The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled June 26 that Polk County is not liable for damages awarded to two victims that were sexually assaulted in the Polk County Jail by former jailer Darryl Christensen.
The court’s 60-page ruling outlines details of the case and affirms Christensen’s financial liability of $3.75 million in punitive damages each to two victims.
“We see no reason to disturb the jury’s verdict against Christensen and so affirm the denial of his request for a new trial,” the majority opinion, authored by Judges Bauer, Brennan and Scudder said.
“His assaults were predatory and knowingly criminal. But to impose liability against the county for Christensen’s crimes, there must be evidence of an offending county policy, culpability, and causation. These are demanding standards. Christensen’s acts were reprehensible, but the evidence shows no connection between the assaults and any county policy.”
The majority opinion said “The two victims in the case, identified by initials M.J.J. and J.K.J., were inmates at Polk County Jail at various times between 2011 and 2014. Christensen admits he engaged in sexual acts with the women individually. To hide his offenses, Christensen planned his encounters to occur when no one was present and in locations where he controlled access. He also urged plaintiffs not to discuss or report his sexual advances because he would lose his job and family if caught.
“Plaintiffs complied with Christensen’s secrecy directive and his assaults were kept hidden from jail officials. Polk County authorities discovered Christensen’s assaults against M.J.J. and J.K.J. after a former inmate reported her own sexual encounters with Christensen to an investigator in a neighboring county. When notified of the former inmate’s allegations, county authorities initiated an internal investigation and confronted Christensen, who immediately resigned.
“The investigation continued, which led to the discovery of Christensen’s abuse of plaintiffs, and ultimately to his prosecution.
“Christensen eventually pleaded guilty to several counts of sexual assault and is serving a 30-year prison sentence.
“Plaintiffs sued the county and Christensen in separate actions and the cases were consolidated for jury trial. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants were deliberately indifferent to a serious risk of sexual assault in violation of their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and that the county violated state law by negligently supervising Christensen.
“At trial, Christensen admitted his offenses but challenged the harms plaintiffs suffered. He argued plaintiffs consented to his overtures and that their encounters were the product of ‘voluntary attraction.’ Although not stated directly, his position implied that any award of damages should correspond to plaintiffs’ level of consent. Plaintiffs denied consenting to Christensen’s advances and offered expert testimony showing their mental trauma from his assaults.
“Against the county, plaintiffs made four principal allegations: (1) the jail’s sexual assault policies and training were inadequate; (2) the jail customarily tolerated sexually offensive comments by guards; (3) the investigation of a former guard revealed the jail’s sexual assault policy was inadequate and that the jail minimized sexual abuse; and (4) the jail failed to widely implement recommendations under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The sum of these allegations, plaintiffs argued, prove the county was deliberately indifferent to a known risk of sexual assault by jail staff. The county disagreed, arguing that the trial evidence did not support the jury’s liability finding and damages awards.”
The dissenting opinion by Judge Scudder says, in part: “What worries me about today’s decision is that, as a very practical matter, municipalities may conclude that there is not much to be done to stop a rogue guard from engaging in secretive and heinous conduct in violation of a bright-line policy prohibiting sexual contact with inmates. That view would be as mistaken as it is dangerous, for cities and counties have a meaningful responsibility and role to play in preventing the sexual abuse of inmates in their custody by the guards they employ. That promise comes from the Eighth Amendment.
“While not every incident of abuse will be preventable, a jail’s decisionmakers are not free to choose—through their deliberate decisions on enforcement and training related to the jail’s policies—to leave unaddressed a known and material risk of sexual assault to inmates under the jail’s care.”
Christensen’s appeal of a ruling for post conviction relief, denied earlier in the month of June, continues.