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Qualified Immunity Denied to Former New Mexico Warden in Prisoner’s Sexual Abuse Claim

On October 6, 2023, the federal court for the District of New Mexico stood fast in its refusal to grant qualified immunity (QI) to a defendant warden with the state Corrections Department (NMCD) in a prisoner’s suit alleging sexual abuse by a guard.

Dawn Green was incarcerated at Springer Correctional Facility in 2017 when she was the victim of sexual abuse by guard Christopher Padilla, who worked in the kitchen. The abuse included sexual comments and “tradeoffs” such as allowing Green certain perks in exchange for exposing her breasts or putting pieces of candy in her vagina.

Another prisoner, Rebecca Martinez, reported Padilla’s misconduct, leading to an investigation by State Police. Green told Warden John Sanchez about Padilla’s abuse, but no disciplinary action was taken against him, in apparent violation of the prison’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse. In fact Sanchez promoted Padilla to maintenance supervisor, allowing the guard greater access throughout the facility.

Sanchez later transferred to Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility. During the state police investigation, Padilla passed a polygraph test, and no criminal charges were brought against him due to lack of cooperation by Martinez. Following his promotion Padilla continued to sexually abuse Green, visiting her cell and having her masturbate while he watched in exchange for giving her “pain pills.”

Joined by fellow prisoners Andrea Gallegos and Sasha Dominguez, Green filed a civil rights complaint claiming prison officials had violated their Eighth Amendment rights by facilitating Padilla’s abuse; retaliated against Green for reporting the abuse; and “negligently maintained” the prison, which allowed the abuse to occur. After Defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted in part—See: Green v. Padilla, 484 F.Supp.3d 1098 (D. NM 2020)—Sanchez moved for summary judgment based on QI. He also moved to stay discovery in the case. Green, in turn, moved for limited discovery under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d).

Those motions were denied by the district court in its 70-page ruling. The Court provided an extensive review of the case history, including the facts disputed by Sanchez and Green. Sanchez argued that he was not subject to supervisory liability, that Green’s factual allegations were contradicted by other evidence, and that he had “responded reasonably” to the abuse allegations involving Padilla. Construing the facts in favor of Green as the non-moving party, the district court addressed whether her claims were “clearly established” based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Taylor v. Riojas, 141 S. Ct. 52 (2020).

Following an exhaustive analysis of Eighth Amendment claims and application of Taylor, the Court held Sanchez was not entitled to QI under either the “factually similar” caselaw precedent standard or the “particularly egregious” conduct standard. Notably,Green had developed a factual record which “would permit a reasonable jury to conclude thatSanchez violated her clearly established Eighth Amendment right[]” not to be subjected tosexual abuse, the Court said. Although Padilla had not engaged in hands-on physical abuse, his demands thatGreen engage in sexual activity, and the “power dynamics at play in the prison context,”constituted a sufficiently serious Eighth Amendment violation.

During Sanchez’s tenure as warden there was a 50% staff vacancy rate at the Springer prison, and most guards were male, which “may have led to a higher risk of sexual assault,” the Court continued. Further, despite the facility’s zero-tolerance policy, he had taken no disciplinary action against Padilla once learning about the sexual abuse allegations, rather promoting him and also failing to separate Green and Padilla, contrary to policy. Those actions facilitated Padilla’s sexual abuse and indicated Sanchez was deliberately indifferent to his misconduct, the Court said.

It also found the actions that Sanchez did take were not “reasonable” under the circumstances, as they “did not alleviate the known risk of future harm that Green faced.” Since it was clearly established that a supervisor’s deliberate indifference to a guard’s sexual abuse violates the Eighth Amendment in Keith v. Koerner, 843 F.3d 833 (10th Cir. 2016), Sanchez was not entitled to QI. Accordingly, his motion for summary judgment was denied. The cross-motions related to discovery also were denied, as they were no longer relevant or necessary given the summary judgment ruling. Green and fellow plaintiffs were represented by Albuquerque attorneys Erlinda O. Johnson and Justine Fox-Young. See: Green v. Padilla, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181112 (D.N.M.).  

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Related legal cases

Green v. Padilla

Green v. Padilla