Whitson v. Hanna

Whitson v. Hanna

Public Justice is lead appellate counsel in Whitson v. Hanna, a Tenth Circuit appeal, which seeks to resolve a circuit split on whether the county should be liable under Monell when a “final policymaker”, like an elected sheriff, commits a criminal or tortious act, like sexual assault, while carrying out their official duties.

Peatinna Biggs is a woman with intellectual disabilities who was being held at the Sedgwick County Jail when she was sexually assaulted by the County Sheriff Thomas Hanna.  The Sheriff was supposed to be transporting her to the Logan County Jail, but he first brought her to his own where he ordered her to take off all her clothes and then sexually assaulted without her consent. He told Ms. Biggs that if she told anyone what he had done, she would spend the rest of her life in prison. He then handcuffed her and proceeded to transport her to the Logan County Jail.

Ms. Biggs, through her guardian ad litem Hollis Ann Whitson, brought multiple civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Sedgwick County, the Sheriff’s Department, and Sheriff Hanna in his individual capacity for violating her constitutional rights. Under § 1983, a county is generally liable for the acts of a county official with final policymaking authority. Although the district court agreed that the Sheriff had final policymaking authority with respect to operating the jail and transporting detainees, the court dismissed the § 1983 claims against the County and Sheriff’s Department on the grounds that Sheriff Hanna did not have policymaking authority to falsely imprison and sexually assault Ms. Biggs.

The case proceeded to trial against the Sheriff, where the jury returned a $8,250,000 verdict in Ms. Biggs’ favor, finding the Sheriff liable for excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment, and false imprisonment. But Ms. Biggs will never see that money—because the Sheriff, who lost his job and was criminally charged, doesn’t have it. Even the district court recognized that “[w]hile Mr. Hanna owes Ms. Biggs that amount, it is hard to imagine he will be able to pay her any more than a tiny fraction of it. Thus, in reality, the person who has to bear the bulk of the financial burdens of Mr. Hanna’s actions is the same one who has to bear the emotional and personal burdens: Peatinna Biggs.”

This appeal challenges the district court’s decision to let the County and Sheriff’s Department off the hook for the egregious conduct of the County Sheriff. The Sheriff had final policymaking authority under state law to hold Ms. Biggs in his physical custody, to assert control over Ms. Biggs’ person, and to transport her to another jail. And he used that authority to commit a cruel and egregious violation of her constitutional rights. There was no higher county official to regulate his conduct or hold him accountable; he was, for all intents and purposes, the County. This is precisely the case that the final policymaker doctrine was designed for. The doctrine ensures that the county itself is liable when it delegates final, unrestricted policymaking authority to an official in a particular area and that official abuses that power.

If counties are permitted to hide behind their municipal form, even when their final policymakers choose to commit egregious violations of peoples’ constitutional rights, then victims like Ms. Biggs will be left without any meaningful recourse. Public Justice is litigating this appeal alongside the law firm Fisher & Byrialsen.

This appeal builds on the Access to Justice Project’s work tackling access to justice barriers in the civil rights incarceration context. From a resounding victory in the Fifth Circuit appeal Moore v. LaSalle, establishing that private companies could be held liable for punitive damages under Monell and that the county was on the hook for the unconstitutional policies of the private prison, to beating back qualified immunity arguments in Nuncio v. Webb, to our aggressive advocacy fighting private prison health care companies’ attempts to evade liability through abuse of the bankruptcy system, Public Justice is working to ensure people who are incarcerated have access to the justice system and can meaningfully hold corporate and government wrongdoers accountable.

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