(CN) – The director of a state-run psychiatric hospital for children may be liable for ignoring signs that an underage patient was allegedly having sex with an adult staff member, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Crystal Ammons, a ward of the state since age 4, was admitted to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ Child Study and Treatment Center in 2001 after her uncle was convicted for molesting her. When she was 13, facility staff described her as having “boundary problems.” The girl began spending a lot of time with, and apparently obsessing over, a late-20s male attendant, Anthony Grant. Ammons and her roommate flirted with Grant, passed him notes and covered their wall with “flirtatious signs” about him, according to the ruling.
Prior to Ammons’ arrival, Grant had been investigated for sexual misconduct with a female patient, but his accuser later recanted her story.
Ammons left the hospital in 2003 and went to live in North Dakota with a foster family. Shortly after her arrival, Ammons’ foster mother discovered that Grant had been emailing Ammons, and Ammons admitted that the two had had sex several times in the hospital’s canteen. She said they started having sex when she was 14 and Grant was 29.
Grant eventually pleaded guilty to a state charge of communication with a minor for immoral purposes and was fired from the hospital.
Ammons sued hospital directors Mary LaFond and Norman Webster in Washington’s Western District Court, claiming that they had violated her 14th Amendment due-process rights by ignoring the threat that Grant posed. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton rejected the defendants’ qualified-immunity defense, and the 9th circuit affirmed in part in a 2-1 ruling Wednesday.
One of the hospital directors, Webster, will not face liability. The three-judge appellate panel in Seattle said Webster could not possibly have known about or stopped the abuse because he was only briefly in charge during Ammons stay, just prior to her discharge. But LaFond, who served as the hospital’s CEO from 1995 until early 2003, had much more evidence, the panel found.
“Instead of taking steps to ensure that her subordinates adequately monitored the relationships between staff and patients, LaFond took literally no action whatsoever to prevent Grant from engaging in an abusive relationship with Ammons,” Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for the majority. “Whether because of ignorance or a failure to fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation, LaFond allowed this relationship to go on for months, unchecked and unmonitored, and it was not until Ammons returned to her foster family and continued to have contact with Grant that any action was taken. We hold that, under the facts alleged and produced, LaFond’s apparent inaction and poor supervision with respect to the safety of Ammons and the other female patients support a finding that she failed to exercise professional judgment, and thereby violated the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Writing in partial dissent, Judge Jay Bybee argued that the majority’s standard for denying qualified immunity was too loose.
“Without any evidence that LaFond ignored her subordinates’ warnings or that she did not exercise professional judgment in her supervision of her employees, LaFond cannot be held constitutionally liable for her subordinates’ failures,” he wrote.
“It is not clear to me even now that LaFond violated the constitution,” he added. “How then is she supposed to have known that she was violating the constitution?”