Victory for sexually abused inmate on negligent hiring

No qualified immunity is granted to the sheriff in a case of negligent hiring, the court of appeals decides


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PARKER V. BLACKWELL, 2022 WL 123356 (5th Cir. 2022)

Korey Lanier McClure was fired as a Shelby County corrections officer for allegedly abusing prisoners. Sheriff Willis Blackwell rehired McClure and promoted him to sergeant. Inmate Tony Parker sued Sheriff Blackwell in his individual capacity, claiming the Sheriff denied Parker his 14th Amendment due process rights by rehiring McClure and failing to properly supervise and train him.

Parker claimed his genitals were grabbed by McClure and his face forcibly pushed into McClure’s crotch. Parker also claimed McClure asked Parker to engage in sex acts with him, telling Parker that “[he] would need to accept McClure’s sexual advances if Parker wanted his case to go well.” McClure also promised to release Parker if he paid McClure $200. McClure allowed Parker to call his mother, who brought $200 to pay McClure. Another inmate made similar claims, alleging McClure showed him photos of McClure’s genitals and demanded sexual favors.

McClure was arrested after an investigation by another agency and was charged with violation of the civil rights of inmates, improper sexual activity in a jail, official oppression, multiple counts of bribery and abuse of official capacity. After McClure’s arrest, the district attorney and Sheriff agreed to McClure’s request that he be allowed to use Family and Medical Leave Act sick time because his mother was ill, after which McClure would resign and all charges would be dropped.

Sheriff Blackwell told the trial court he was entitled to qualified immunity from Parker’s lawsuit. Because Sheriff Blackwell claimed qualified immunity, the burden shifted to Parker to show that Sheriff Blackwell was not legally entitled to qualified immunity. To establish the Sheriff’s liability for constitutional violations committed by his subordinate (Sergeant McClure), Parker had to show the Sheriff had acted or failed to act with deliberate indifference to constitutional violations committed by his subordinate. Parker alleged that “shortly before being rehired by Shelby County and Sheriff Blackwell, McClure was fired by Shelby County for abusing one or more inmates of the Shelby County Jail” and that “such prior abuse in the Shelby County Jail created the obvious risk that he would violate the rights of jail inmates including by sexual assault if rehired as a jailer and Sheriff Blackwell took no action to address this risk.”

The trial court denied the motion to apply qualified immunity. Sheriff Blackwell appealed. The appellate court defined Parker’s burden as showing “a strong connection between the background of the particular applicant and the specific violation alleged,” such that “the hired officer was highly likely to inflict the particular type of injury suffered.”

The court of appeals held the alleged connection between McClure’s termination for abusing detainees and the alleged abuse against Parker and other inmates was sufficient to state a claim for deliberate indifference in rehiring: “Adequate scrutiny of McClure’s background – that he was fired by Shelby County for abusing one or more inmates of the Shelby County Jail – would lead a reasonable supervisor to conclude that the plainly obvious consequences of the decision to rehire him would be that he would abuse inmates again.”

Parker was unsuccessful on his claim of inadequate training and supervision. The court noted: a failure to supervise or train claim arises when the plaintiff shows that:

  1. The defendant failed to supervise or train the alleged bad actor
  2. There is a causal connection between the infringement of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights and the lack of supervision or training, and
  3. The failure to supervise or train exhibited deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.

Typically, a plaintiff must show a pattern of constitutional violations, not merely a single incident. The appellate court held Parker failed to show that the lack of a training program led to the alleged constitutional violations. Nor had Parker shown the abuse was so frequent that Sheriff Blackwell should have known training or supervision was needed.

Because the appellate court upheld the denial of qualified immunity on the claim that Sheriff Blackwell’s rehiring of Sergeant McClure led to violation of Parker’s due process rights, the case will go back to the trial court for a trial or other resolution. The illegality of McClure’s conduct is evident, whether he faced any consequences or not. This case reminds us that deliberate indifference in conducting a background investigation can lead to liability for constitutional violations. Failure to train and failure to supervise claims pose heavy burdens for plaintiffs; on this point, Parker was unsuccessful because he could not show a causal connection between the Sheriff’s inattention to supervising or training McClure and Parker’s due process allegations. One might question whether an agency really needs to train officers to refrain from sexually abusing persons in custody. Nonetheless, a clear and affirmative policy, such as Lexipol’s Standards of Conduct Policy, is essential to establish unambiguous expectations and to defend the agency should someone like Sergeant McClure slip into the ranks.

NEXT: 'All hell breaking loose' not connected to failure to train

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