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Judge denies second round of sanctions in lawsuit against prison guards

Magistrate fined defendants more than $100,000 previously

A federal judge has declined order monetary sanctions against two prison guard defendants for a delay in discovery materials related to a lawsuit accusing them of beating an inmate.

Plaintiff George Wishart sued 10 corrections officers at Orleans Correctional Facility, where he was an inmate, claiming they beat him after he complained that they harassed his girlfriend when she visited him and sent her harassing emails.

Wishart also claims the guards wrongfully placed him in solitary confinement and filed false reports about the incident.

The Office of Special Investigation determined that there was “sufficient evidence to substantiate plaintiff’s allegations that one officer harassed the girlfriend, and that prison staff members had assaulted plaintiff,” according to a decision from U.S. District Court Judge David G. Larimer.

In January 2021 U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark W. Pedersen ordered the defendants to turn over their personal electronic devices for forensic analysis, which would be done at the defendants’ expense.

The defendants also were ordered to pay Wishart’s legal expenses for pressing the defendants’ compliance with e-discovery demands.

On March 11, Pedersen sanctioned the defendants in the amount of $66,955.48, but later increased the amount to $104,603.48.

Larimer declined Wishart’s request to hold the two defendants in contempt and order them to pay Wishart’s legal fees for the effort to obtain the discovery materials, plus additional monetary sanctions.

“While the defendants’ recalcitrance and lack of promptness in responding to plaintiff’s electronic discovery demands is troubling, both sides agree that at least some of the initial delay … was attributable to the fact that the job of collecting devices and obtaining e-discovery was initially assigned to an individual in the attorney general’s office who was not qualified for the task, and was unable to complete it,” Larimer wrote.

“Defense counsel repeatedly acknowledged at the hearing, and in filings, that the Attorney General’s agent botched the initial program,” Larimer wrote.

Larimer also noted “it was not established that either defendant ever received a copy of the Magistrate Judge’s written discovery orders or that his oral (directive) was ever discussed and explained to defendants.”

“Evidence at the hearing indicated that these phones had been turned over to the attorney general’s office early in the discovery process, where the job of collecting electronic data was apparently bungled,” Larimer wrote.

“The harm alleged by plaintiff here consists primarily of discovery delayed, not discovery denied. Defendants have offered plausible reasons for their failure to comply more quickly and have apologized for their failure to comply more graciously,” Larimer wrote.

“As such, I cannot conclude that the defendants’ actions rose to the level of contempt, and/or that monetary sanctions, in addition to the extraordinary sum already awarded by Magistrate Judge Pedersen, would accomplish any proper purpose,” Larimer wrote.

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