Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

West Virginia Supreme Court Undermines Prisoners’ Right to Sue for Rape

West Virginia Supreme Court Undermines Prisoners’ Right to Sue for Rape

In a March 27, 2014 decision, the Supreme Court for the state of West Virginia held that a female prisoner who claimed she had been raped multiple times by a guard could not sue the jail authority. The victim, identified only as A.B., had filed a complaint against the West Virginia Regional Jail Correctional Facility Authority (WVRJCFA) in Kanawah Circuit Court, arguing that officials at the Southern Regional Jail were negligent for allowing a guard to rape her 17 times. According to the complaint, the guard, who supervised the shower area on numerous occasions, would follow A.B. back to her cell and force her to have sex.

A.B. asserted that the WVRJCFA was responsible for the illegal acts of its employees and that her attacker violated her rights created under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

At the close of discovery, the WVRJCFA moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, arguing “... that it could not be held vicariously liable for the intentional, illegal acts of its employee and respondent had not demonstrated a ‘clearly established’ right which the WVRJCFA violated....”

The circuit court denied summary judgment, finding that A.B. was entitled to sue the WVRJCFA for the illegal actions of its employees, and the defendants appealed.

Relying on Heckenlaible v. Va. Peninsula Regional Jail Authority, 491 F.Supp.2d 544 (E.D. Va. 2007), the state Supreme Court of Appeals wrote that although observing prisoners as they showered was within the scope of the guard’s employment, the WVRJCFA was still entitled to qualified immunity, and that since the jail did not have a regulation prohibiting rape, the guard did not actually violate a jail regulation. In other words, if a prohibition on raping prisoners is not included in jail policies, then the WVRJCFA is immune from liability when guards commit rape.

The Court further held that while the PREA was passed in 2003, the final standards did not go into effect until 2012. [See: PLN, Sept. 2013, p.1]. Therefore, since A.B. was raped in 2009, “... neither the PREA, nor the standards promulgated at its direction, provide respondent with a ‘clearly established right’ sufficient to strip the WVRJCFA of its immunity.”

Justice Robin Davis filed a scathing dissent criticizing the majority opinion. Blasting her colleagues, Davis wrote that according to their misguided reasoning, “...the Regional Jail does not have a duty to protect female prisoners from being raped by the correctional officers it employs.... The majority opinion summarily [rejecting] Heckenlaible on the grounds that Virginia did not extend qualified immunity to itself ... is misguided.... Instead, Heckenlaible requires the fact finder to determine ‘whether the service itself, in which the tortious act was done, was within the ordinary course of [the employer’s] business.’”

According to Davis, “the Fourth Circuit summarized the constitutional protection afforded the human body in Hall v. Tawney, 621 F.2d 607 (4th Cir. 1980): [Citizens have] the right to be free of state intrusions into realms of personal privacy and bodily security through means so brutal, demeaning, and harmful as literally to shock the conscience of a court.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the state Supreme Court disagreed, resulting in the dismissal of A.B.’s negligence-based claims against the WVRJCFA. Following rehearing, on October 31, 2014 the Court entered a superseding order that reached the same result.

“Upon further review of the briefs, the appendix record, the arguments of the parties, the amicus curiae, and the applicable legal authority, we again find that the WVRJCFA is entitled to immunity under the circumstances here present; therefore, we reverse the order of the circuit court and remand the case for entry of an order granting summary judgment and dismissing the action against it,” the Court wrote in its superseding opinion.

However, it also included a caveat: “We take this opportunity on rehearing to make plain our concern over the seriousness of the allegations contained herein. To whatever extent this opinion or our prior opinion is characterized as suggesting that this Court is not mindful of the pervasiveness and gravity of the issue of prison sexual assault, such a characterization is at best patently incorrect. However, this Court is constrained to the faithful application of the law.” See: W.Va. Reg’l Jail & Corr. Facility Auth. v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (W.Va. 2014).

Additional source:

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

W.Va. Reg’l Jail & Corr. Facility Auth. v. A.B.