Case: Nieves v. Oswald

1:71-cv-00526 | U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York

Filed Date: Nov. 16, 1971

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Case Summary

This case is part of the Clearinghouse's special collection on the Attica Uprising. In September of 1971, incarcerated people in New York's Attica Correctional Facility took control of the prison and took several staff members hostage. The uprising ended when state police violently stormed the prison, killing over 40 incarcerated people and staff members. Attica was one of the most significant events in the American prisoners' rights movement and drew public attention to poor conditions in pris…

This case is part of the Clearinghouse's special collection on the Attica Uprising. In September of 1971, incarcerated people in New York's Attica Correctional Facility took control of the prison and took several staff members hostage. The uprising ended when state police violently stormed the prison, killing over 40 incarcerated people and staff members. Attica was one of the most significant events in the American prisoners' rights movement and drew public attention to poor conditions in prisons across the country. The uprising, retaking, and their aftermaths spawned numerous lawsuits, many of which are included in this special collection.

This case concerns disciplinary proceedings in Attica after the uprising and the Attica Task Force Investigation into possible crimes committed during and after the uprising.

Background & Allegations in the Complaint

This class action lawsuit challenged the prison disciplinary procedures used to punish Attica Uprising participants. Shortly after the retaking, New York state began disciplinary proceedings and a grand jury investigation into the conduct of prisoners. (See In re Carey for more information about the Attica Task Force Investigation.) The plaintiffs in this case claimed the discipline proceedings could lead to them being exposed to criminal liability and their procedures violated the Due Process rights in various ways.

On November 16, 1971, several named plaintiffs, suing on behalf of a putative class of all prisoners at Attica subject to disciplinary hearings as a result of their alleged participation in the Uprising, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. (An amended complaint with more named plaintiffs was later filed.) The complaint named several New York corrections officials as defendants. The plaintiffs were represented by Herman Schwartz, a Buffalo attorney who had represented Attica protestors before the uprising, as well as attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild. The case was assigned to District Judge John O. Henderson.

Suing under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiffs alleged the procedures in the disciplinary proceedings violated their Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth, and Sixth Amendment rights because of. More specifically, the plaintiffs alleged they did not have access to counsel, were not informed of the evidence against them, and could not present a defense. The court grouped the plaintiffs claims into two rough categories: 1) the procedures themselves violated due process and 2) the procedures raised a risk of self-incrimination if information obtained in disciplinary proceedings was later used against a plaintiff in criminal proceedings. The plaintiffs sought a preliminary and permanent injunctions against hearings without proper procedural safeguards, as well as corresponding declaratory relief.

Shortly after the case was filed, on November 26, 1971, the defendants consented to a temporary stay of disciplinary hearings until the Attica Task Force grand jury completed its proceedings. However, the parties continued to litigate over the remaining relief requested by the plaintiffs.

Three Judge District Court Litigation

However, the parties had to address an arcane procedural issue before reaching the merits of the case. Under a since repealed statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2281, challenges to the constitutionality of state statutes had to be decided by a three judge district court. Because the procedures challenged by the plaintiffs were mandated by New York state corrections regulations, the plaintiffs moved to convene a three judge district court.

Judge Henderson denied the plaintiffs’ request for a three judge district court in a March 1972 order. However, in the same order he also certified the class requested by the plaintiffs and denied a motion to dismiss by the defendant.

A few months later, in June 1972, the Judge Henderson ruled on the merits of the case. He denied all of the plaintiffs’ requested relief, with the exception of access to counsel prior to and during a disciplinary proceeding.

Both parties appealed the June ruling. The plaintiffs argued that they were entitled to all the relief requested in their complaint and that Judge Henderson should have convened a three judge district court. The defendants argued the plaintiffs should not have received the injunctive relief they did get.

