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State officials want Vaughn lawsuit dismissed

James Dawson, Delaware Public Media
The family of slain correctional officer Steven Floyd and others at an April news conference announcing a lawsuit claiming the state is responsible for his death.

A group of current and former state officials are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit alleging they were responsible for the death of a correctional officer in February.

Filed in April, the suit alleges former governors Jack Markell (D) and Ruth Ann Minner (D) and a handful of cabinet members ignored unsafe prison conditions and low staffing levels that led to the 18-hour hostage standoff at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

It also says lawmakers ignored a 2005 report compiled after the rape and attempted murder of prison counselor Cassandra Arnold that called for more guard to be hired, limiting overtime and better training.

By allegedly ignoring these problems, the family of slain correctional officer Steven Floyd and other prison guards say the state violated their 14th Amendment protections.

“…the 14th Amendment does not guarantee a constitutional right of workplace safety, under the Due Process Clause (or otherwise),” according to lawyers for the group of state officials.

“This is because…the employment relationship is voluntary,” they said in court documents.

Specifically, they point to the hazardous duty pay offered to correctional officers, noting a dangerous workplace environment is implied.

Thomas Neuberger, one of the lawyers behind the lawsuit, says he and others working on the case will respond at the end of August.

"Their legal arguments are underwhelming and lack merit," said Neuberger. "They forgot to tell the court that in the Cassie Arnold case a decade ago that [former Judge Joseph Farnan] rejected such arguments."

After Arnold's six-hour, harrowing ordeal, she filed suit against Minner and other state officials, making similar 14th Amendment claims outlined in this case.

Farnan dismissed her attempt to sue the state in 2005, citing immunity, but was willing to hear Arnold’s case against the individuals.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has described how those bringing these types of cases can prove a state government violated their constitutional rights:

·      The harm was foreseeable and fairly direct

·      The state acted in willful disregard for the plaintiff’s safety

·      There was some relationship between the state and the plaintiff

·      And the state used his or her authority to create an opportunity that wouldn’t have existed otherwise

The state settled Arnold’s case a few months later for $1.65 million, according to the Associated Press.

Neuberger says he and others involved in the case will respond in late August.

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