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Ninth Circuit Holds Staff Sexual Abuse Presumed Coercive; State Bears Burden of Rebutting Presumption

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a district court erred when finding a prisoner could not state an Eighth Amendment sex abuse claim because he “consented” to a relationship with a prison guard.

In 2002, Idaho prisoner Lance Wood and guard Sandra De Martin began a romantic, but not sexual, relationship. Within a few months, however, Wood heard “rumors that Martin had gotten married.” She denied being married but Wood said he wanted to end the relationship.

Shortly thereafter, Martin entered Wood’s cell and “cupped her hand on [his] groin ... enough to excite [him].” Wood pushed her away and said “you need to back off on this.”

Wood again tried to end the relationship but Martin pursued him and subjected him to “aggressive pat searches” on several occasions. Wood went so far as to ask another guard for help, but Martin continued to pursue him.

After Wood ended the relationship, Martin again entered his cell and “grabbed ahold of [his] penis and started to stroke it.”

Martin continued to harass Wood after that incident, but he did not initially report her due to fear of retaliation. Eventually he did report Martin and was transferred to a different prison the next day.

Wood then filed suit in federal court, alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and failure to protect claims. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant prison officials on Wood’s retaliation claim and his claims that Martin had entered his cell, cupped his groin and stroked his penis.

The district court relied on Ault v. Freitas, 109 F.3d 1335 (8th Cir. 1997) to hold that “welcome and voluntary sexual interactions, no matter how inappropriate, cannot as a matter of law constitute ‘pain’ as contemplated by the Eighth Amendment.” Under that standard, the court concluded that Wood could not establish an Eighth Amendment violation.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, first recognizing the indisputable proposition that a guard’s sexual harassment or abuse of a prisoner violates the Eighth Amendment. Noting that whether a prisoner can consent to a relationship with a guard was a matter of first impression, the appellate court observed that “because of the enormous power imbalance between prisoners and prison guards, labeling a prisoner’s decision to engage in sexual conduct in prison as ‘consent’ is a dubious proposition.”

The Court of Appeals declined to follow Ault because it “utterly failed to recognize the factors which make it inherently difficult to discern consent from coercion in the prison environment.”

While the Ninth Circuit was “concerned about the implications of removing consent as a defense for Eighth Amendment claims,” it found that “allowing consent as a defense may permit courts to ignore the power dynamics between a prisoner and a guard and to characterize the relationship as consensual when coercion is clearly involved.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals adopted a bright-line rule which establishes a presumption that alleged sexual misconduct by prison staff is not consensual. While declining to exhaustively define coercive factors, the Court noted that obvious factors include “explicit assertions or manifestations of non-consent” and “favors, privileges, or any type of exchange for sex.”

The appellate court held that the state bears the burden of rebutting “this presumption by showing that the conduct involved no coercive factors.... Unless the state carries its burden, the prisoner is deemed to have established the fact of non-consent.”

Applying this rule, the Ninth Circuit held Wood had established non-consent for purposes of surviving summary judgment, because his “objective conduct demonstrates non-consent and the state cannot overcome its burden.” See: Wood v. Beauclair, 692 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, a jury trial was held in December 2012, resulting in a mistrial. On April 8, 2013 the district court denied Wood’s motion to hold the defendants in contempt for “allegedly recording his attorney phone calls, monitoring his attorney visits, and opening and reviewing his legal mail,” finding they had legitimate security reasons for doing so. The court also denied his motion for a protective order and for appointment of counsel. See: Wood v. Martin, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52305 (D. Idaho 2013).

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