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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds $625,000 Judgment for Female Prisoner Molested by Ohio Prison Guard

by John E. Dannenberg

On January 24, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court (USSC), ruling on a relatively minor procedural issue regarding the timing of a defense motion for summary judgment, upheld a $625,000 jury verdict awarded to a female prisoner who was sexually abused by an Ohio state prison guard.

Michelle Ortiz was assaulted by prison guard Douglas Schultz, who walked up behind her in the washroom of her living quarters and grabbed one of her breasts. When Ortiz reported this to her case manager, Paula Jordan, Jordan suggested that while Ortiz had a right to file a complaint, she counseled against it because it was Schultz’s last day working at the facility. Jordan advised Ortiz to simply stay in the company of other prisoners to avoid further sexual assaults. However, after Ortiz fell asleep in her dorm, she awoke to find Schultz fondling her left breast with one hand while fingering her vagina with the other.

When Ortiz further complained, prison investigator Rebecca Bright put her in solitary confinement, allegedly to prevent her from talking about the investigation with other prisoners. Ortiz claimed she was segregated in retaliation for her complaint.

Ortiz sued Jordan and Bright under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failure to protect her from Schultz’s repeated assaults. Schultz had resigned and fled to avoid service of process in the suit. The case went to a jury trial, where Ortiz won verdicts of $350,000 against Jordan and $275,000 against Bright.

On appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the defendants renewed an earlier unsuccessful motion for summary judgment that raised a qualified immunity defense. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding the district court should have granted qualified immunity to the defendants; the appellate court also held the jury verdict was “against the weight of the evidence.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.46].

The USSC reversed the Sixth Circuit on the narrow question of the proper timing for such a motion, holding the defendants had waived their rights by failing to bring the motion in a timely, procedurally correct manner, and that the Sixth Circuit had erred in repairing this failure by permitting resurrection of the procedural defense when it no longer had jurisdiction to do so.

However, the USSC’s decision, while restoring Ortiz’s well-deserved monetary judgment, is not the highlight of this case. The real story is that an Ohio prison guard, while performing his official duties, sexually assaulted a female prisoner – twice – and that the prisoner was subjected to retaliation for reporting the assaults and no discipline was taken against the guard. Even more egregious, the defendants, Jordan and Bright, shamelessly tried to shield themselves from liability by claiming their conduct “did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” by asserting a qualified immunity defense.

Such is the sad state of justice for prisoners who are victimized by prison staff and then try to hold them accountable in court. See: Ortiz v. Jordan, 131 S Ct. 884, 562 U.S. ___ (2011).

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Related legal case

Ortiz v. Jordan