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Lawsuit against Oklahoma Jail for Providing False Information Partially Reinstated on Appeal

On July 19, 2016 the Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma reversed, in part, a lower court order dismissing a suit against jail officials accused of providing false and misleading information about a former defendant to a website that published the information online.

Aaron Lee Benshoof was arrested in Garfield County, Oklahoma on a charge of first-degree burglary, which was dismissed without costs in April 2013. However, Benshoof’s jail mugshot was published on OK Jailbirds, a website that obtains public booking photos, criminal charge information and names of arrestees from local law enforcement agencies, and posts them online.

Benshoof filed suit against Garfield County and several jail officials for repeatedly providing false information to OK Jailbirds, which made it appear that he had been convicted of first-degree burglary. According to Benshoof’s pro se complaint, his mugshot with the words “First Degree Burglary” below it was published on OK Jailbirds based on information provided by the Garfield County jail, which caused him “loss of friends, being questioned in humility” [sic], loss of job opportunities and even death threats.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss that was eventually granted by the trial court. The court held the defendants were acting within the scope of their employment pursuant to Oklahoma’s Open Records Act when they provided the information to OK Jailbirds, and thus were entitled to immunity.

The Court of Appeals reversed in part and remanded for trial. The appellate court first held that judgment had been properly entered in favor of Garfield County jail officials for any acts they took within the scope of their employment because, pursuant to Oklahoma’s Tort Claims Act, they could not be stripped of immunity for “actions they took in fulfilling their official duties.”

However, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded on Benshoof’s claim that jail staff purposely and repeatedly provided false and misleading information to OK Jailbirds, which would be outside the scope of their employment. Because their official duties did not include disseminating incorrect information, that defeated their immunity defense.

“Plaintiff has stated a claim for relief against Defendants individually based on conduct that, if proven, could be found to have been committed outside the scope of their employment,” the appellate court wrote. Noting that for the purposes of a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s facts must be accepted as true, the trial court’s judgment “was granted in error.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the order of dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings. The appellate mandate was issued on September 14, 2016. See: Benshoof v. Niles, 2016 OK CIV APP 57, 380 P.3d 902 (Okla. Ct. App. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Benshoof v. Niles