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Friday, July 5, 2024 | Back issues
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Colorado county can be held liable for sexual assault of inmate by sheriff, 10th Circuit finds

Former Sedgwick County Sheriff Tom Hanna was sentenced to seven months in prison for sexually assaulting an intellectually challenged inmate during transport.

DENVER (CN) — Reversing a lower court's dismissal, a split 10th Circuit panel on Friday revived claims against a Colorado county after the county's former sheriff in 2016 sexually assaulted a developmentally disabled woman.

In 2016, then-Sedgwick County Sheriff Tom Hanna was supposed to be transporting inmate Peatinna Biggs to another county jail. Instead, he took her to his home in his personal vehicle and sexually assaulted her.

At the time, Biggs was an inmate at the Sedgwick County jail. Hanna was sentenced to seven months in prison for official misconduct in 2023.

Represented by guardian ad litem Hollis Ann Whitson, Biggs sued the county and Hanna in August 2018.

In addition to $5 million in punitive damages, a federal judge awarded Biggs $3.2 million in compensatory damages on her claims against Hanna for excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment and false imprisonment. But the judge dismissed claims against the county in March 2023, finding Hanna should be held liable for the damages in his individual capacity.

Whitson appealed. She asked the 10th Circuit to find the county liable for the $8 million judgment, arguing the sheriff had been acting as an agent of the county and that the government lacked adequate oversight on him.

In its decision on Friday, a majority of the 10th Circuit panel agreed with Whitson and Biggs.

"The central question before us is whether a final policymaker’s assault of a county prisoner in the course of carrying out official duties for which he was charged with setting policy subjects the municipal defendants to liability,” U.S. Circuit Judge Harris Hartz, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in the 20-page opinion. “We answer yes.”

While local government isn’t necessarily responsible for every rogue employee, municipalities are responsible for workers who follow official policies and for policymakers “whose conduct can be no less described as the official policy of a municipality," the panel found.

"Here the victim was in the custody of the official and the official was statutorily charged with supervising the victim’s care,” Hartz wrote. Moreover, Sheriff Hanna “had not only the authority, but the responsibility, to set policy with respect to the treatment of prisoners in his custody.”

The panel remanded the case to U.S. District Judge Daniel Domenico, a Donald Trump appointee, with instructions to determine whether the county government is “bound by the existing judgment against Hanna under law-of-the-case doctrine or preclusion principles.”

Hartz was joined on the opinion U.S. Circuit Judge Joel Carson, also a Trump appointee. U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips, a Barack Obama appointee, meanwhile penned a 14-page dissent voicing support for Domenico's original analysis.

"The majority opinion goes too far for me in approving as municipal policy a rogue sheriff’s one-time, secret action," Phillips wrote. He argued that the transport and assault of the developmentally disabled inmate was "unquestionably outside of the sheriff’s realm and legitimate policymaking authority."

Phillips also worried the decision could expose local governments to excessive liability. "With that as our circuit’s new rule, I see no way for a municipality to do anything but write checks,” Phillips concluded.

Biggs was represented on appeal by attorney Sean Ouellette, an attorney with the D.C.-based nonprofit Public Justice, who applauded the decision.

"The Tenth Circuit’s decision makes clear that a municipality is responsible when its top officials use their power to commit sexual assault," Ouellette told Courthouse News via email. "We are thrilled for Peatinna that she will finally have the chance to hold the sheriff’s department accountable for the abuse she suffered. And we are encouraged that the court’s powerful opinion will ensure other survivors can do the same."

Denver Attorney Jonathan Eddy, with the firm SGR, represented Sedgwick County. He also did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal, Government

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