August 18, 2019

Tenth Circuit: District Court’s Denial of Qualified Immunity to Prison Warden Affirmed

The Tenth Circuit published its opinion in Keith v. Koerner on Tuesday, February 12, 2013.

Tracy Keith was an inmate at the Topeka Correctional Facility (“TCF”), an all-female state prison, between 2006 and 2010.  While there, she participated in a vocational training program. Her instructor, Ananstacio Gallardo, engaged in unlawful sexual acts with Ms. Keith, and she became pregnant. The pregnancy was terminated. Mr. Gallardo ultimately pled guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual relations and two charges of trafficking contraband.

Ms. Keith filed a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of her rights under the Eighth Amendment. She named as Defendants former warden Richard Koerner and other Kansas Department of Corrections employees. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing in part that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court granted qualified immunity to all Defendants except Mr. Koerner and Mr. Gallardo and entered a default judgment against Mr. Gallardo. Mr. Koerner appeals from the district court’s denial of qualified immunity.

In resolving a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, the court considers (1) whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of defendant’s alleged misconduct.

As an initial matter, it is clearly established that a prison official’s deliberate indifference to sexual abuse by prison employees violates the Eighth Amendment. The question is whether Ms. Keith alleged facts sufficient to support such a deliberate indifference violation by Mr. Koerner. To state a claim, a plaintiff must only allege enough factual matter in her complaint to make her claim to relief plausible on its face and provide fair notice to a defendant.

Ms. Keith alleged facts that could tend to establish that Mr. Koerner was responsible for managing TCF and knew about multiple instances of sexual misconduct at TCF over a period of years, inconsistently disciplined corrections officers who engaged in prohibited sexual conduct with inmates and thus purportedly tolerated at least an informal policy which permitted sexual contact between prison staff and inmates. After reviewing the complaint, the Tenth Circuit concluded that Ms. Keith provided notice and nudged her claims beyond the conceivable to the plausible given that the Court had to accept accept the well-pleaded allegations as true.

Because Ms. Keith alleged facts sufficient to state a plausible claim for relief and survive a motion to dismiss, the district court’s denial of qualified immunity is AFFIRMED.

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