Sex Harassment v. Qualified Immunity

In late 2002 Joseph Stephen Fite was hired by Sheriff Ron Ball as a jailer in the Hot Springs County Jail, Arkansas. In March 2003 Fite was promoted to a road deputy's position. Sometime later Fite resigned for employment with the Arkansas Department of Corrections.

While employed at the Hot Springs Sheriff's Office Fite received little to no training on his job duties. Factually, Fite only received two days of FTO training with the deputy whose position he was to assume. Fite did receive a policy manual but, there was no requirement to read it. Fite later testified at trial that he did not read the manual.

Fite was scheduled to attend mandatory Law Enforcement Training but, at the time of the incident he had not. At the time Fite had one year to begin the police academy. With all of these facts in mind Sheriff Ball allowed Fite to continue to work with little supervision.

The week before Fite's resignation he met Summer Parrish at a J-Mart store where she worked. At the time Parrish had legal problems and asked Fite for advice. After giving Parris advice he asked her for a date and Parrish refused.

Fite later learned that there was an outstanding warrant on Parrish that included $800 of fines and fees. Fite arrested Parrish and took her to jail. On the way Fite told Parrish that she would not have been arrested if she had gone on the date.

Upon arrival at the jail Fite bet Jason Farr, a jailer,that he could get Parrish to show her breast to Fite and Farr. Fite told Parrish that he would have the fine reduced if she brandished her breasts. Subsequently Parrish pulled her shirt up showing her breast. Fite grabbed Parrish's breast.

Even though Fite had no training on sexual misconduct he knew it was wrong to touch a woman's breast without her consent. Fite testified that had Sheriff Ball been on duty on the day of the incident it would never have occurred. Fite was charged with sexual assault in the second degree. He was sentenced to six months probation and was placed on the sexual offender registry list.

Parrish in turn brought a 1983 action against Fite and Sheriff Ball for both in their individual and official capacities. Before trial Sheriff Ball moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted in part. He received immunity in his individual capacity but, allowed action in his official capacity.

In a bench trial the court found Fite liable in his individual capacity. Fite did not appeal that finding. The court found Sheriff Ball liable for the failure to train Fite. Parrish appealed, challenging the issue of qualified immunity to Sheriff Ball in his individual capacity.

The 8th District Court addressed several issues in this case. The first issue was that of official capacity and county liability. In order to sustain the case on Sheriff Ball Parrish had to prove that the county actually caused the violation. The court reviewed. Monnell v. New York Dept of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978), City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388, and Andrews v. Fowler, 98 F.3d 1069, 1076.

In most situations the county could not be sued under 1983 for an injury that was perpetrated by an employee. However, it may be liable if it did not put into place proper policy, inadequately trained its employees, was deliberately indifferent to the rights of others by adopting inferior policy, or the training was deficient enough to that the injury was a direct cause of the injury. Although the training Fite received was minimal it did not establish the claim for failure to train.

In order to do so Parrish had to show that more or different training was so inadequate that it would be a violation of her rights. Also, that the policy makers would be seen to be deliberately indifferent at the time of the incident Fite did not know what he did to Parrish was a violation of law and a felony. If Fite had known the criminal code of Arkansas he would not have assaulted Parrish.

However, the court did not believe that there was an obvious need to train an officer not to assault a woman. Any reasonable officer would know to touch a woman's sexual organs was not allowable. Fite testified he knew that it was wrong to do so. The county was not held liable in this case.

In regards to Sheriff Ball's individual qualified immunity the court addressed Parrish's assertions that he was liable for failure to train and supervise Fite. The court took the Supreme Court ruling of sound discretion in deciding two prongs of immunity. The first being that in order for Sheriff Ball to liable he had to directly participate in the event or his failure to train or supervise was a direct causation in the event. Sheriff Ball did not participate in the event nor did his actions amount to a violation of Parrish's rights.

Secondly it had not been alleged that Sheriff Ball ordered, directed, or suggested that Fite assault Parrish. Therefore, Sheriff Ball's actions did not amount to direct participation in the violation.

Parrish alleged that Sheriff Ball's liability came from failure to train and supervise Fite. In order for Sheriff Ball to have violated Parrish's rights in this case he had to have:

  1. Received notice of a pattern of unconstitutional acts Committed by subordinates;
  2. Demonstrated deliberate indifference to or tacit Authorization of the offensive acts;
  3. Failed to take sufficient remedial action; and
  4. That such failure proximately caused injury to (Parrish).

There was no evidence that this was the case. A reasonable officer would not have supervised Fite any differently than another officer. There were no signs that such Fite's behavior would result in the assault. There was no evidence that Sheriff Ball was deliberately indifferent to the rights of Parrish.

The court noted that a supervisor who failed to train an employee may transfer to the supervisor when the training was deliberately indifferent to the rights of a plaintiff. Failure to train in this case may have been a contributing factor in the violation. Therefore, the court found that Sheriff Ball was entitled to qualified immunity in his individual capacity but, his liability for failure to train would be remanded for further proceedings.