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Legal fallout over prison assault puts justices at odds

In a case that made some of the justices nostalgic for the energy of a trial, a guard held liable for an inmate's assault questions the need for superfluous briefing.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A prison official fighting liability for an inmate's assault urged the Supreme Court on Monday to restore his appeal.

The case stems from the assault that three guards working at a Maryland detention center carried out in 2013 against Kevin Younger, an inmate awaiting trial. Separate from the criminal trial related to the beating in which all of the guards who attacked Younger were either convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty, Younger brought a civil suit against the guards and a lieutenant, Neil Dupree, who he says ordered the assault in retaliation for an unrelated event.

Because Younger had sued while an internal investigation was underway, however, the correction department dismissed Younger's grievance pursuant to its rules. 

In 2020, a jury found Lieutenant Dupree and the others liable and awarded Younger $700,000 in damages. Dupree appealed on the basis that Younger had failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, but the Fourth Circuit ruled against him, saying Dupree forfeited the claim by failing to raise it at the district court level.

Dupree argues meanwhile that the District Court ruled against him on summary judgment, and that this was enough to preserve his argument for appellate review.

Justice Neil Gorsuch summed up the issue at oral arguments Monday. 

“We used to live in a world of trials,” the Trump appointee said. “Now nobody wants to try, everybody wants to do everything on paper.”

Gorsuch said he missed trials, calling them “fun.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted trials were “more fun than here.” 

As the court debated the procedural requirements, Dupree's lawyer, Andrew Tutt with Arnold & Porter, questioned where it says a party must make additional motions on the same legal argument to preserve the issue for review.

Not all of the justices agreed. 

“Doesn’t that sort of defy sort of the way things are done as a matter of practice,” Justice Clarence Thomas asked. 

Gorsuch attempted to put himself in the shoes of a district court judge reviewing a similar case. 

“If I’m the district court judge, I might feel a little sandbagged by this procedure,” the Trump appointee said. “Without having had an opportunity at trial to reconsider my initial decision, I have not entered judgment in favor of the other side. I just denied a motion for summary judgment.” 

Amy Saharia, an attorney for Younger with Williams & Connolly, urged the court should create a clear rule for the lower courts to follow. 

“A clear line for issue preservation benefits litigants, district courts, and appellate courts,” Saharia said. “Petitioner’s rule, by contrast, requires parties to predict in advance whether an appellate court will deem an issue legal or factual.” 

Justice Samuel Alito suggested the court apply such a rule. 

“What if this rule were spelled out in black and white in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” the Bush appointee said. “So it would be simple that going forward, attorneys would be charged with reading the rule and seeing that this is what they have to do, and it would be very simple.” 

Some his colleagues echoed the sentiment. 

“There is no such rule,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “And given that there is no such rule, your position just looks as though it’s a trap for the unwary.” 

Younger says the attack happened while he was sleeping. Three guards threw him from his bunk, bludgeoned him with a mace can, radios and handcuffs, and left him unconscious in a pool of his own blood. Two hours later, two of the guards came back and brought him to the medical unit. Younger says they told him to say the injuries came from falling out of his bunk. 

Left bedridden for weeks with injuries to his face, wrists, ribs, hands and legs, Younger eventually underwent surgery.

The Supreme Court took up Dupree's case in January.

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Government

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