By Gretchen Schuldt
Polk County is not liable for the actions of a county jail corrections officer who repeatedly sexually assaulted two female inmates while they were incarcerated, a federal appeals court ruled last week in a split decision.
The assaults occurred over three years.
In tossing out two $2 million jury verdicts against Polk County for compensatory damages, the three-judge Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals panel did uphold $5.75 million in verdicts for each of the women against the guard, Darryl Christensen, who is now serving a 30-year stretch in prison.
Christensen is liable for the full $2 million compensatory damages verdicts and $3.75 million in punitive damages for each woman.
"Although we do not overturn a jury verdict lightly, we must assure the jury had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for its verdict," U.S. Circuit Judge Michael B. Brennan wrote for the majority. "It is clear to us that the trial evidence fails to satisfy the necessary elements" to show county responsibility.
The decision is similar to one the Seventh Circuit made in a case involving the Milwaukee County Jail. In that case, too, the court found the county was not responsible for the acts of its employees when a guard repeatedly raped an inmate.
Brennan was joined in his opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge William J. Bauer. U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Y. Scudder Jr. dissented.
"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," Scudder wrote. "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 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." – U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Y. Scudder
By Margo Kirchner
A federal judge’s refusal to delay trial for two years so that “Coupon King” Thomas (Chris) Balsiger could be represented by a particular lawyer did not violate Balsiger’s right to counsel, a federal appeals court ruled last week.
The ruling means that the 10-year federal criminal case against Balsiger will not be retried. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the bulk of Balsiger’s conviction and sentence with the exception of a recalculated forfeiture amount.
Balsiger ran International Outsourcing Services, one of the nation’s largest product-coupon processors, in El Paso, Texas, and Bloomington, Indiana.
He and 10 others were indicted in 2007 on 25 counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The fraud allegations involved coupon payments made by Wisconsin manufacturers Sargento Foods, Good Humor/Breyers Ice Cream, Kimberly-Clark, LeSaffre Yeast, and S.C. Johnson & Sons. The indictment alleged that the wire-fraud scheme caused $250 million in losses to manufacturers.
Pretrial proceedings dragged on for years. During that time, in July 2014, Balsiger’s lawyer, Joseph Sib Abraham, passed away.
U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert, Jr. was notified in August 2014, and a lawyer who worked with Abraham said Balsiger expected to hire new counsel within 30 days. Yet by early December 2014 no new attorney had appeared in the case and Balsiger claimed he could not then hire a new attorney due to financial difficulties.
Clevert set trial for October 2015.
At a status conference in early January 2015 Balsiger told Clevert he planned to hire El Paso attorney Richard Esper, and asked for a deadline of April 1, 2015, to hire Esper. Balsiger said he did not have sufficient funds and could not sell his home because of a filing the government made against the property.
Clevert soon learned that Esper could not be ready for trial until 2017 at the earliest. The judge also found that Balsiger could afford to hire a lawyer and ordered him to hire someone by Feb. 17, 2015.
The court found that Balsiger was not working diligently to hire counsel and warned that failure to hire an attorney would be considered a waiver of the right to counsel.
By Margo Kirchner
Robert W. Huber Jr. spent 18 years too many in prison or on probation because of bureaucratic blunders and refusal to listen to his protests.
Now a federal appeals court has cleared the way for his civil rights lawsuit to proceed.
Huber is seeking damages for violations of his constitutional rights. U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that Wisconsin’s six-year statute of limitations barred most of Huber’s claims and that no reasonable jury could find in Huber’s favor on any remaining ones.
Huber appealed. On Monday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, reinstated Huber’s claims, and remanded the case for further proceedings. The appellate court denied Huber’s request to reassign the case to a different district judge, however.
Huber pleaded guilty in 1988 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court to fraudulently using another man’s credit card for charges totaling $800. His sentence, originally a four-year probation term, turned into a 25-year odyssey of probation and prison.
First, an additional three years of probation were tacked on because Huber failed to pay restitution.
“With that extension, his sentence should have ended on November 3, 1995,” U.S. Circuit Judge Diane P. Wood wrote for the three-judge panel of the Seventh District Court of Appeals. “But it did not.”
Wood was joined in her opinion by U.S. Circuit Judges Joel M. Flaum and Frank H. Easterbrook.
