Beckford v. Dept. of Corrections, No. 09-14903 (11th Cir. May 7, 2010)

By Paul Mollica

The Eleventh Circuit joins other courts in holding that a state correctional facility may be held liable under Title VII for failure to correct and prevent sex harassment of its staff by  inmates. The panel affirms a judgment after a jury trial in favor of fourteen female employees stationed at a Florida prison.

Beckford v. Dept. of Corrections, No. 09-14903 (11th Cir. May 7, 2010): The plaintiffs (a dozen nurses, a doctor and a guard) worked in contact with inmates housed in “close management dorms,” described in the opinion as those offenders who posed a danger to the general population:

“When the inmates saw female employees approaching one of the close management dorms, the inmates called the employees names-including cunt, whore, slut, and bitch-through the
exterior cell windows and explained, in graphic detail, the sexual liberties that the inmates would take with the employees, if given the opportunity.

“The inmates often instructed each other to ‘lock and load’ when they saw female staff approaching one of the dorms. The inmates’ phrase ‘lock and load’ referred to the most notorious conduct to which they exposed the female staff: gunning. That conduct involved exposing themselves and masturbating directly at staff.”

The employees made timely and frequent complaints and urged measures aimed at reducing their contact with the harassers, but these (a jury could find) were largely disregarded or even derided. “Captain Wiles, for example, once informed a complaining nurse that the inmates were in ‘their living room and they could do whatever they wanted.’ Male employees encouraged the female employees to accept the gunning ‘as a
compliment.'” The prison’s anti-harassment policy covered only co-worker/supervisor, not inmate, harassment.

The prison’s final solution turned out to be worse than the disease:

“Eventually, the warden met with several female employees to discuss the harassment. After the meeting, the Department adopted a new ‘three minute rule,’ which permitted employees to refuse service to an inmate who gunned the employees for more than three minutes. A nurse testified that, after the adoption of the new rule, the gunning ‘got worse because the inmates knew they had three minutes and they used to say ‘you can’t refuse me, you got to wait.’ ‘ Another employee testified that the rule led the inmates to believe that ‘[t]hey ran the

At trial, the jury awarded each employee $45,000 in damages and the district court denied all motions for post-trial relief.

The panel affirms. It rejects the defendants’ efforts to win a “corrections” exception to the employer’s liability under Title VII for failure to correct third-party harassment, citing decisions from the Third, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits:

“Our general rule of reasonableness regarding employer liability for third party harassment under Title VII adequately respects the difficulties that prison officials encounter in controlling inmate conduct. Title VII does not require, on the one hand, that prisons prevent all manner of  harassment at all cost and without regard to important penological interests. We recognize that there are practical and constitutional limits on what prisons can do to protect staff. Prisons cannot, for example, eject unruly inmates like businesses can eject rude customers. The Eighth Amendment also limits the sanctions that prisons can impose on abusive inmates, probably even inmates who create a sexually hostile work environment for prison employees.  Although some harassment by inmates cannot be reasonably avoided, the Department, on the other hand, cannot refuse to adopt reasonable measures to curtail harassment by inmates.” [Citations omitted.]

The panel also affirms the district court’s holdings that the defendants unreasonably failed to take measures to limit the plaintiffs’ contact with the inmates, that plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence that the inmate behavior was motivated by sex, that no Faragher/Ellerth instruction was warranted (where the harassment was not by supervisors) and that the cases did not have to be severed.