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Sixth Circuit Overturns $625,000 Verdict for Ohio Prisoner Sexually Abused by Guard

In what one judge described as a “legal travesty,” on March 13, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned a jury verdict in favor of a prisoner who had been sexually abused by a prison guard.

While incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Michelle Ortiz was sexually assaulted on two occasions by Douglas Schultz, a guard at the facility. Ortiz reported the first incident and was taken to see Paula Jordan, a case manager.

Jordan told Ortiz, who was crying and visibly upset, that nobody had the right to touch her. However, she asked Ortiz to keep in mind that it was Schultz’s last day at the prison before he would be transferred to a different facility, that it was Schultz’s “nature” to act that way, and that he was “just an old dirty man.”

Jordan encouraged Ortiz to stay close to her friends, effectively using a “buddy system” to keep Schultz from sexually assaulting her, and said that if anything happened again Ortiz could report it to Jordan when she returned to work in a few days. Ortiz reluctantly decided not to file a formal complaint and to “let it go.” Jordan prepared a report of the incident but did not turn it in until she returned to work several days later.

Later that evening, while Ortiz was sleeping, Schultz entered her housing area and fondled her breast and put his fingers inside her vagina. When Ortiz awoke and realized what was happening, she hit and scratched Schultz until he left.

Ortiz reported the second assault the following day, prompting an investigation by Rebecca Bright, a prison investigator. Bright scheduled a lie detector test for Ortiz, which she passed. Schultz initially denied Ortiz’s allegations but later resigned.

While Bright’s investigation was ongoing, Ortiz was placed in solitary confinement, at Bright’s request, because Ortiz was allegedly discussing the ongoing investigation with other prisoners. Bright was allegedly concerned about possible retaliation against Ortiz from prisoners who were loyal to Schultz.

Ortiz, on the other hand, felt she was placed in isolation as retaliation for reporting Schultz’s abusive conduct. Ortiz recalled, for example, Bright telling her that she was put in the hole “because [she] had lied.”

Ortiz sued Jordan, Bright, Schultz, the warden and the Governor of Ohio, alleging that Jordan had failed to protect her from Schultz in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that Bright had violated her due process rights by placing her in solitary confinement. Schultz was dismissed from the suit after he was unable to be served.

The case went to a federal jury trial and the jurors returned a verdict in favor of Ortiz, awarding $250,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages against Jordan, and $25,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages against Bright. Bright and Jordan appealed.

In a stunning display of disregard for the jury’s verdict and the overwhelming evidence presented at trial, the Sixth Circuit panel, by a 2-1 vote, found that Jordan and Bright did not violate Ortiz’s constitutional rights.

Although noting in passing that prisoners have the right to be protected from harm, the Court of Appeals held that Jordan was not deliberately indifferent to Ortiz’s safety.
Jordan’s actions of advising Ortiz to rely on a “buddy system” to deter Schultz from attacking her was not unreasonable under the circumstances, the appellate court reasoned, given that it was Schultz’s last day at the facility and it was unlikely anything could have been done to remove Schultz from his post that day. “The fact that [Jordan’s efforts] were ineffective does not change our analysis,” the Court wrote.

Turning to Ortiz’s allegations against Bright, the Sixth Circuit held that Ortiz’s temporary placement in solitary confinement did not amount to a due process violation. The appellate court recognized that Ortiz had alleged that her placement in isolation was done “with a distinctively punitive purpose,” but declined, at this late stage of the proceedings, to construe Ortiz’s allegations against Bright as a First Amendment retaliation claim.

Circuit Judge Martha Daughtrey, who dissented, called the court’s opinion a “legal travesty.” Leaving Ortiz “wholly unprotected in the face of a known risk of assault has repeatedly been held by this court and others to amount to deliberate indifference,” Daughtrey stated. The court’s decision to the contrary produced an “unfortunate result” in Ortiz’s case and was, as Daughtrey put it, “thoroughly senseless.”

This ruling is unpublished. Perhaps the two Sixth Circuit judges who wrote the majority opinion were too embarrassed to see their “thoroughly senseless” decision in print. See: Ortiz v. Jordan, 316 Fed.Appx. 449 (6th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Ortiz v. Jordan