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Fifth Circuit Dismisses Female Immigration Detainees’ Sexual Assault Claims

Fifth Circuit Dismisses Female Immigration Detainees’ Sexual Assault Claims

by Matt Clarke

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held on May 6, 2014 that federal employees responsible for overseeing immigration detainee contracts were entitled to qualified immunity even if they knew that female detainees were being transported by a single male employee in violation of contractual requirements, prior to the women being sexually assaulted by the employee.

This case was brought by eight female immigration detainees who, in separate incidents, were sexually assaulted while being transported from the T. Don Hutto Residential Center (Hutto) in Williamson County, Texas to the airport or bus station. [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.42].

Pursuant to an Intergovernmental Service Agreement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts with Williamson County to manage the Hutto facility, and the county subcontracts with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Detainees are held at Hutto while waiting to be interviewed by asylum officers; if they establish a preliminary justification for asylum, they are released and transported to the bus station or airport. The eight plaintiffs were transported by CCA employee Donald Dunn, who sexually assaulted them.

Dunn pleaded guilty to charges related to the assaults and was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison, plus a year in jail on state charges. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.1]. The women filed a Bivens action against George Robertson and Jose Rosado, ICE Contracting Officer’s Technical Representatives (COTRs) at Hutto. Their suit alleged that the COTRs knew Dunn had been transporting female detainees alone, and that the ICE contract required at least one transportation officer of the same gender as the person being transported to reduce the risk of sexual assault. Thus, the women argued the COTRs were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm to female detainees being transported by Dunn.

The COTRs moved to dismiss the suit on the basis of qualified immunity; the district court denied the motion, and Rosado and Robertson appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that even if the COTRs had actual knowledge that Dunn was transporting the women alone, which violated the provisions of the contract intended to reduce the risk of sexual assault, “no controlling authority provides that such breaches are ‘facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists.’” The situation might be different if the female detainees had alleged that the COTRs had actual knowledge of prior sexual assaults or complaints or protests from Hutto detainees who had been transported. However, standing alone, knowledge that a policy intended to minimize the risk of sexual assault was being violated was insufficient for an official to draw the inference that a substantial risk of sexual assault existed.

Therefore, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to dismiss the claims against Robertson and Rosado based on qualified immunity. See: Doe v. Robertson, 751 F.3d 383 (5th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Doe v. Robertson