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Carnley v. Sheriff of Bay County, Florida

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Panama City Division

April 20, 2018

BRANDY CARNLEY and VIRGINIA J. LINDSEY, Plaintiffs,
v.
SHERIFF OF BAY COUNTY, FLORIDA, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING THE MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW OR FOR A NEW TRIAL

          Robert L. Hinkle, United States District Judge

         This case arises from a correctional officer's sexual assault of the two plaintiffs, who were pretrial detainees in a jail operated by the Sheriff of Bay County, Florida. The plaintiffs asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the correctional officer and against the Sheriff in his official capacity. After a full and fair trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs. The Sheriff has moved for judgment as a matter of law or alternatively for a new trial. This order denies the motion.

         I

         On a motion for judgment as a matter of law, disputes in the evidence must be resolved, and all reasonable inferences must be drawn, in favor of the nonmoving party. The motion must be denied if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See, e.g., Commodores Entm't Corp. v. McClary, 879 F.3d 1114, 1130 (11th Cir. 2017).

         On a motion for a new trial, in contrast, the court may consider the weight of the evidence. But new trials are disfavored; a court should grant a new trial only if “the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence or will result in a miscarriage of justice.” McGinnis v. Am. Home Mortg. Servicing, Inc., 817 F.3d 1241, 1254 (11th Cir. 2016).

         II

         The defendant correctional officer, Pedro Ryes, supervised the jail's laundry. The plaintiffs were detainees assigned to work in the laundry. Overwhelming evidence established that Mr. Reyes sexually assaulted each plaintiff on multiple occasions. The Sheriff does not deny it.

         A correctional officer who sexually assaults a detainee violates her constitutional rights. But as the plaintiffs acknowledge, the Sheriff cannot be held vicariously liable under § 1983 for Mr. Reyes's actions. The plaintiffs assert the Sheriff is liable not just because Mr. Reyes sexually assaulted them but because the jail's warden, Rick Anglin, was deliberately indifferent to the risk that Mr. Reyes would assault them.

         The governing legal principles are settled.

         First, a warden, like any other jail official, violates an inmate's constitutional rights if (1) the official is deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk that the inmate will suffer serious harm and (2) the official fails to take available steps to avoid or reduce the risk. To be deliberately indifferent, “the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994); see also Marsh v. Butler Cty., Ala., 268 F.3d 1014, 1028 (11th Cir. 2001) (en banc).

         Second, a sheriff in his official capacity, like a city, is liable under § 1983 for an official's constitutional violation only if the violation was based on the sheriff's policy or custom or if the official was one whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy. See, e.g., Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978) (adopting this standard for claims against a city); Brown v. Neumann, 188 F.3d 1289, 1290 (11th Cir. 1999) (applying Monell to claims against a Florida sheriff in his official capacity).

         In his motion for judgment as a matter of law or new trial, the Sheriff asserts that the plaintiffs satisfied neither of these two legal principles. That is incorrect.

         First, there was evidence on both sides of the question whether the warden, Mr. Anglin, was deliberately indifferent to the risk that Mr. Reyes would sexually assault the plaintiffs. Thus, for example, the plaintiffs presented another correctional officer's testimony that he told Mr. Anglin about Mr. Reyes's apparent sexual misconduct toward inmates in the laundry where he-and the plaintiffs- worked. Mr. Anglin testified that he was told no such thing. Resolving this dispute was the province of the jury. The jury instructions properly set out the deliberate indifference standard-the Sheriff did not and still does not take issue with the instructions on this point-and the jury resolved the dispute for the plaintiffs.

         Second, the plaintiffs abandoned prior to trial any claim that these sexual assaults were based on a policy or custom. They asserted instead that in relevant respects, Mr. Anglin was a person whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy-in the shorthand of many judicial decisions, a “final policymaker.” Whether a person meets this standard is an issue of law for ...


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