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Over $237,000 Awarded in Wisconsin Prisoner’s Suit Accusing Guard of Unwanted Sexual Advances

by Kevin W. Bliss

On June 16, 2022, the federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ordered a state prison guard to pay $110,042.38 in legal costs and fees for a former state prisoner she subjected to unwanted sexual advances. The award came on top of a $125,000 jury verdict in the case entered in November 2021.

The prisoner, Doniel Carter, was held at Fox Lake Correctional Institution (FLCI) in early 2012 when guard Sgt. Erika Watson took a special interest in him. After grooming him with extra food and gym time, complimenting him on his appearance and discussing her sexual preferences, she maneuvered Carter into a kiss.

That was followed by several sexual encounters, which the guard extorted with threats to interfere with Carter’s upcoming release. She also coerced his silence about the liaisons with a threat to say he had raped her.

Carter said another prison guard, Tara Weidemann, abetted Watson’s assaults on him by delivering messages that Watson needed him “to do something” in private locations in the prison. There Watson would be waiting to force him to continue fulfilling her sexual needs. Weidemann also allegedly delivered love notes and nude selfies from Watson that were hidden inside magazines, which also concealed her handwritten phone number.

On May 17, 2012, Watson was discovered coming to work with a letter addressed to Carter in her backpack. She was immediately escorted off the prison grounds and placed under investigation. Carter was transferred and investigated as well.

After his release, he filed suit in the Court against Watson, Weidemann and the state, along with several others, on May 9, 2018. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he accused Defendants of violating his Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment with the forced sexual encounters.

All defendants were dismissed from the suit except the two guards. After a four-day trial, a jury then returned a verdict against Watson, but not against Weidemann. Carter was not awarded any compensatory damages, but he was granted $125,000 in punitive damages.

Watson filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV), or Relief from Judgment, or Remittitur. Calling the verdict “illogical,” she said the award was too exorbitant for her to meet. She further argued that since Carter had been reincarcerated at the time he filed suit, he should first exhaust administrative remedies through his prison’s grievance system, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.

Ruling for the Court, Judge Brett Ludwig said that Watson’s JNOV request did “not even make it out of the starting gate” because it had to be filed before the case was submitted to the jury. Her request for relief was also denied. Nowhere in her motion did she adequately argue she obtained new evidence about Carter’s incarceration status that she could not have discovered prior to trial, the Court noted. So she couldn’t raise the issue of administrative remedies now.

The judge also explained that awarding punitive damages without compensatory damages was not without precedent, so it was hardly “illogical.” Moreover, the facts showed Watson’s actions — and the planning and manipulation used to repeat them over and over again — were especially egregious, given her authority over Carter. Lastly, because Watson failed to ask for a jury instruction on awarding damages within her ability to pay, she had also failed to preserve this issue for appellate review, the Court said.

The PLRA came around to bite the Plaintiff, however; the Court determined he was in fact incarcerated at the time he filed suit. So his request for attorney fees and costs was capped by the statute’s formulas at $100,042.38. Combined with 25% of his jury award, that totaled $141,292.38 in fees and costs for his attorneys, Nathaniel Cade, Jr. of Cade Law Group LLC in Milwaukee and Lisa C. Goldman of Davey & Goldman in Madison. See: Carter v. Watson, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107346 (E.D. Wis.). 

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