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Case Name Smith v. Coughlin PC-NY-0028
Docket / Court 83-5160 ( S.D.N.Y. )
State/Territory New York
Case Type(s) Prison Conditions
Case Summary
A prisoner at Green Haven Correctional facility was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for killing a corrections officer while serving a life sentence. Immediately after sentencing, he was moved from the general prison population to a unit for condemned persons (""UCP""). He then filed a ... read more >
A prisoner at Green Haven Correctional facility was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for killing a corrections officer while serving a life sentence. Immediately after sentencing, he was moved from the general prison population to a unit for condemned persons (""UCP""). He then filed a law suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the conditions of his confinement and seeking injunctive relief. Plaintiff was represented by William Kunsler, among several other lawyers. Specifically, he alleged violations of his First, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights as well as violations of state statute and an existing consent decree.

The district court (Judge David N. Edelstein) ruled against the plaintiff on all but one of his claims. Smith v. Coughlin, 577 F.Supp 1055 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 6, 1983[sic] ). The court first rejected plaintiff's statutory claim saying that the prison officials' interpretation was reasonable and not clearly erroneous. Next, the court held that plaintiff's Eight Amendment claim was without merit. The court held that the prison has a legitimate interest in restricting plaintiff's visits to family and banning him from group masses. As to the latter, the court specifically held that restriction on attendance in group mass did not infringe on his religious freedom. Additionally, it held that plaintiff had no constitutional right to contact visits, and that alternative means of communication with friends existed. The court also rejected plaintiff's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment due process claims that he had a protected liberty interest in contact with other inmates that had been deprived without due process of law, reasoning that no such constitutional or state protected interest existed. The claim that the transfer without a hearing violated the consent decree in Kozlowski v. Coughlin, 539 F.Supp 852 (S.D.N.Y. 1982) (PC-NY-034) was also rejected as that order did not apply to prisoners in UCP who have different liberty interests. Plaintiff's equal protection claim was also rejected. Finally, the court rejected the Sixth Amendment claim that the totality of the circumstances diminished his physical and mental health to the point of diminishing his access to courts finding that his will had not been broken. However, the court did find that plaintiff's claim that preventing contact with his paralegals working for his attorneys was meritorious, and the policy did violate his constitutional right to access to the courts.

The Second Circuit (Judge Lawrence Warren Pierce) affirmed and remanded the decision of the district court. Smith v. Coughlin, 748 F.2d 783 (2d Cir. 1984). The court noted, however, that after oral argument, but before its opinion was issued, New York courts had declared as unconstitutional the law under which plaintiff was sentenced to die. Accordingly, plaintiff's sentence was vacated and he was moved from UCP, thus making moot his claims for injunctive relief. The only issue to be resolved was an award of damages, which the court of appeals found the district court had erred in failing to award. The Second Circuit held that although compensatory damages cannot be awarded absent proof of actual compensable injury - which here the plaintiff failed to do - nominal damages could still be awarded. Accordingly, it remanded the case to the district court for entry of a nominal award of $1.

It appears from the timeline that this ruling actually came down on January 6, 1984. We presume that the reporter contains a typo.

The docket for this case is not available on PACER, and therefore our information ends with the Nov. 16, 1984 court opinion.

Sherrie Waldrup - 03/30/2006

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Due Process
Equal Protection
Disciplinary procedures
Disciplinary segregation
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Type of Facility
Causes of Action State law
42 U.S.C. § 1983
Defendant(s) Green Haven Correctional Facility
Plaintiff Description Condemned prisoner challenging conditions of his confinement in segregated unit for condemned persons
Class action status sought No
Class action status granted No
Filed Pro Se Yes
Prevailing Party Mixed
Public Int. Lawyer Unknown
Nature of Relief Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Order Duration 1983 - n/a
Filing Year 1983
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
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  Civil Rights Injunctions Over Time: A Case Study of Jail and Prison Court Orders
N.Y.U. Law Review
Date: May 2006
By: Margo Schlanger (Washington University Faculty)
Citation: 81 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 550 (2006)
[ Detail ] [ PDF ] [ External Link ]

  Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State: How the Courts Reformed America's Prisons
Date: Jan. 1, 1998
By: Malcolm M. Feeley & Edward Rubin (UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law & Vanderbilt School of Law Faculty Faculty)
Citation: (1998)
[ Detail ]

No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
Memorandum Opinion and Order (577 F.Supp. 1055) (S.D.N.Y.)
PC-NY-0028-0001.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 01/06/1983
Source: Google Scholar
Opinion (748 F.2d 783)
PC-NY-0028-0002.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 11/16/1984
Source: Google Scholar
show all people docs
Judges Edelstein, David Norton (S.D.N.Y.) show/hide docs
Oakes, James Lowell (D. Vt., Second Circuit) show/hide docs
Pierce, Lawrence Warren (FISC, S.D.N.Y., Second Circuit) show/hide docs
Van Graafeiland, Ellsworth Alfred (Second Circuit) show/hide docs
Plaintiff's Lawyers Gombiner, Robert (New York) show/hide docs
PC-NY-0028-0001 | PC-NY-0028-0002
Gombiner, Mark (New York) show/hide docs
PC-NY-0028-0001 | PC-NY-0028-0002
Kunstler, William (New York) show/hide docs
PC-NY-0028-0001 | PC-NY-0028-0002
Defendant's Lawyers Abrams, Robert W. (New York) show/hide docs
PC-NY-0028-0001 | PC-NY-0028-0002
Bromley, Tarquin Jay (New York) show/hide docs
PC-NY-0028-0001 | PC-NY-0028-0002
Butler, Barbara B. (New York) show/hide docs
Howard, Richard M. (New York) show/hide docs
Leventhal, Melvyn R. (New York) show/hide docs

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