Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Rules Sedgwick County Liable for Former Sheriff Hanna’s Assault of an Inmate

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals building in Denver, also known as the Byron White building.

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Whitson v. Board of County Commissioners of the County of Sedgwick 

Sheriff Thomas Hanna of Sedgwick County, Colorado, sexually assaulted an intellectually disabled prisoner while transporting her between county jails. 

The victim, Peatinna Biggs, filed this civil rights suit through her guardian ad litem, Hollis Ann Whitson, against Sedgwick County, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department and Hanna in his individual and official capacities. 

The district court granted the motion of the county and the sheriff’s department to dismiss the complaint against them, reasoning that the county could be liable only if “the challenged conduct [had] been taken pursuant to a policy adopted by the official or officials,” and “Hanna’s actions were not pursuant to Department policies, but in direct contravention of them.” 

Hanna was then found liable by a jury in his individual capacity. Whitson appealed the dismissal of claims against the municipal defendants, which are legally equivalent to claims against Hanna in his official capacity, according to the opinion. 

The central question before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to the opinion, was whether a final policymaker’s assault of a county prisoner in the course of carrying out official duties for which he was charged with setting policy subjects the municipal defendants to liability. It answered yes. 

Hanna was the final policymaker for the municipal defendants with respect to the care of county prisoners, including their transportation. According to the opinion, Hanna’s actions with respect to Biggs were undoubtedly within the scope of activities for which he was to set policy. 

But the 10th Circuit explained that a municipality is not liable for all misconduct by a sheriff. The sheriff must have final policymaking authority with respect to the actions taken. 

The 10th Circuit concluded Hanna’s actions fell within the scope of his policymaking authority regarding the custody and care of prisoners and subjected the municipal defendants to liability.

The 10th Circuit reversed and remanded. 

Judge Gregory Phillips dissented. He wrote that he would affirm the district court’s dismissal of the claims against Sedgwick County because Hanna didn’t act as a final policymaker in his decision to sexually abuse Biggs. He agreed with the district court’s conclusion that Sheriff Hanna advanced a purely personal agenda in committing the sexual assault and acted outside his authorized law-enforcement “realm” of setting policy for the transportation of prisoners.

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