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Second Circuit: Supervisor Must Have Subjective Knowledge of Sexual Abuse by Guards to Be Liable

On December 28, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a prisoner who was sexually abused by three guards must prove their supervisor had subjective knowledge of the crime to hold a supervisor liable. Because this was not done, it ordered summary judgment be granted in the supervisor’s favor.

While Cara Tangreti was a Connecticut state prisoner incarcerated at the York Correctional Institute, she was repeatedly sexually abused over a period of months by three different guards, Jeffrey Bromley, Matthew Gillette, and Kareem Dawson. The guards were prosecuted, and two pleaded guilty and were imprisoned. A fourth guard who had covered up for the other three was fired.

During the period while the sexual abuse was taking place, Cristine Bachmann was a counselor supervisor with an office on the floor of the building where Tangreti was housed and where most of the abuse occurred. Bachmann twice observed inappropriate interactions between Bromley and Tangreti—once when Tangreti was “lingering at the doorway” to Bromley’s office and again when she overheard them in the laundry room talking about other staff members.

Tangreti filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against eight prison supervisory personnel, including Bachmann, seeking to hold them liable for their subordinate guards’ sexual abuse. The district court applied the test for supervisory liability articulated in Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865 (2d Cir.1995) and granted summary judgment to all defendants except Bachmann.

Bachmann appealed the denial of qualified immunity, arguing that since the Supreme Court decided Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), the scope of supervisory liability for deliberate indifference claims under the Eighth Amendment has not been clearly established.

The Second Circuit agreed, holding that since Iqubal, there is no special test for supervisory liability and a plaintiff must plead that each individual defendant’s own actions violated the Constitution.

So the court held that, for such claims against a prison supervisor, the plaintiff must plead and prove the supervisor had subjective knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm to the plaintiff and disregarded it.

In this case, the pretrial record did not support the inference that Bachmann had subjective knowledge that Tangreti was at substantial risk of sexual abuse. Bachmann’s observation of two cases of inappropriate but non-sexual behavior was not sufficient to give her subjective knowledge of sexual abuse, so it was not sufficient to prove that she should have known about the abuse, the Court decided.

Therefore, the judgment of the district court was reversed and the case remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment in Bachmann’s favor. See: Tangreti v. Bachmann, 983 F.3d 609 (2d Cir. 2020).

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Related legal case

Tangreti v. Bachmann