First, in May 1993 and while still on paper, Huber stopped showing up for appointments with his probation agent. He was arrested in November 1994, but the state did not move to revoke his probation or to extend it. His agent even wrote that his discharge date was “11-3-95.” Later, in her last entry before Huber’s discharge date, the agent wrote, “no changes – all ok.”
“November 3 came and went without any action; no release, no modification of Huber’s probation, no formal extension,” Wood wrote. “Two weeks later, without any reference to her repeated notes acknowledging the November 3, 1995 release date, (Probation Agent Gloria) Anderson issued an apprehension request for Huber.”
Huber argued for years that his probation term expired on the November 3, 1995 date. But, he alleges, various probation officers and Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) officials did little or nothing to investigate whether his probation was illegally extended. Not until October 2013 did officials determine that Huber was right.
Huber was arrested in January 1996, not terribly long after Anderson issued her apprehension request.
Anderson and her supervisor, Elizabeth Hartman, then told him that his probation had been suspended from May 1993 to November 1994 and he still had time to serve. They had him sign a form requesting reinstatement of his probation. Huber alleges that the form was blank at the time and changed later to make it appear that he admitted to absconding from probation.
Huber’s probation was extended to July 1998.
Another absconding led to more extensions, until in October 2000 Huber’s probation was revoked, resulting in a 10-year prison sentence for an $800 credit card fraud conviction that originally netted him four years of probation.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Mark Fritz could not find a job as a teacher after the State Department of Public Instruction posted on its public website that he was "under investigation" for immoral conduct.
He couldn't find out what was in the report, which was submitted by the Racine Unified School District. DPI wouldn't tell him.
This went on for 17 months.
Then, shortly after he hired a lawyer and demanded a hearing, DPI cleared his name and removed it from public purgatory.
And now the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Fritz's due process rights were not violated.
In a concurrence, though, U.S. Circuit Judge David Hamilton suggested the state may face due process problems in the future. The public identification of a teacher under investigation for immoral conduct can render that teacher unemployable until the investigation is resolved, he said.
"If that’s correct, the teacher may well be entitled at least to notice of the charge being investigated and a name‐clearing hearing – and within a reasonable time," he wrote.
Fritz resigned from his teaching job in March 2012. He learned later that month, and only when he was turned down for another job, that DPI had listed him as "under investigation."
State law requires DPI to "post on the department's Internet site the name of the licensee who is under investigation" if a complaint is made against an individual.
"For the next 17 months, he was in legal limbo: he was practically un‐hirable, yet he was un‐ able to discover why he was under investigation, and had no idea when it might end," Hamilton wrote.
Wisconsin Administrative Code requires DPI to notify the person under investigation of the specific allegations and allow that person a chance to respond, he said.
"Fritz alleges here that he did not receive the required notice," Hamilton said. "As a result, Fritz was in limbo indefinitely and did not know why."
By Margo Kirchner
A federal appeals court last week vacated a $10 million award to employees of Pewaukee’s Waterstone Mortgage Corporation for wage and hour violations because the claimants arbitrated as a group.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in another Wisconsin-based case involving Epic Systems, of Verona, held that a Waterstone employee’s employment agreement limiting arbitration to a single claimant does not violate the National Labor Relations Act’s protections.
Pamela Herrington sued Waterstone in U.S. District Court in Madison, asserting that the company failed to pay her minimum wages and overtime as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Under FLSA, claims may be brought as collective actions, meaning that other employees may opt in to the lawsuit. Herrington filed her case as a collective action and 174 other Waterstone employees eventually joined her case.
Herrington’s employment agreement, however, contained an arbitration clause covering employment disputes. The clause said Herrington’s arbitration could not be joined with or include any claims by others against Waterstone.
U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb agreed with Herrington’s argument that any waiver of the right to join the claims of others was invalid under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”
Crabb’s decision aligned with applicable law at the time. The National Labor Relations Board had determined that the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection included the right to pursue collective or class claims. The Seventh Circuit later reached the same conclusion in a case involving Epic Systems.
As a result, Crabb struck the portion of the arbitration clause that waived collective or class action. She then sent the case to arbitration with instructions that Herrington be allowed to join other employees in her arbitration proceedings. The arbitrator allowed other employees to opt in and, after further proceedings, awarded the claimants over $10 million in damages and fees.
