Lacy v. Coughlin

Decision Date06 October 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-P-1675,19-P-1675
Citation100 Mass.App.Ct. 321,177 N.E.3d 945
Parties Antonio LACY v. John COUGHLIN & another.
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Erica Morin, Assistant Attorney General, for Thomas Gannon.

Stephen C. Pfaff, Boston, for John Coughlin.

Gordon W. Spencer, Brockton, for the plaintiff.

Present: Green, C.J., Vuono, Sullivan, Massing, & Englander, JJ.2

ENGLANDER, J.

In 2012, the plaintiff, Antonio Lacy, was a prisoner in the now-defunct Cambridge jail. He was assaulted by another prisoner, Stephen Cullity, who emptied a hot pot of boiling water onto him in the middle of the night, causing severe injuries. Lacy sued several of the prison guards under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that they had subjected him to "cruel and unusual punishment," in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, by providing the inmates with access to an unsecured hot pot in the jail.

The case proceeded to trial, and a jury found in favor of Lacy and awarded $1.5 million in damages against two of the guards. We now reverse the judgment. At bottom, the claim at issue results from the all too common occurrence of one prison inmate attacking another prison inmate. Such an occurrence can be the basis for an Eighth Amendment claim, if it is shown to be caused by an unconstitutional "condition of confinement," see Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994). Such claims must be scrutinized carefully, however, lest the words "cruel and unusual punishment" be reduced to little more than ordinary negligence. The words of the clause are important, and they must be heeded when defining the right at issue. Experience teaches that it is inevitable that prisoners will fashion weapons from otherwise benign objects found in a prison and use them, but the Eighth Amendment is not addressed to the management of common prison risks.

To ensure consistency in the application of Eighth Amendment standards, the cases hold that the question whether a challenged prison condition poses a sufficiently substantial risk of serious harm is a question of law for the court. Here, the actions of the defendants in making the hot pot available to inmates did not amount to the "inflict[ion]" of "cruel and unusual punishment."

Background. The Cambridge jail in 2012 occupied the top four floors of a State court house and office building. Lacy was housed on the eighteenth floor, which had four separate areas, referred to as "tiers" A, B, C, and D, configured in the shape of the letter "H." The jail was badly overcrowded at the time, and each of the four floors housed over one hundred prisoners. Because there were only fifty-eight cells on each floor, some prisoners slept in bunk beds set up in the corridors of each tier.

Lacy and his attacker, Cullity, were both assigned to the B tier, Cullity to a locked cell, and Lacy to one of the bunks in the corridor.

The defendants, John Coughlin and Thomas Gannon, were working the midnight to 8 A.M. shift on the night of the incident. Coughlin was a line correctional officer responsible for supervision of the prisoners on the eighteenth floor, and Gannon, his supervisor, was a captain responsible for supervising all four floors of the jail.

Each of the tiers on the eighteenth floor had its own general use, fifty-five cup hot pot, which prisoners used to boil water for tea, coffee, ramen noodles, and similar items they could purchase at the commissary. The large hot pots had been installed about two and one-half years prior to the attack on Lacy. Before that, smaller, personal use hot pots had been available at the jail, and used for the same purpose. Those smaller hot pots had been used by inmates as weapons in two prior attacks3 -- eight and eighteen years earlier -- and they were no longer available once the larger hot pots were installed. The larger hot pots were installed because of the risks from the smaller hot pots.

Initially the larger hot pots were kept inside locked metal cages that were bolted to the wall in each tier, with just the nozzle sticking out. The cage doors were secured with padlocks, and the keys to the padlocks were kept in the officers’ station. Coughlin and Gannon, who were both aware of the prior scalding attacks, each testified that if an inmate notified an officer that a hot pot had run out of water, the unwritten policy of the jail required the officer on duty to unlock the hot pot cage, to monitor the inmate while the inmate filled the hot pot with water and placed the hot pot back in the cage, and then to secure the padlock once again.

For about one year after the installation of the hot pots, Coughlin kept the cage doors locked, as required. At some point, however, the hot pots in tiers A, C, and D could no longer be locked because the hasps securing the cage doors were broken. Although the hot pot on the B tier could still be locked, it became the practice to keep the B tier cage unlocked as well. Coughlin testified that he did so out of concern that the prisoners housed in B tier should have the same access to a hot pot as the prisoners in the other tiers.

