NEW YORK, Aug 19 (Reuters) - A federal appellate court on Friday reinstated certain claims by three women against the New York State Department of Corrections alleging they were raped and sexually abused by prison staff.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York vacated part of a district court decision in a case first brought in 2003, when 17 current and former female prisoners alleged that the department's policies and procedures put 3,000 women at a "substantial and unreasonable risk" for sexual abuse and harassment, according to court papers.
In addition to seeking injunctive relief from agency officials, who were alleged to have been aware of the abuse, the women sued certain officers and one deputy superintendent for their roles in the alleged abuse, which the plaintiffs claimed ranged from unwelcome touching to assault and rape.
In December 2007, the district court dismissed some of the womens' claims as moot because they had been released from prison while the case was pending. The lower court dismissed additional claims upon its finding that the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA), which requires prisoners to follow a multi-step grievance process before they can turn to the federal courts.
At the plaintiffs' request, the district court amended its order to reinstate claims for damages by certain plaintiffs against individual officers; those cases are progressing in district courts around New York, according to Dori Lewis, senior supervising attorney at the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society. The society has handled the case with attorneys from Debevoise & Plimpton, who have served pro bono since 2003.
THREE CASES SENT BACK
The 2nd Circuit found that three of the 13 women who appealed the lower court's ruling had sufficiently exhausted the PLRA remedies that were available to them, and returned those cases to the district court.
While their claims for damages against the individual officers were tossed out, the court ruled that Shenyell Smith, Stephanie Dawson and Shantelle Smith will be able to proceed with their claims seeking injunctive relief from the agency.
In an interview, Lewis said the plaintiffs were not only interested in money damages.
"They wanted this lawsuit to lead to institutional change in how the department deals with this problem," Lewis said, adding that the district court will decide whether the women may proceed as a class.
"One plaintiff can be enough, if you can show that there are policies and procedures that put others equally at risk," Lewis said. "It is our belief that there are other women who are being subjected to these unreasonable policies by the department, so that they too are at risk for sexual assault."
The state Attorney General's Office, which is representing the Department of Corrections, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the department said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The case is Amador v. Superintendents of Dep't of Corr. Services, 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals 08-2079.
For Lucy Amador: Dori Lewis, Lisa Freeman and Veronica Vela of the Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton.
For Superintendents of Dep't of Corr. Servs.: Richard Jackson of the Attorney General of the State of New York.
(Reporting by Jennifer Golson)
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