Crabb then enforced the award through a court judgment, and Waterstone appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
While Waterstone’s appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Seventh Circuit’s decision in the Epic Systems case and held that an arbitration clause limiting arbitration to a single claimant does not violate the NLRA’s protection of concerted activities.
The Supreme Court’s decision meant the waiver in Herrington’s employment agreement was lawful and Crabb was wrong to strike it, the Seventh Circuit said in the Herrington case.
Herrington also argued the arbitration clause still allows for collective or class arbitration despite the waiver.
U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, in the decision, called the argument “weak” and suggested it was “implausible,” but remanded the case to Crabb for a determination. Barrett was joined in her decision by U.S. Circuit Judges Amy J. St. Eve and William J. Bauer.
If Crabb agrees with Herrington, Crabb could confirm the $10 million award. If Crabb finds that Herrington’s arbitration is limited to her claims alone, the case could be sent back to arbitration for new proceedings.
By Margo Kirchner
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit this week reinstated claims brought by two Iowa teens who alleged they were subject to excessive isolation and force when they were housed in Wisconsin’s Copper Lake youth prison for girls.
The suit named as a defendant the Iowa official who oversaw placement of Iowa youth in the Wisconsin facility. The opinion was written by U.S. Circuit Judge Joel M. Flaum, who was joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Daniel A. Manion and Ilana Diamond Rovner.
Iowa closed its female youth facility in 2014 and contracted with Wisconsin to house at Copper Lake girls found delinquent in Iowa courts. Iowa paid Wisconsin $301 per day per child.
Iowa declared Laera Reed and Paige Ray-Cluney delinquent and sent them to Copper Lake in 2015. The girls were 16 at the time.
Ray-Cluney says she spent five months in isolation from the end of June until December 15, 2015. Reed says that between August 2015 and February 2016 she spent between 64 and 74 days in isolation.
According to Reed and Ray-Cluney, isolation meant spending 22 hours per day in a seven- by ten-foot concrete cell. The cells were stained with urine and contained only a metal cot and thin mattress. A thick cage covered the one window, reducing the light passing through.
During their limited daily release from the cells, the girls were allowed only to shower, use the restroom, exercise for 15 minutes, clean their rooms, use 15 minutes to write a letter, or sit in chairs by themselves without speaking. They received little or no educational instruction.
Both girls attempted suicide.
In August 2017 Reed and Ray-Cluney sued Wisconsin’s Administrator of Juvenile Corrections and several Wisconsin officials associated with Copper Lake. In addition, Reed and Ray-Cluney sued Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.
Reed and Ray-Cluney filed their separate lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, alleging constitutional violations arising from excessive use of isolation cells and excessive force. They also alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. Reed added violations of the Iowa constitution.
The Seventh Circuit appeal involved only the claims against Palmer relating to Copper Lake’s isolation cells. The plaintiffs did not allege that Palmer knew about any use of excessive force.
According to the complaints, Palmer contracted with Wisconsin to use the Copper Lake facility, retained legal custody of both plaintiffs, monitored and received reports about plaintiffs’ confinement at Copper Lake, and knew or should have known about Copper Lake’s use of isolation cells. Nevertheless, say the plaintiffs, Palmer failed to remove them from Copper Lake or ensure that Copper Lake properly trained and supervised its staff.
In district court, Palmer moved to dismiss based on qualified immunity. U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb agreed with Palmer and dismissed all claims against him. Reed and Ray-Cluney appealed.
The plaintiffs’ claims against the Wisconsin defendants were not affected by Palmer’s dismissal.
Qualified immunity protects public officials from civil liability unless their conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right that a reasonable person would have known about, the Seventh Circuit said in its opinion. The doctrine balances the need to hold public officials accountable for their irresponsible conduct and the need to protect them from liability when they perform duties reasonably.
Qualified immunity does not protect a public official from suit if a plaintiff shows that the official violated a constitutional right and that right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. To be clearly established, the law must “be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right,” said the Seventh Circuit.
Judge Crabb believed that even taking the facts alleged in the complaints as true, no law clearly established what action was required of someone in Palmer’s position.
