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Ninth Circuit: Warden Who Failed to Protect Female Prisoners from Sexual Assault Not Immune from Suit

by Christopher Zoukis

The Ninth Circuit has ruled that the former warden at the California Institute for Women (CIW) is not immune from liability for failing to protect two female prisoners from repeated sexual abuse at the hands of a prison guard.

Jossie Ramos and Melissa Ortiz were incarcerated at CIW in 2010 when Guillermo Garcia was the warden. Garcia ignored multiple complaints that CIW guard Gary Swatzell was sexually assaulting several female prisoners; he also ignored a lieutenant’s complaint that Swatzell physically assaulted her in retaliation for reporting his misconduct. With Garcia asleep at the wheel, Swatzell continued his sexual exploitation, ultimately impregnating Ramos. He was prosecuted and sentenced to two years in jail. [See: PLN, Sept. 2013, p.56]. Ramos remains in custody but now has a 5-year-old child as a result of Swatzell’s sexual abuse.

Ramos and Ortiz sued Garcia, alleging deliberate indifference to their safety in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The former warden claimed that he should be granted qualified immunity and moved for summary judgment.

The district court denied Garcia’s motion, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The appellate court considered whether the facts showed that his conduct violated a constitutional right, and if so, whether that right was clearly established at the time of the violation.

The Court of Appeals found Garcia’s conduct to unquestionably qualify as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Both the law and common decency proscribe sexual abuse of prisoners at the hands of prison guards. The Court also held that a prisoner’s right to be free from sexual abuse was clearly established at the time Garcia failed to act.

Garcia’s argument – that it wasn’t clearly known to him that the actions he took in response to the complaints of sexual abuse were constitutionally deficient – was specious at best and frivolous at worst. Fortunately, both the district and appellate courts saw through his questionable defense, and the case was remanded to be set for trial. See: Ramos v. Swatzell, 669 Fed. Appx. 486 (9th Cir. 2016).

Following remand, the case proceeded and on June 5, 2017 a magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation on the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions against the defendants and their attorney based upon “their alleged misrepresentations of facts and obstructive tactics throughout the course of this litigation,” including the destruction of Garcia’s personnel file. The magistrate recommended that the motion be granted in part and sanctions imposed, including giving jurors an adverse inference instruction regarding the spoliation of Garcia’s file as well as monetary sanctions. See: Ramos v. Swatzell, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103014 (C.D. Cal. 2017).

The recommendations were adopted by the district court on June 30, 2017; the court also reopened discovery so Ramos and Ortiz could seek additional records from the defendants. The case remains pending.  


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Related legal case

Ramos v. Swatzell