.  Usually, in a situation like this, the inmate would be writing to an attorney in the hopes that they will take on their case against the State for the actions of the officer.  This is based on a doctrine, or common law rule, called respondeat superior, which is Latin for “let the master answer.”  While lawyers really love their Latin, the common understanding here is that the boss of whatever person is being sued could potentially be liable for their employee’s actions.  This is important because if a person sued a correction officer individually, the officer may not have the money or assets awarded by a judge or jury to actually give to the plaintiff (person making the lawsuit).  The end result could be that the injured inmate is unable to be compensated for their injuries, even if they win in court.  So, while lawsuits against the individual officers are often an additional possibility, “let the master answer” for the issues that the employees create.

Now, who is covered under this doctrine, and how does it work?  So long as the employee is acting under the “scope of their employment,” the boss could be held accountable for the actions of the employee.  Basically, if the employee is performing a function that is regularly done at that job, the boss, in addition to the employee, is the one that gets sued.  Picture an employee stocking the shelves at your local Target.  If they stock those shelves very poorly, and all of the items come crashing down on top of shoppers, Target would be sued, as well as the employee who stocked the shelves.  However, the employer is only liable if what the employee did was foreseeable and “a natural incident of the employment,” meaning if Target couldn’t have predicted the employee doing something, Target may be off the hook. Id. at 645.

When does this doctrine not apply?  Well, we know that it does not apply when the employee goes outside of the scope of their employment, but what does that actually mean?  Take my Target example from before: if the employee decided that they were going to take merchandise from the shelf that they were stocking and strike a shopper over the head with the item, purely for a personal, vindictive, or gratuitous purpose, this would fall outside of the doctrine.  Assuming that Target had no reason to suspect that this employee would assault someone, and that nothing in the employee’s responsibilities permitted physical contact with customers, they would likely not be liable for the employee’s actions.  In terms of prisons, this occurs when a correction officer completely abandons their service in favor of a personal purpose.

Getting back on track, Rivera was an inmate who required the use of a special helmet in order to prevent him from being injured during a seizure. A correction officer thought it would be a good opportunity to poke fun at Rivera and his helmet.  Rivera did not appreciate the comment and suggested (in his own words) that the officer not make fun of him.  Rivera was concerned that if other inmates saw the guard making fun of the helmet, it may start a trend.  The correction officer’s reaction to this request, was an extended beating away from the eyes of the other inmates.  The guard, Wehby, brutalized Rivera by punching him in the face and head, bringing him to the ground, then stomping and kicking Rivera.  Luckily, two other guards came at that time and observed the attack on Rivera.  Unluckily, the two additional guards did not intervene to stop Wehby, but rather to push Rivera down and apply handcuffs.  Wehby then, assisted by the two additional guards, removed Rivera’s helmet and continued his assault, going so far as to strike Rivera in the head with a radio “with such force that the batteries flew out and hit the wall,” all the while cursing Rivera out and finishing with “I hope you die.” Id. at 648.  If this is shocking, then you are reading it correctly.

After the incident, Rivera was brought to the infirmary.  While Rivera was entitled to treatment of his wounds, Rivera stated that the officers involved told the medical staff that Rivera suffered from a seizure and received these injuries from that.  Rivera was out cold at this time so that was the story written in all of the prison reports. Id. at 643.  During an investigation that took place later, the three officers involved were found to have mislead investigators. Id.

In the end, Rivera did sue but his case was dismissed.  He continued to appeal his claim, making it all the way to the highest court in New York, the New York Court of Appeals.  But the majority (those making the rule) decided that this officer was so out of line when he was beating Rivera, that the State could not be held responsible.  But how could an officer, who is allowed to physically harm an inmate, go outside of their job when they do this?  The Court reasoned that because Wehby did it for a personal purpose, his actions were outside of the scope of the officer’s employment.

On the other end of this decision is Judge Rivera (no relation).  Judge Rivera would have held very differently from the majority and would have preferred that a fact finder be permitted to answer the question “was Officer Wehby and the other two officers acting within the scope of employment at the time of the assault on Inmate Rivera?”  Usually, this kind of thing is a “question of fact” and those questions are given to the judge who then makes that factual determination.  Id. at 654.  In this case, the judge was not presented the chance to make this determination as the case was determined purely on the law.  Judge Rivera’s biggest concern was that the Court were seemingly turning a blind eye to the other two correction officers in this incident.  They commented on the fact that, even if Wehby was way out of line, there was still the question of whether the other two were doing exactly what was in their job descriptions at the time, which was responding to a scene where an inmate and guard were engaged in a physical confrontation, and restraining the inmate.

The Majority’s holding in this case upset Judge Rivera because the Majority failed “to properly analyze the record before [the Court].” Id. at 659.  The Majority found that Inmate Rivera failed to include the other two officers in his claim, and that even if he did, they were also acting outside of the scope of their employment. Id. at 658.  The question now is: “where is the line?”

Please be sure to check back for further updates and explanations of civil rights litigation in our Post-Rivera world.

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