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Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in California Sexual Harassment Case

by David M. Reutter

On January 31, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment in a civil rights action alleging a guard at California’s Kern County Jail (KCJ) made sexual comments to a female juvenile detainee, groomed her for sexual abuse, and looked at her inappropriately while she was showering.

Samantha Vazquez entered KCJ in January 2015 and was placed in the juvenile unit. She was assigned to work details that included laundry, kitchen, and cleanup. Her complaint contended that guard George Anderson, 45, purposely selected her to work “details” with him.

In a deposition, Vazquez said Anderson inappropriately called her “babe” and told her she had a “big butt.” He also “grabbed [her] face,” “touched her shoulders” and talked with her about her shower gown.

She described one incident while she was in a room alone with Anderson and he described a “rated R” dream. He told her that in his dream, she “grabbed him by his T-shirt,” “gave him a kiss,” and “after that [they] ended up going to a room and, like, having fun and stuff.” Subsequently, Anderson told her “to get close to him,” and he “wanted his dream to come true.”

Anderson also instructed Vazquez which shower stall to use. Vazquez testified that he watched her shower three or four times. She ultimately informed substance abuse specialist Francisco Maldonado about Anderson’s conduct, and an investigation ensued after he reported it to officials. The allegations were sustained, and the process to terminate Anderson began.

During a deposition, Anderson admitted he may have been alone with Vazquez once and that he remained on a few occasions at the staff counter while female juveniles were showering. Both acts violated KCJ policy.

Vazquez’s lawsuit names Anderson, his supervisor Heathe Appleton, and Kern County. They moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted that motion, concluding the sexual abuse claim did not reach the “harm of constitutional proportions.” The court further found the right to privacy claim was not based on sufficiently frequent conduct to merit a violation. Finally, the court found the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Vazquez appealed.

As to the privacy claim, the Ninth Circuit’s order noted that prisoners have a right to not have guards of the opposite sex view their naked bodies, and that Anderson’s conduct violated KCJ policy. The evidence Vazquez presented was sufficient for a jury to find in Vazquez’s favor.

As to the Fourteenth Amendment claim of a right to bodily integrity, the Ninth Circuit found Anderson’s conduct could be found to be “so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscious.” Additionally, there was no legitimate governmental purpose for his conduct, so Vazquez’s claim of her Fourteenth Amendment right to be free of punishment could also be validated by a jury. The court found the rights alleged to be clearly established, making qualified immunity unavailable to Anderson.

The claim against Appleton alleged he failed to intervene on more than one occasion when he saw Anderson alone with a female ward, and that he was aware of Anderson’s prior incident of supervising female wards’ showers. Thus, a jury could find that Appleton knew of Anderson’s prior violation and failed to act, making him liable under a theory of supervisory liability.

The district court’s order granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment was reversed. See Vasquez v. County of Kern, et al., 949 F.3d 1153 (9th Cir. 2020) 

Related legal case

Vasquez v. County of Kern, et al.