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$500,000 Default Judgment for Tennessee Woman Sexually Assaulted by Probation Officer

by David M. Reutter

On March 17, 2021, a federal district court in Tennessee awarded a $500,000 default judgment, plus another $60,863.75 in attorney’s fees, to a woman who alleged in a lawsuit that her probation officer sexually assaulted her.

The order from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee approved the report and recommendation of a magistrate judge issued on February 24, 2021, in a lawsuit filed by April Diane McPeters on February 1, 2018.

After pleading guilty to a charge of food-stamp fraud, McPeters completed the first five years of her probation without incident. But after Bryant Lamont Thomas was assigned as her probation officer in late 2016, she completed just two in-person office visits with him before he began sending her text messages that became increasingly informal and conversational, she said.

Thomas was not available when McPeters went to make the third visit. But shortly thereafter, he called McPeters on her cellphone and informed her that he was making in-home visits. From that point forward, Thomas allegedly became harassing and exploitative by asking personal questions and seeking pictures, including sexually explicit pictures.

In the complaint she filed, McPeters alleged that Thomas demanded a visit at her home and that he arrived wearing his parole and probation badge and a pistol on his belt. Placing his hand on the pistol, he checked the house to assure no witnesses were present and then pushed closer to McPeters, whispering orders for her to show him pictures of herself.

She complied out of fear, she said, adding that Bryant forced her to delete many of the text messages that they had exchanged. Then, with his hand still on the gun, he allegedly ordered McPeters to perform oral sex upon him. In “fear of her life and liberty, and under compulsion of [Thomas’s] exercise of his official authority, [McPeters] complied with the command.”

McPeters alleged a violation of her civil rights, as well as assault and battery. The case was stayed on March 27, 2019, while Bryant was criminally prosecuted. After his conviction, the stay was lifted on July 16, 2020, and Thomas was ordered to respond to the complaint within 21 days. When he failed to do so, McPeters applied for default, and the court clerk entered one on September 22, 2020. McPeters then formally moved for a default judgment.

The Court found that after Thomas sexually assaulted McPeters, she had a nervous breakdown, relapsed and started using drugs. She was then charged with possession of methamphetamine and lost parental rights of her children. She testified that had the incident not happened she would not have relapsed. The Court was presented with testimony that prior to the incident McPeters was “doing wonderful” and had her life on track. But it was apparent to one witness that McPeters changed after the incident.

The Court found $250,000 was an appropriate compensatory damages award. It also awarded $250,000 in punitive damages to punish Thomas for “his abhorrent behavior while at the same time deter[ing] others from engaging in similar conduct.” Fees of $60,863.75 were also awarded to her attorneys, Philip N. Elbert, Benjamin C. Aaron and Jeffrey A. Zager of the Nashville firm of Neal & Hartwell, PLC. See: McPeters v. Thomas, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50478; and 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50264 (E.D. Tenn.).

In his criminal case, Thomas pleaded guilty to Class E felony sexual contact with a probationer and was sentenced to two years of supervised probation by the Anderson County Circuit Court. He appealed that sentence, saying the court abused its discretion in denying him a sentence diversion instead. But the state Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling on January 29, 2021, saying it was entitled to a presumption of reasonableness in light of the fact that Thomas “abused his position of power, authority, and control over the victim for his own sexual gratification.” See: State v. Thomas, 2021 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 44. 

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McPeters v. Thomas

McPeters v. Thomas

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