The Seventh Circuit held that dismissal was premature. It noted that because the qualified immunity defense depends on the facts of each case, dismissal at an early stage (before discovery) is unusual. Plaintiffs are not required to allege in their complaints detailed facts that anticipate or defeat a qualified immunity defense. Instead, said the court, the plaintiffs need to allege only enough facts to “present a story that holds together.”
The Seventh Circuit recognized that under an Eighth Amendment cruel-and-unusual-punishment test based on culpable and serious denial of life’s necessities, the plaintiffs’ allegations held up. The court pointed to a 1974 case involving use of corporal punishment and tranquilizing drugs at a juvenile institution and noted a recent case out of New York holding that juvenile isolation is likely unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
Likewise, the Seventh Circuit found that plaintiffs’ allegations met the requirements of a more lenient Fourteenth Amendment due-process test for pretrial detainees. Under Supreme Court caselaw from the early 1980s, restrictions on liberty are permitted only if reasonably related to legitimate government objectives and not for punishment.
Thus, said the court, under either test case law clearly established that Palmer’s alleged conduct could violation the Constitution.
Crabb had found that unlike the officials in prior cases, Palmer did not himself oversee use of the isolation cells or operate the institution in which alleged abuse occurred. But the Seventh Circuit found that Palmer’s separation from the institution at issue and his lack of personal involvement in placing the girls in isolation did not alter the need for remand. The Seventh Circuit pointed to the special relationship created when a state removes a child from parental custody and to prior case law defining the right of a child in state custody not to be handed over to a custodian that the state knows is a child abuser.
On remand, Palmer may reassert other defenses to the case, including his argument that the Wisconsin federal court lacks personal jurisdiction over him. Further, Palmer may obtain qualified immunity on summary judgment if the facts fail to support the plaintiffs’ allegations regarding the extent of their isolation or Palmer’s level of involvement and knowledge.
“In the meantime, however,” said the Seventh Circuit, “this case is one that would greatly benefit from a more robust record.”
By Margo Kirchner
Negligent – even reckless – horseback-riding facilities in Wisconsin are immune from liability for harm they cause customers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit confirmed last week.
The decision addressed two cases. In the first case, Holiday Stables employees sent Judy Dilley out on a horse without instructions or a helmet, even though Dilley had told a staffer she lacked prior horseback-riding experience. The employees also failed to adjust her stirrups.
On the trail, Dilley told the guide riding in front of her that she did not have hold of the reins of her horse, Blue. The guide told her not to worry because Blue, who often carried small children, knew where to go.
After about 20 minutes, Blue attempted to pass the guide’s horse, which kicked at Blue. Blue reared, throwing Dilley to the ground.
Dilley suffered a head injury, fractured ribs and vertebra, and punctured lung.
In the second case, Abigail Brown sued over multiple leg fractures sustained during a riding lesson. Brown took her own horse, Golden Gift, to Country View Equestrian Center in Monroe for the lesson. During the lesson Country View’s instructor allowed a second rider and horse to enter the arena, knowing that the second horse was high spirited. The second horse sped off, bucking and colliding with Golden Gift, tossing Brown from her horse.
Both women were from out of state and so sued in federal court. They lost there and appealed.
The court interpreted the state’s equine-immunity law that, with some exceptions, protects trail operators and riding instructors from paying a rider for injuries.
U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the Seventh Circuit panel, joined by Circuit Judges Joel Flaum and David Hamilton.
Under the statute, a person or facility renting out horses or receiving pay for riding lessons is generally immune from civil liability if a participant is injured due to “an inherent risk” of the equine activity.
Holiday Stables employees sent Judy Dilley out on a horse without instructions or a helmet, even though Dilley had told a staffer she lacked prior horseback-riding experience.
"Inherent risk" means “a danger or condition that is an integral part of equine activities” and includes collisions between animals, the unpredictability of a horse’s behavior or reactions to its surroundings, and the potential of a person participating in the activity to act negligently.
Dilley argued that because negligence of a trail operator is avoidable, it is not an “integral part” of horseback riding and thus immunity does not arise. The Seventh Circuit rejected her argument based on the statute’s text.
