Federal court reinstates former jail employees’ civil rights claim

Monday, April 3, 2000

A federal appeals court has reinstated the civil rights claim filed by three former employees of the Schenectady County jail for alleged retaliation after the they spoke out against physical abuse of inmates.

Christopher Jeffes, John E. Keenan, Jr. and Jerry Carlos alleged in their 1997 lawsuit against the county that they were subjected to a pattern of harassment after they assisted the F.B.I. in its investigation of inmate abuse at the jail.

According to the plaintiffs, seven inmates were severely beaten on April 29, 1994. All of the plaintiffs either reported the incident to jail supervisors, including former Sheriff William Barnes, or directly assisted the F.B.I.

After their involvement in the investigation was made known to other jail officials, the three plaintiffs were subjected to a code of silence and outright harassment, they said.

The plaintiffs sued Barnes, several other jail officials and the county, claiming the defendants had showed deliberate indifference to the plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to speak out about abuse.

In 1998, U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy dismissed the claim against the county, although he refused to dismiss individual liability claims against the defendants.

McAvoy found the plaintiffs had failed to show that the alleged harassment could be attributed to the county, ruling that there was not sufficient evidence to show “any widespread practice … authorizing acts of retaliation and harassment in cases where employees exercise their First Amendment rights, that would establish a … well-settled custom.”

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed McAvoy’s ruling with respect to the county in its March 28 opinion in Jeffes v. Barnes.

Under federal civil rights law, a plaintiff cannot sue a county or city unless he or she can show that the abuses were caused by an official policy or custom authorized by a municipal official with final policymaking authority.

Representation for the county argued that it could not be held liable because the plaintiffs could not establish that any alleged abuses had occurred due to a county policy or custom.

However, the appeals court determined that Sheriff Barnes’ role as a “final policymaker” made the county liable for the unlawful custom of retaliating against officers who speak out against abuse of inmates.

“The County has pointed us to no provision of State or local law that requires a sheriff to answer to any other entity in the management of his jail staff with respect to the existence or enforcement of a code of silence,” the court wrote.

“We conclude that Sheriff Barnes was, as a matter of law, the County’s final policymaking official with respect to the conduct of his staff members toward fellow officers who exercised their First Amendment rights to speak publicly or to inform government investigators of their co-workers’ wrongdoing,” the 2nd Circuit wrote.

After determining that Sheriff Barnes’ role as final policymaker was sufficient to make the county potentially subject to a federal civil rights lawsuit, the 2nd Circuit also determined that the plaintiffs had shown sufficient evidence to take their case against the county to a jury.

“Further, there was ample evidence to permit a rational juror to find that Sheriff Barnes directly encouraged the acts of retaliation against plaintiffs for exercise of their First Amendment rights,” the court concluded.

Attorney Richard Gershon said the defendants are considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are disappointed with the 2nd Circuit’s ruling because it directly contradicts county policy on who is a final policymaker.”

The attorney for the plaintiffs was out of the office and could not reached for comment.