(CN) – In parallel sexual harassment cases, the 8th Circuit said a Nebraska jail administrator could be held liable for his conduct toward one former female correctional officer, but not another.
The federal appeals panel in Kansas City, Mo., ruled that Dakota County Jail Administrator Rodney Herron was entitled to qualified immunity in only one woman’s case against him, based on the evidence presented in their complaints.
Two former correctional officers, Toni Duncan and Alana Crutcher-Sanchez, sued their supervisors at the Dakota County Jail for allegedly creating a hostile work environment.
Duncan claimed she was subjected to an “openly sexually charged environment” during the 15 months she worked there beginning in August 2006.
She called the jail a “cesspool (in) which superiors took advantage of their position of power for their own sexual gratification … and created an openly hostile work environment at which women felt compelled either to engage in sexual relationships or feel as though they were outcasts if they did not participate.”
According to Duncan’s complaint, Herron had a child with one woman who worked at the jail, and another employee had become pregnant by him.
She accused him of harassing and intimidating employees who were not in his good graces by ordering deputies to follow them and “set them up for arrest.”
She also complained of repeated unwanted advances from Sherriff James Wagner.
Duncan said she quit when the situation became intolerable. She later sued the county, Herron and Wagner.
A federal judge dismissed Duncan’s claim against Wagner, but allowed her to proceed with her claims against the county and Herron.
On appeal, the 8th Circuit said the lower court should have dismissed the claim against Herron based on qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability so long as their conduct does not violate the clearly established rights of others.
Judge William Benton said Duncan had failed to show that Herron’s actions harmed her employment, nor had she identified any benefits or opportunities Herron had denied her.
“Although Herron’s conduct was vile and inappropriate, it did not rise to the level of actionable hostile-work-environment sexual harassment as to her,” Benton wrote for the three-judge panel.
The 8th Circuit found more meat in Crutcher-Sanchez’s claim against Herron, ruling that she did provide sufficient evidence of a hostile work environment.
Crutcher-Sanchez had claimed she received unwanted attention from both Herron and Wagner when she first started working at the jail in October 2006. She said Wagner asked her out repeatedly, though she turned him down.
About a month into her employment, she said Herron met her at a local bar and drove her to his house, where the two began kissing, while she was drunk. She claimed she resisted, but ultimately had sex with Herron. In the morning, he told her not to tell anyone about the incident, she said.
Over the following two months, the two had sex at least 10 times, Crutcher-Sanchez claimed.
“They also engaged in sexual activity in county vehicles while driving back from transport trips,” the ruling states. “Crutcher-Sanchez initiated some of the contacts. After one incident, Herron told her he loved her. Crutcher-Sanchez pretended to be asleep and did not respond. She acknowledged having sex with Herron willingly, except to the extent she protested the first time.”
Following a disagreement in December 2006, the jail administrator told coworkers, including co-defendant Sgt. Joe Ramirez, that “Crutcher-Sanchez was ‘stalking’ him and that he needed to find a way to get rid of her,” the ruling states.
Crutcher-Sanchez said Herron instructed Ramirez to issue her two disciplinary notices. She was later fired days after Herron’s deputies tailed her to the home of a male friend, with whom Herron accused her of having sex, she claimed.
The defendants in Crutcher-Sanchez’s case lost their bid for dismissal in district court. The 8th Circuit agreed that the claim against Herron should proceed, but rejected the claims against Ramirez and Wagner.
The panel said Herron was not entitled to qualified immunity, because there was ample evidence that his conduct toward Crutcher-Sanchez “was unwelcome harassment.”
“Based on the facts the district court likely assumed, Herron’s acts created a hostile work environment,” Benton wrote. “Herron – chief deputy and jail administrator during Crutcher-Sanchez’s employment – had supervisory authority over her.”
However, Benton said Crutcher-Sanchez failed to demonstrate “the existence of a conspiracy” between Ramirez and Herron to fire her and dismissed that claim.
He also rejected Crutcher-Sanchez’s claim that Wagner subjected her to a sexually hostile work environment by asking her out several times.
“Viewing the facts most favorably to Crutcher-Sanchez, Wagner’s conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a sexually hostile work environment,” Benton wrote. “The only allegations against Wagner were that he offered her a box of chocolates and asked her out several times. While inappropriate, his acts do not reach the high threshold of ‘so intimidating, offensive, or hostile that it poisoned the work environment.'”
Wagner, Herron and the county’s Department of Corrections and Board of Commissioners were also sued in October 2009 by eight former employees who claimed they were in the “out” group, and were denied promotions that were given to “favored” women.