The court also rejected Dilley’s alternative argument that her case fit a couple exceptions to immunity. One exception permits recovery of damages when a trail operator provides a horse “and fails to make a reasonable effort to determine the ability of the person to engage safely in an equine activity or to safely manage the particular equine provided.”
Dilley argued that the exception applies when the operator “fails to . . . safely manage” a horse, while Holiday argued that the exception applies only when an operator fails to assess “the ability of the person . . . to safely manage” the horse.
With no Wisconsin Supreme Court interpretation of the language on the books, the Seventh Circuit predicted how the state’s high court would rule. Declaring the task “not difficult,” the Seventh Circuit agreed with Holiday’s interpretation.
The exception does not affect immunity for the trail operator’s negligent management of a horse, said the court.
During the lesson Country View’s instructor allowed a second rider and horse to enter the arena, knowing that the second horse was high spirited.
Further, the court added, nothing in the statute suggests that immunity is lost when an operator fails to periodically review how a rider is doing; the exception concerns only the time when the rider is matched with the horse.
Brown argued the same exception, but lost because she rode her own horse. The exception applies only when an operator or instructor provides the horse.
“[I]t strikes us as entirely reasonable that a rider who owns his own horse should bear the risk of a mismatch between his riding ability and his horse’s temperament,” Sykes wrote.
Dilley also argued unsuccessfully that Holiday’s conduct was reckless, satisfying an exception for “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the person.”
The court, though, said the word “reckless” was not in the statute, as it was in other state laws. Even when an operator should be aware of a strong probability of harm and acts anyway, immunity applies, Sykes said.
The court offered no sympathy for the unsuccessful plaintiffs, as courts sometimes do when ruling against them. Instead, the panel wrote a few parting words about the roles of court and legislature.
Said the court: “The immunity statute and its exceptions necessarily entail policy judgments about how much exposure to liability is too much in this sphere of recreational activity. Unless the statute admits of no rational justification, it’s not our job to second-guess how Wisconsin’s legislature has drawn these lines.”
By Gretchen Schuldt
A federal appeals court on Friday reversed the $6.7 million verdict against the county awarded in a lawsuit brought by a woman who was raped by a corrections officer in the Milwaukee County Jail.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that former Corrections Officer Xavier Thicklen was acting outside the scope of his duties for the county when he raped the woman and forced her to perform oral sex on him.
The court threw out the jury verdict only against the county. Thicklen also was named as a defendant. The verdict against him still stands.
The three-judge panel, in an opinion written by U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel A. Manion, said U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller should have relied on what he believed the Wisconsin Supreme Court would do when he ruled on a county motion to dismiss the case against it because Thicklen acted outside the scope of his job; instead, Stadtmueller relied on one of his own decisions and let the lawsuit move forward.
Manion referred to the the Wisconsin Supreme Court's standard as "time-worn."
"Conduct is not in the scope if it is different in kind from that authorized, far beyond the authorized time or space, or too little actuated by a purpose to serve the employer," he wrote.
Manion was joined in the decision by U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett and U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman.
Thicklen, the corrections officer, resigned from his job when his activities came under investigation. He eventually pleaded guilty to felony misconduct in office for providing the inmate with contraband and calling her grandmother, and served three days in the House of Correction. He did not attend the three-day federal civil trial.
Thicklen raped the woman in the jail when she was 19 and eight months pregnant. Four days after she gave birth, he demanded she perform oral sex, according to testimony. There was additional sexual contact as well.
After running through previous Seventh Circuit interpretations of scope of duties, Manion wrote, "even when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to (the woman) and the verdict, we hold no reasonable jury could find the sexual assaults were in the scope of his (Thicklen's) employment. ...The evidence negates the verdict."
Milwaukee County trained Thicklen not to have sex with inmates and how to avoid invitations to have sex with inmates, Manion wrote.
"The undisputed facts and reasonable inferences point ineluctably to the conclusions that Thicklen’s abhorrent acts were in no way actuated by a purpose to serve County," Manion wrote. "He raped (the inmate) for purely personal reasons, the rapes did not benefit County but harmed it, he knew the rapes did not serve County, and the rapes were outside the scope."
Manion expressed sympathy for the woman who, with the county's dismissal from the case, "loses perhaps her best chance to collect the judgment. But (the law) does not make public employers absolute insurers against all wrongs."
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