File photo of former Gov. Jack Markell. ()
Current and former state officials on June 30 moved to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a correctional officer killed in a Feb. 1 prison uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.
In separate briefs, former Govs. Jack Markell and Ruth Ann Minner and representatives from the Delaware Department of Correction claimed qualified immunity and argued that they were under no constitutional obligation to ensure proper levels of staffing and training at the Smyrna prison.
Decisions regarding the allocation of funding and resources, they said, fell exclusively to the General Assembly, in a legislative process that insulated the officials from liability.
“The (purported) ‘official’ ‘policies’ complained of—whether they be over-reliance on overtime, understaffing, the elimination of vacancies, or the failure to provide certain training—all boil down to one thing: an alleged failure to allocate public resources sufficient to ensure workplace safety,” attorneys from Richards, Layton & Finger argued on behalf of Minner and Markell.
“In such circumstances, no ‘constitutional right’ arises. The claims here would improperly convert common law tort (or workers’ compensation) claims into constitutional violations.”
Saundra Floyd, the wife of Lt. Steven Floyd Sr., and five prison employees sued the former executives and DOC officials in April, two months after inmates overpowered guards and seized control of JTVCC’s Building C for more than 15 hours. Steven Floyd, a veteran correctional officer, was killed in the ordeal, and other guards were tortured, according to court documents.
The plaintiffs alleged due process violations under the 14th Amendment, accusing state officials under Minner of hiding problems related to “severe understaffing” at JTVCC from lawmakers and the public, even as security there began to deteriorate.
The situation, they said, only darkened under the watch of Markell, whose eight years in office ended in January. During that time, the state refused to fill a chronic staffing shortages and opted instead to plug the gap with forced overtime shifts, they said.
The 52-page complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, also named three former DOC commissioners, current Commissioner Perry Phelps and three directors of the Office of Management and Budget as defendants.
The state defendants—divided into “legislative” and DOC camps—responded separately with motions to dismiss. But both groups raised similar arguments, saying the plaintiffs had not cited violations of a clearly established constitutional right in the case.
The plaintiffs, they said, had no constitutional right to full-time staffing at the prison, and the state has no duty to protect employees from unreasonable risks in the workplace. Without a clearly defined right, the defendants were protected by qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability for civil damages.
“The court need consider no more,” attorneys for Markell and Minner wrote.
Prison employees have long complained about overcrowding, a lack of training and understaffing at JTVCC, and they argue that low salaries have led to high turnover in their ranks, which has only exacerbated safety issues.
Last month, Gov. John Carney announced that his administration had reached an agreement with the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware to raise correctional officer pay and take steps to decrease the use of mandatory overtime.
Under the two-year agreement, starting salaries for correctional officers will rise to $40,000 in the 2018 fiscal year, and to $43,000 in 2019—a 22 percent increase over current levels.
The DOC has also announced the creation of a new commission to implement reforms to rehabilitation and re-entry programs—a major point of contention among prisoners before and after the siege. The Delaware Department of Justice and the DOC are conducting a criminal investigation; however, no charges have yet been filed, and the Attorney General’s Office has refused to discuss the case publicly.
According to the complaint, there were no surveillance cameras operating in the building at the time of the attack, and an influx of dangerous violent offenders a year ago had left prison staff outnumbered and exposed.
“It was widely discussed among the employees, staff and management at [JTVCC] that Building C was unmanageably dangerous and had become a powder keg that was about to explode,” attorneys from Jacobs & Crumplar and Neuberger Law said.
According to the complaint, the lapses allowed inmates to obtain forbidden weapons and conduct “dry runs” for the eventual uprising, in which prisoners took four DOC employees hostage and barricaded the building.
Three hostages were released with nonlife-threatening injuries, but Floyd was found unresponsive and pronounced dead just after authorities finally retook the building in the early hours of Feb. 2.
“Defendants’ actions demonstrated a protracted failure even to care. They failed to act upon these great risks of harm due to deliberate indifference, gross negligence and recklessness. Additionally, they acted intentionally and arbitrarily,” the attorneys said. “Defendants’ actions shock the conscience.”
The plaintiffs have 60 days to answer the officials’ motions to dismiss.
Markell, Minner and the budget directors are represented by C. Malcolm Cochran IV, Katharine Lester Mowery, Nicole K. Pedi, Chad M. Shandler and Selena E. Molina of Richards, Layton & Finger.
The DOC defendants are represented by James D. Taylor Jr., Scott W. Perkins and Allison J. McCowan of Saul Ewing.
Thomas C. Crumplar, Raeann Warner, Thomas S. Neuberger and Stephen J. Neuberger are representing Saundra Floyd and the correctional officers.
The case is captioned Floyd v. Markell.