City Bar Files Amicus Brief in Support of Rikers Island Plaintiffs in Doe v. City of New York

The New York City Bar Association filed an amicus brief in support of Plaintiffs-Appellants in Doe v. City of New York (16-796-CV) in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal arises from an action brought in District Court in the Southern District of New York to redress alleged sexual abuse of inmates by staff at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail on Rikers Island.

The plaintiffs, Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, were allegedly sexually abused while they were inmates at Rikers Island. They brought individual damages claims against the defendants, the City of New York and a Corrections Officer. Jane Doe 1 also brought claims for injunctive and declaratory relief against the City on behalf of a class of similarly situated women. The District Court denied the motion for class certification, finding that plaintiffs, who also seek monetary damages, lack typicality and commonality in their claims and, therefore, would not adequately represent the interests of the class; that the class is not sufficiently ascertainable; and that class certification would prevent absent class members from pursuing individual damages claims in the future.

Filed by the City Bar’s Corrections and Community Reentry Committee, the amicus brief argues that the District Court’s decision departs from settled precedent in civil rights class actions, and that classes have been certified in similar actions seeking the protection of civil rights for those in public institutions, including jails. The amicus brief notes that the fact that the plaintiffs “asserted damages claims for sexual assault does not disqualify them from serving as representatives of a class seeking injunctive relief. In other jail-related cases, courts in this Circuit have certified classes in which plaintiffs acted as class representatives while also pursuing their own damages claims.” And the fluidity of the putative class—viz., women who are or will be held at the women’s jail on Rikers Island—does not make it insufficiently ascertainable; indeed, as registered inmates at the jail, each and every member would be known to the City of New York. Moreover, the inability of unidentified plaintiffs to “opt out” has no bearing in a civil rights class action seeking institutional reform through injunctive and declaratory relief. 

The District Court’s rationale, if accepted, would preclude anyone seeking to protect civil rights in public institutions through injunctive relief from bringing those claims unless the individual is willing to forfeit her right to seek damages for harm she has suffered—an untenable result that would discourage individuals who have suffered harm from bringing claims aimed at institutional reform.

Further, the amicus brief notes that “the District Court’s vision of how sexual abuse plaintiffs in correctional institutions ought to proceed contravenes the purpose and protections provided by the class action format and ignores reality. There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that victims of sexual abuse are extremely hesitant to report it. Reporting is even less common among women involved in the criminal justice system. Without recourse to […] class action, women who have endured sexual victimization while incarcerated—and still have the courage to take action—must go it alone, hoping to interest an attorney in the case.”

The amicus brief concludes, “If permitted to stand, the District Court’s decision would be tantamount to silencing women subject to past, present and future sexual abuse at Rikers Island.”

The complete text of the amicus brief can be found here.