Second Circuit Revives Female Prisoners’ Constitutional Claims in Milestone Ruling

March 24, 2021


Outten & Golden attorneys Darnley D. Stewart and Luis Hansen recently obtained a federal appellate victory on behalf of two female pre-trial detainees who were sexually harassed and assaulted by a corrections officer at the Riverhead Jail in Suffolk County, New York.  The women sued both the corrections officer, Joseph Foti, as well as Suffolk County.

Suffolk County moved for summary dismissal of the allegations, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 opinion in Monell v. Department of Social Services barred the plaintiffs’ claims against the County. Specifically, the County asserted that because the corrections officer’s misconduct was not related to an official county policy, ordinance, regulation, or decision, it could not be held vicariously liable for the officer’s actions under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code. The trial court granted summary judgment for the County on the issue of municipal liability and dismissed all claims on behalf of two of the women on statute of limitations grounds.

On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the two plaintiffs’ claims. The Court found the officer’s long history of sexually inappropriate behavior, which his supervisors knew about but failed to address, constituted a “widespread custom or practice” sufficient to establish municipal liability against the County. The Circuit also reversed the lower court’s ruling on the statute of limitations, finding that the “continuing violation doctrine” applied to revive the plaintiffs’ sexual harassment and sexual assault claims.

The ruling of the appellate panel – authored by a judge appointed by former President Trump – is significant and creates new law in a few respects. First, the Court held that a municipality may be found liable for the wrongdoing of a single “rank and file” actor (here, the corrections officer). Also, the Court found that a “policymaker’s” constructive knowledge of constitutional violations committed by a single lower-level employee may be sufficient to establish municipal liability. Here, the officer’s supervisors’ knowledge of, and acquiescence to, the officer’s years of sexually inappropriate conduct toward female detainees at the jail constituted constructive knowledge of the County, such that it was liable for the assaults and harassment of the plaintiffs. Finally, this was the first decision applying a continuing violation theory to a prisoner’s or a pre-trial detainee’s sexual harassment and assault claims.

Photo Credit: Heather Paul

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)