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Wyoming Sheriff Granted Qualified Immunity for Jail Guard’s Sexual Assault

The Wyoming Supreme Court has held that a county sheriff was improperly denied qualified immunity on claims that a guard in his employ sexually assaulted a female prisoner.

While working as a jail guard in Utah, Todd Hoover underwent back surgery, became addicted to pain pills and stole prisoners’ medication. He then moved to Wyoming and was hired as a detention officer by Uinta County Sheriff Louis Napoli in 2006. Hoover’s addiction and medication thefts were not known at the time he was hired.

Hoover overdosed while on duty, leading to an internal investigation which revealed his history of addiction and theft. Nevertheless, Sheriff Napoli and Hoover agreed that Hoover would only be suspended without pay for two weeks, undergo counseling and urinalysis testing, serve an extended probationary period and disclose his medical records as part of a disciplinary plan.

After returning to work, Hoover met Uinta County Detention Center prisoner Judee Pennington, who had been terminated from a drug court program and was awaiting placement in a treatment program. Hoover gave Pennington drugs and sexually assaulted her, resulting in his termination, prosecution and a prison sentence.

Pennington filed suit in U.S. District Court, but the court dismissed her federal claims and refused to retain jurisdiction over her state law claims. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal in a 2011 unpublished ruling. See: Pennington v. Uinta County, 442 Fed.Appx. 409 (10th Cir. 2011). Pennington then sued Hoover, Napoli, Uinta County and the Board of County Commissioners in state court; the trial court denied qualified immunity to Sheriff Napoli and the county, and they filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Wyoming Supreme Court reversed. “There are four requirements that must be established by the record when a public official asserts qualified immunity,” the Court explained in its detailed ruling. “The first factor is not an issue. The factors in dispute are whether Sheriff Napoli acted in good faith, whether he acted reasonably when he opted not to terminate Hoover’s employment but to retain him under the disciplinary plan, and whether he was acting in a discretionary manner.”

The Supreme Court found that “the good faith and reasonableness depend on whether Sheriff Napoli should have anticipated that Hoover was likely to assault an inmate.” However, “the record contains nothing that should have alerted the Sheriff to this risk.” Additionally, “Sheriff Napoli was supervising and training an employee, which is a discretionary act.” Therefore, the Court held that the trial court improperly denied qualified immunity to Napoli, and because he was entitled to qualified immunity, “the ruling against the County and the Board must also be reversed.” See: Uinta County v. Pennington, 2012 WY 129, 286 P.3d 138 (Wyo. 2012).

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