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No immunity for ‘hostile’ deputy sheriff

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The cry of a “hostile” work environment is raised with increasing frequencies these days. The claimants generally assert some type of impropriety by management, usually consisting of sexual harassment or related irregularities.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recently passed upon a pair of hostile work environment cases that shared some similarities. Both cases were brought against the same county sheriff’s department. Each was based upon sexual relationships between the chief deputy and female subordinates. In both cases, defenses of qualified immunity were unsuccessful.

Sufficiently ‘severe’

A deputy sheriff’s behavior was sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to warrant a sexual harassment claim brought by a former correctional officer in William v. Heron, 687 F.3d 971 (8th Cir. Aug 3,2012). The claimant asserted that the chief deputy sheriff committed gender discrimination by creating a hostile work environment after their sexual relationship ended. The deputy’s defense of qualified immunity was denied by the trial court.

On interlocutory appeal, the 8th Circuit agreed, holding that the claimant established the four essential elements for a hostile work environment claim, including conduct that was “so severe or pervasive as to alter a term, condition or privilege of employment.” The record reflected that the deputy created a “pervasive system of sexual coercion,” which consisted of giving favored treatment to the claimant while their relationship existed, along with predatory behavior towards at least three other female employees. This pattern negated qualified immunity because sexual harassment has long been recognized as a constitutional violation, and a reasonable official should have known that “the specific conduct … amounted to a constitutional violation” against creation of a hostile work environment.

Accordingly, the claimant overcame “both prongs of the qualified immunity analysis:” 1) existence of a “clearly established constitutional right” and 2) transgression of that right. Therefore, the denial of immunity was affirmed and the case remanded for trial.

Subordinate sex

A defense of qualified immunity also was unsuccessful in Crutcher-Sanchez v. County of Dakota, 687 F.3d 979 (8th Cir. Aug. 3, 2012). The case was brought by another former female corrections officer against the same deputy, a co-worker and the sheriff, asserting that they created or maintained a hostile work environment after a sexual relationship between the claimant and chief deputy ended and a conspiracy to deprive her of her civil rights.

The trial court denied a motion for summary judgment by the defendants on grounds of qualified immunity, which prompted another interlocutory appeal to the 8th Circuit. The appellate court, concluding that qualified immunity did not exist, allowed the claim against the supervising deputy to proceed but dismissed the claims against the sheriff and other subordinate.

Qualified immunity did not exist on behalf of the deputy, who treated the claimant badly after her sexual relationship ended with the claimant. Because it is “clearly established … that a supervisor having sex with a subordinate violates the subordinate’s civil rights,” the deputy was not entitled to qualified immunity. However, a conspiracy claim against the deputy and a co-worker failed because the claimant did not plead that they were acting “beyond the scope of their authority or for their own benefit.” This falls short of the necessary pleading for conspiracy, which requires pleading and proving behavior that exceeds official authority.

A sexual harassment claim against the sheriff, based upon also asking the claimant out on a date on several occasions, also was rejected. The sheriff’s conduct was “not sufficiently severe or pervasive” to create a sexually hostile work environment. Asking her out several times, as well as offering her a box of chocolates, was “inappropriate” but does not constitute a “colorable claim of a sexually hostile work environment.”

Minnesota matter

While the 8th Circuit cases repeated Constitutional immunity defenses, the Minnesota Court of Appeals meanwhile considered a bevy of common law and statutory immunity claims in Irwin v. Woodson Institute, 2012 WL 3892204 (Minn. App. Sept. 10, 2012) (unpublished). The case was brought by the parent of a student who fractured his femur when he collided with an administrator while playing at the charter school in an impoverished area of north Minneapolis. The lawsuit was dismissed by the Hennepin County District Court on various immunity grounds, and the appellate court affirmed. The administrator was entitled to common law discretionary immunity because the administrator, who was supervising recreational activities “had the discretion” on how to conduct or supervise the activities.

The charter school was entitled to vicarious immunity. The failure to extend the defense to the school “could hinder [its] mission… by encouraging the staff to directly interact with the students.” The school also was entitled to statutory immunity under Minn. Stat. sec. 466.03, subd.6 because the claimant’s assertions were directed to negligent training of a supervisor, which constituted a “policy-level” matter subject to the statutory defense.

These cases show the various ways that courts address and adjudicate immunity claims arising under that Constitution, statutes and common law.

Originally published in the December 3, 2012 edition of Minnesota Lawyer.