No qualified immunity for warden’s ‘deliberate indifference’ to prison employee’s rape of inmate

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By Joy Waltemath

By Dave Strausfeld, J.D.

A prison warden did not necessarily have qualified immunity from a suit alleging his lax disciplinary practices created conditions that allowed a vocational instructor to rape an inmate, held the Tenth Circuit, in reversing a summary judgment ruling. The Eighth Amendment right of inmates to expect reasonable protection from prison officials was well-established, and a reasonable jury could infer that the warden was aware of but failed to address a substantial risk that prison staff would engage in sexual misconduct and thereby harm inmates at the all-female state prison. Thus, the inmate’s suit under Section 1983 should not have been dismissed on qualified immunity grounds (Keith v. Koerner, December 9, 2016, McHugh, C.).

Vocational class at prison. While incarcerated at the Topeka Correctional Facility, the inmate was raped by a prison maintenance employee who taught a vocational plumbing class for a group of inmates, including her. She became pregnant as a result. When prison administrators received an anonymous note informing them that the inmate was pregnant with the vocational instructor’s child, an internal investigation began, including a test that confirmed the inmate’s pregnancy. The warden of the prison then referred the case to the local police department; the vocational instructor was prosecuted and pled guilty to unlawful sexual relations.

The inmate ultimately filed a Section 1983 suit alleging that the warden infringed her Eighth Amendment rights by creating an environment in which sexual misconduct was likely to occur. Granting summary judgment to the warden, the district court ruled that he had qualified immunity from the inmate’s suit.

Eighth Amendment right. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed, finding sufficient evidence that the warden violated the inmate’s clearly established constitutional rights and thus did not possess qualified immunity.

First, a jury could reasonably infer that the warden “was personally involved” in an Eighth Amendment violation because his “lax” disciplinary practices “created an atmosphere where employees, particularly maintenance employees [such as the vocational instructor], faced minimal supervision and little threat of investigation or discipline for inappropriate sexual behavior with inmates.” For instance, the warden’s most common response to sexual misconduct complaints at the prison “was to deem the allegations unsubstantiated whenever the employee denied them.” Furthermore, if the warden had taken action in response to “certain red flags,” further incidents of sexual misconduct likely would have been prevented from occurring.

And the warden may have acted with “deliberate indifference.” Although he expressed concern about the ongoing problems with excessive “familiarity” and sexual misconduct between staff and inmates, he did not credit inmates’ testimony when they raised allegations against a staff member but rather “presumptively accepted his employees’ word and designated most claims as unsubstantiated”—even when the inmate’s polygraph results corroborated her allegations and the employee refused to take a polygraph. In sum, the inmate presented sufficient evidence that the warden committed an Eighth Amendment violation.

Clearly established. In addition to making a showing of a constitutional violation, the inmate had the burden at summary judgment to establish that her Eighth Amendment right was clearly established. Here, the appeals court had no difficulty finding it to be clearly established during the relevant time frame “that a prison official’s deliberate indifference to sexual abuse by prison employees violates the Eighth Amendment.” Also, it was clearly established that inmates “had a constitutional right to expect reasonable protection” from prison officials such as the warden.

Consequently, because there was sufficient evidence that the warden infringed her clearly established Eighth Amendment rights, her suit should not have been dismissed on qualified immunity grounds, the appeals court held, reversing the summary judgment decision and remanding for further proceedings.

Source:: Employment Law Daily Newsfeed

      

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