On April 20, 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and remanded the district court, finding it was improper to not convene the three judge district court. 477 F.2d 1109. The panel included Circuit Judges Wilfred Feinberg, William Mulligan, and William Timbers. Circuit Judge Feinberg wrote the opinion, which mostly concerned the applicability of 28 U.S.C. § 2281.The issue was complicated by the fact that the plaintiffs had asked the appellate court to withdraw their request for injunctive relief in an attempt to speed the litigation.

Though the Second Circuit did not address the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, it did note in its opinion that the alleged violations in the complaint were not insubstantial: class members might remain silent in their disciplinary proceedings to avoid incriminating themselves, leading to potential disciplinary consequences

On remand, the plaintiffs withdrew their request for injunctive relief to avoid the time burden of convening and litigating before a three judge district court, but continued to fight for declaratory relief. Because the defendants were still voluntarily pausing their disciplinary hearings, there was no immediate need of injunctive relief.

Merits Litigation

The only remaining issue was whether declaratory relief should be granted. Judge Henderson issued an opinion on that question on May 21, 1973. He found the disciplinary proceeding did violate the plaintiffs’ rights to due process and against self-incrimination because there was a chance something a plaintiff said in a disciplinary proceeding could later be used against him in a criminal proceeding if the Attica Task Force grand jury indicted him.

Judge Henderson held the class members should have access to counsel and receive information about the evidence against them. However, counsel could not conduct an investigation into the alleged disciplinary infraction, cross-examine witnesses, or call their own witnesses. In effect, this prohibited Attica officials from conducting disciplinary proceedings until class members had access to counsel, but not until the grand jury proceedings were complete.

Both the plaintiffs and the defendants appealed. The plaintiffs wanted stricter procedural safeguards and the defendants objected to granting the plaintiffs access to counsel. On January 30, 1974, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and remanded. 498 F.2d 802. The panel included Circuit Judges Leonard Moore and James Oakes and District Judge Harold Tyler. Circuit Judge Moore wrote the opinion with Circuit Judge Oakes dissenting.

The court reasoned it was wrong for the court to not consider the impact of the grand jury proceedings on the disciplinary proceedings. The plaintiffs needed to know if they were targets or being indicted by the grand jury, so they could know what to do in the disciplinary proceedings. Therefore, remand was necessary to determine which class members were targets for the grand jury and which were not. Class members who were targets would need different procedural protections than those who were not, so remand was necessary to determine what procedural safeguards were required for which class members.

There are no available published opinions after this. According to Stephen Light’s article Attica Litigation, the case was ultimately mooted because the disciplinary charges against all the class members were dropped. Attica Litigation, 221. But, as a result of the grand proceedings, many people incarcerated in Attica were charged with crimes.

The case is now closed.

 

Summary Authors

Sarah Marble (4/19/2022)

Jonah Hudson-Erdman (4/19/2022)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

72-01974

Opinion

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

April 20, 1973

April 20, 1973

Order/Opinion

73-01846

Opinion

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Jan. 30, 1974

Jan. 30, 1974

Order/Opinion

Resources

Docket

Last updated Aug. 30, 2022, 3:07 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: New York

Case Type(s):

Prison Conditions

Special Collection(s):

Attica Uprising Litigation

Key Dates

Filing Date: Nov. 16, 1971

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

People incarcerated in Attica put in disciplinary proceedings after the retaking

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

Legal Services/Legal Aid

ACLU Affiliates (any)

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: Yes

Class Action Outcome: Granted

Defendants

Commissioner of Corrections, State

Superintendent of Attica Correctional Facility, State

Defendant Type(s):

Corrections

Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Ex parte Young (federal or state officials)

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Due Process: Procedural Due Process

Self-incrimination

Availably Documents:

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Mixed

Nature of Relief:

Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order

Declaratory Judgment

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief granted

Preliminary relief request withdrawn/mooted

Issues

General:

Access to lawyers or judicial system

Disciplinary procedures

Affected Gender:

Male

Type of Facility:

Government-run