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Second Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Lawsuit Alleging New York Guard Sexually Assaulted Female Prisoners

The lawsuit was filed by prisoners Tara Lucente, Jaimie A. Culoso, Janet Viola, Sharon Watts, Michele Atkinson, and Catherine Andes. They alleged that from May 2009 to April 2011 they were subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual degradation by Sgt. Joseph Foti. Watts, Atkinson, and Culoso reached a settlement on their claims. Foti moved for summary judgment against the remaining plaintiffs.

The district court granted that motion. It found there was no evidence of a municipal policy or custom to trigger liability, that Lucente and Culoso’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations, and that Viola failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The women appealed.

The Second Circuit found several errors in the failure to find there existed a municipal custom or policy. First, error was found in the district court’s characterization of Foti’s conduct as the “isolated action of a rogue officer.” While there existed “no evidence that officers other that Foti participated in the alleged sexual assaults and sexual harassment of female inmates, there was nothing ‘isolated’ about his alleged misconduct.”

The Second Circuit noted the record showed misconduct with six prisoners over 18 months. Foti’s sexual misconduct “was not isolated, but rather was severe, persistent, and pervasive conduct that was executed in a manner that would have been difficult to conceal from supervisory personnel” at SCCF.

The record also showed Foti was investigated in the 1990s for sexual misconduct. Five formal complaints were filed against him at SCCF, which imputed knowledge to the sheriff. Then, there were reports in 1997 and 1998 alleging Foti sexually harassed his ex-girlfriend. The Second Circuit said its precedent holds that “previously articulated, off-duty conduct can be relevant for establishing municipal liability.” See: Vann v. City of New York, 72 F.3d 1040 (2d Cir. 1995).

There also existed evidence in the record that Foti’s misconduct was known to supervisors. It was shown that Investigator John Santacroce was aware of Foti’s actions. He allegedly told Watts and Atkinson to suck it up. Sgt. Noreen Fisher reported several complaints about Foti’s sexual misconduct to her supervisor. The Second Circuit found genuine issues of material fact exits as to whether officials were aware of Foti’s alleged misconduct. As such, summary judgment was improperly granted on the municipal liability claim.

The court further found Lucente and Culoso’s claims were not barred by the statute of limitations. They filed their lawsuit on March 28, 2013. New York law applies a three-year time limitation, so their claims must have accrued on or before March 23, 2010. At issue was whether the continuing violation doctrine applied to their claims.

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Related legal case

Lucente v. Cty. of Suffolk