This Note received the 2019 Washington and Lee Law Council Law Review Award.
This Note analyzes two intra-Second Circuit splits that make it nearly impossible for prisoners to recover against supervisors under § 1983. First, district courts in the Second Circuit are divided as to whether the five categories of personal involvement defined in Colon v. Coughlin survive the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal. Personal involvement by the supervisory defendant is a necessary element to impose supervisory liability. Some district courts hold that only the first and third Colon factors survive Iqbal, while others hold that all five factors still apply.
Second, district courts in the Second Circuit are divided as to whether a supervisor is personally involved in a constitutional tort when he or she rejects a prisoner’s grievance complaining of the misconduct. Some district courts always find personal involvement when a supervisor denies a grievance without considering any other factors. Other district courts only find personal involvement when a supervisor investigates the alleged misconduct or answers the grievance with a detailed response.
The Second Circuit must resolve both intra-circuit splits to give full effect to § 1983 because the disagreement allows district courts to dismiss claims on qualified immunity grounds. Government officials are immune from suit and “entitled to qualified immunity” if their actions “did not violate clearly established law.” District courts point to both of the intra-circuit splits as evidence that the law surrounding supervisory liability is not clearly established and therefore grant supervisory defendants qualified immunity.
The confusion surrounding supervisory liability in the Second Circuit perfectly encapsulates how legislatures and courts have quietly dismantled § 1983 as a viable cause of action for prisoners in recent years. Congress passed § 1983 with bold aspirations to punish oppressive government actors who abuse their power by infringing on individuals’ constitutional rights. Given how vulnerable prisoners are by virtue of their incarceration, § 1983 serves as one of the only practical tools they have to put them on equal footing with their government custodians. As the law currently stands in the Second Circuit, this tool is broken.