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Spraying Inmate With Feces Is Cruel and Unusual Punishment

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD | Last updated on

Not quite sure why we still get surprised, but sometimes we read about things people do to each other and it really boggles the mind. Just how exactly does a person come up with the idea to spray a combination of feces, vinegar and some type of machine oil on another person?

We have no clue how such an awful idea comes to fruition, but we do know that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals considers it cruel and unusual punishment. In an appeal heard late December, the court vacated a district court's decision that came to the opposite conclusion.

Factual and Procedural Background

John Hogan, an inmate at Attica, filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for injuries sustained during an attack where three masked correction officers sprayed Hogan with a combination of feces, vinegar and some kind of machine oil. The COs sprayed the mixture on Hogan's body, and in his nose, eyes and mouth. According to Hogan, the COs were retaliating against him for reporting prior assaults.

Hogan initiated an action pro se against John Doe defendants because he could not identify the COs because they wore paper bags over their heads. For over one year, Hogan's repeated attempts at discovery to try to identify the men were thwarted. When he finally did receive some info, it was not sufficient.

While the discovery dispute was ongoing, the named defendants moved for dismissal for failure to state a claim and on the pleadings. The district court granted the motion -- even against the unnamed defendants -- with prejudice, and Hogan appealed.

Eighth Amendment Claim

First, the court had to determine whether spraying Hogan was cruel and unusual punishment, or de minimis injury, as the district court held. The Second Circuit disagreed with the district court and held that because there was no penological need for the force, and because the act was "repugnant to the conscience of mankind," the court held that spraying Hogan was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Statute of Limitations -- Relation Back

Next, the court had to determine whether the statute of limitations had run on Hogan's claims. Under Federal law, the court held that not knowing the identity of a defendant "does not constitute a 'mistake of identity,'" to qualify for relation back under Rule 15(c)(1)(C). However, the court noted that under New York law, the law of the underlying tort for the § 1983, New York "provides a 'more forgiving principle of relation back,"" and therefore, Hogan's claim was not time-barred.

While the holding of this case may not have big precedential effect it does clarify two things: (1) it clarifies what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment; and (2) is the first case in the Second Circuit to address whether Rule 15(c)(1)(A) applies to John Doe defendants in § 1983 claims.

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