Sheriff and jail administrator were not deliberately indifferent to rights of detainee who was sexually assaulted by jailor

Rivera v. Bonner No. 16-10675 (5th Cir. July 6, 2017)

This is a §1983 case against jail officials alleging a sexual assault in a jail where the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the County officials’ motion for summary judgment.

Fierros was a jailor in the Hale County Jail when Rivera was placed into custody. Prior to any incident involving Rivera, when Sheriff Mull and Jail Administrator Bonner discovered Fierros may have previously been convicted of indecency with  a child when he was fifteen, they investigated to determine if the assertions were true. They were unable to confirm the convictions.  After the jail had an incident with a different jailor sexually assaulting an inmate, jail officials purportedly reminded jail staff that sexual exploitation of detainees was prohibited, but they did not implement any additional training. They did post notifications and a poster noting sex with an inmate is a felony. Approximately six months later,  Rivera arrived at the jail. During booking Fierros allegedly groped Rivera’s breasts and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Rivera was released from the jail the following day. After filing a complaint with state law enforcement, Fierros admitted to the contact. Rivera sued the Sheriff and Jail Administrator for being deliberately indifferent in hiring and failing to properly train. The trial court granted the officials’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity and Rivera appealed.

In order to establish supervisor liability for constitutional violations committed by subordinate employees, plaintiffs must show that the supervisor acted, or failed to act, with deliberate indifference to violations of others’ constitutional rights.  When a plaintiff alleges that a supervisor inadequately considered an applicant’s background, deliberate indifference exists only when adequate scrutiny would lead a reasonable supervisor to conclude that the plainly obvious consequences of the decision to hire would be the deprivation of a third party’s constitutional rights.  There must be a strong connection between the background and the likelihood the hired employee would inflict the particular type of injury suffered. After analyzing the facts known to the Sheriff and Administrator at the time, the court held they were not deliberately indifferent. Fierros’s juvenile record provided no detail regarding the alleged offenses, and there was no evidence that Fierros was ever charged or convicted. As to the failure to train, while inadequate in retrospect, the training provided was not due to deliberate indifference. Officers at the jail received at least some state-sanctioned training aimed at sexual assault prevention and jail officials took some limited responsive action following the prior incident of sexual abuse. And while the panel notes the law in the Circuit has been updated, at least one case applicable at the time, may have indicated such minimal responses were permissible.  So, the law was not clearly established as to what level of response to prior assaults was necessary. As a result, the jail officials were entitled to qualified immunity.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The panel consists of   Circuit Judges Prado, Higginson, and Costa. Judge Prado delivered the opinion of the court. The attorney listed for Rivera is  Robert Smead Hogan. The attorney listed for Bonner is Mark Whitney McBrayer.


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