The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday ruled in favor of a woman who said she was sexually harassed by a corrections officer at Kern County Juvenile Hall, clearing the way for her case to go to trial.
The plaintiff in the case, Samantha Vasquez, had alleged that in 2015, when she was 18 and being held at Kern County Juvenile Hall, corrections officer George Anderson made sexual comments to her, groomed her for sexual abuse, propositioned her for sex and watched her shower.
The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in 2016 against the county, Anderson and his supervisor. U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer L. Thurston made a summary judgment in favor of the defendants in 2017. However, the appeals court found Thurston erred in that decision and reversed it.
Specifically, Vasquez alleged Anderson made comments about her butt, told her about a sexually explicit dream he had about her, touched her face and shoulders and watched from a staff desk as she showered on several occasions.
Anderson denied most of the allegations but said he did sit nearby while Vasquez showered once or twice and he was never told not to, according to the Court of Appeals decision. His supervisor, Heathe Appleton, was also named in the case because he had received previous complaints about Anderson watching girls shower, it's alleged.
The Kern County Counsel's office could not be reached for comment Friday.
In the original judgment, Thurston found that Vasquez's allegations did not constitute violations of her constitutional rights. Furthermore, Thurston agreed that Anderson was entitled to "qualified immunity" — a legal doctrine that shields law enforcement from prosecution and lawsuits as long as the right they are alleged to have violated would not reasonably be known by a similar officer in that position.
The appeals court panel disagreed in strong terms with the immunity entitlement, saying it was "obvious" that sexual harassment of a juvenile ward by a correction's officer is wrong.
"I think that was one of the striking issues in the controversy," said Los Angeles attorney Thomas C. Seabaugh, who along with Chain Cohn Stiles represents Vazquez.
In a news release, Minouche Kandel, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of the plaintiff, said: "This decision affirms that young people maintain their right to bodily integrity even when they are held in juvenile detention. The Constitution protects young people from facility staff who abuse their power to sexually harass or abuse the wards in their care."
Vasquez's case was one of three filed by Seabaugh and Chain Cohn Stiles on behalf of female juveniles who alleged misconduct by Juvenile Hall detention deputies. The other two cases — one of which also named Anderson — settled before trial.
Court documents noted the county had started termination proceedings against Anderson and as of January 2018 he was on administrative leave, but it is unknown if Appleton or Anderson still hold their county jobs.