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Eighth Circuit Affirms Qualified Immunity for Missouri Prison Chief in Sexual Abuse Claims Against Former Guard

by David M. Reutter

On August 23, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed denial of qualified immunity (QI) to Anne Precythe, Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC), in an Eighth Amendment complaint filed by a state prisoner accusing Precythe of failing to protect her from sexual abuse by Edward Bearden, a former guard at Chillicothe Correctional Center (CCC).

As PLN reported five prisoners accused the guard of sexual abuse between 2012 and 2015, and a jury awarded $5 million each in April 2022 to four who consolidated their complaints: Karen Keil, Lyndsey Betz, Ashley Zesser, and Trenady George. [See: PLN, May 2023, p.56.]

The fifth prisoner, Teri L. Dean, brought similar claims against Bearden and also against Precythe. Meanwhile a DOC investigation “led to sanctions against [Bearden], including an order prohibiting him from having contact with prisoners,” the Eighth Circuit recalled, noting that the guard then “retired just a few weeks later.” He was never criminally charged.

Precythe learned about the allegations during the investigation. But she “didn’t [personally] take any action,” believing others had the situation under control, the Court continued; the prison chief “trusted [her] staff to tell [her] if there was something [she] needed to know.” But Dean argued that Precythe should’ve been more curious and done more. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri agreed, denying Precythe’s motion for summary judgment based on QI. Precythe appealed.

At the Eighth Circuit, Dean argued that “Precythe’s failure to ‘take any action’ after learning about the sexual-­assault allegations was deliberately indifferent.” But the Court said that “[e]ven if we assume that Precythe should have done more, neither ‘controlling authority’ nor ‘a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority’ required it,” citing Ashcroft v. al-­Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 742 (2011). As DOC Director, Precythe “would not have known that dealing with sexual-­assault allegations by having staff investigate and respond to them was deliberately indifferent under the circumstances” sometimes, the Court added, pointing to Taylor v. Barkes, 575 U.S. 822 (2015).

Circuit precedent “suggests that a high-­ranking official’s deference to the judgment of staff does not generally rise to the level of deliberate indifference, even with ‘kn[owledge] of the danger,’” the Court declared, pointing to Axelson v. Watson, 999 F.3d 541 (8th Cir. 2021). Since DOC’s “established policy and process” places responsibility for investigating prisoner complaints with its Office of Professional Standards, Precythe “had no obligation to do anything more than allow the existing investigation to play out,” the Court concluded.

Thus the district court’s order was reversed and the case remanded for the entry of partial judgment in Precythe’s favor. Before the Court, Dean was represented by counsel from St. Louis University School of Law faculty John J. Ammann and Brendan D. Roediger, along with St. Louis attorney Jenifer C. Snow. See: Dean v. Bearden, 79 F.4th 986 (8th Cir. 2023).

Back at the district court, Dean’s case against Bearden and other remaining DOC defendants is proceeding toward a trial currently set for May 2024. PLN will update case developments as they are available. See: Dean v. Bearden, USDC (W.D. Mo.), Case No. 5:19-­cv-­06022.  

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Related legal case

Dean v. Bearden