At around 3 A.M. on the night of the attack, Cullity complained to Coughlin that he was having trouble breathing. Coughlin thereafter released Cullity from his cell and gave him permission to heat up some water in the B tier hot pot. Coughlin, who was in the officers’ station monitoring six inmates on suicide watch, did not supervise Cullity as he filled the hot pot, waited for it to boil, and then carried it down the hall and dumped it on the sleeping Lacy. Lacy's resulting injuries were severe, and remain to this day.

As regards Gannon, the evidence would have permitted the jury to conclude that when conducting his nightly rounds about one hour before the incident, he had seen the unsecured hot pot in the B tier and taken no action. The evidence also showed that Gannon knew of the prior attacks using the smaller hot pots.

Lacy sued Coughlin, Gannon, and Scott Brazis,4 who had been the jail superintendent at the time of the attack, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a damages remedy to persons who have been deprived of their Federal constitutional rights. Lacy's claim was based upon the Supreme Court's decision in Farmer, which held that inmate on inmate violence could, under some circumstances, be the result of an unconstitutional condition of confinement. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834, 114 S.Ct. 1970. Lacy's theory was (1) that by allowing Cullity access to an unsecured hot pot, the defendants had created a condition of confinement with a "substantial risk of serious harm," and (2) that the defendants had been "deliberately indifferent" to that risk because they knew of the risk, and failed to follow prison policies designed to prevent it.

The defendants raised many defenses including, relevant here, that the condition of confinement at issue -- the unsecured hot pot -- did not under the circumstances constitute a sufficiently serious risk to amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Pretrial motions to dismiss and for summary judgment were denied, and the case went to trial in Superior Court on November 8, 2018. As indicated, the jury returned a $1.5 million damages verdict against Coughlin and Gannon. The defendants argued at trial, by motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.), that the facts presented did not amount to an Eighth Amendment violation as a matter of law. Those motions were denied. This appeal followed.

Discussion. Prison officials have the "unenviable task of keeping dangerous men in safe custody under humane conditions." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 845, 114 S.Ct. 1970, quoting Spain v. Procunier, 600 F.2d 189, 193 (9th Cir. 1979). Executing on this task is no mean feat. As is evident from the Eighth Amendment case law in this area, prisoners pose risks to their guards, and they pose risks to each other.5 These cases show that prisoners will fashion weapons from otherwise benign objects found in a prison -- a bag of soap, a padlock, metal taken from disassembling a bed, and so on. See Lane v. Philbin, 835 F.3d 1302, 1306 (11th Cir. 2016) ("lighting rods and other scrap metal ... light fixture panels and locker box shelves"); Lakin v. Barnhart, 758 F.3d 66, 67-68 (1st Cir. 2014) (prison-issued padlock); Washington v. LaPorte County Sheriff's Dep't, 306 F.3d 515, 517 (7th Cir. 2002) (bars of soap wrapped in a sock); Arnold v. Jones, 891 F.2d 1370, 1372 (8th Cir. 1989) (inmate "ripped a three-foot metal support brace from a sink" to use as weapon). See also Best v. Essex County, N.J. Hall of Records, 986 F.2d 54, 57 n. 7 (3d Cir. 1993). So too with boiling water. It is no response to these risks to remove all such implements from prisons, or to maintain all inmates in solitary confinement. Rather, we recognize that prisoners among other things need to eat, to sleep, and (at least to some degree), to interact with others. Providing those "humane conditions," however, will necessarily lead to the risk that implements used to eat, or to sleep, will be misused. And, the State and county funds needed to keep watch and control in these institutions are of course, limited. History teaches that over time, violent inmate attacks are pretty much inevitable. See Lakin, supra at 69 (quoting the prison warden: "in a prison ... if they want to find a weapon, they will find a weapon").

As indicated, the United States Supreme Court considered how the Eighth Amendment should apply in the context of inmate on inmate attacks in Farmer, decided in 1994. Farmer involved an allegation that prison officials had placed the plaintiff, a transgender individual, in the general prison population despite knowledge that the prison had a history of violent inmate assaults, and knowledge that the plaintiff would be "particularly vulnerable." 511 U.S. at 830-831, 114 S.Ct. 1970. The Court in Farmer discussed the difficult balance that...

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