Court Rules Prison Officials Liable for Harassment by Inmates

May 12, 2010 ( – A federal appellate court has ruled that the state of Florida can’t escape liability under federal civil rights laws in a suit by female former prison employees who claimed male inmates sexually harassing them created a hostile work environment.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $630,000 jury verdict against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), asserting that corrections officials had an obligation under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 to take action against the offending inmates at the Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, Florida.Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., writing for the court, rejected FDOC arguments that federal court case law holding employers responsible for the harassing actions of third parties with access to the workplace should not apply in a prison setting.

“We refuse the invitation of the Department to treat inmates differently from other third-party harassers and prisons differently from other employers under Title VII,” Pryor wrote. “Our general rule of reasonableness regarding employer liability for third-party harassment under Title VII adequately respects the difficulties that prison officials encounter in controlling inmate conduct. Title VII does not require, on the one hand, that prisons prevent all manner of harassment at all cost and without regard to important penological interests. We recognize that there are practical and constitutional limits on what prisons can do to protect staff. “

Pryor continued: “Although some harassment by inmates cannot be reasonably avoided, the Department, on the other hand, cannot refuse to adopt reasonable measures to curtail harassment by inmates.”

According to the ruling, the 14 female plaintiffs – most of whom were prison nurses – complained that male inmates would routinely engage in sexual activity in front of them and call them names referring to female body parts. The women contended that they complained to FDOC officials about the problem, but that corrective action was never taken and that their suggested corrective measures were rejected for security reasons.

In addition to upholding the jury verdict against the FDOC as being consistent with the evidence presented at the trial, the 11th Circuit also ruled that federal case law holds that certain types of sexual activity and certain sexually-oriented epithets are specifically intended to harass women. Their use in this case means the plaintiffs successfully proved their treatment represented sexual harassment under federal law, Pryor wrote.

Pryor’s opinion concluded: “Title VII required the Department to adopt reasonable remedial measures to protect its female employees from the sexually hostile environment that the inmates created. The jury was entitled to find that the Department made almost no effort to protect its employees from this sex-based harassment. This (trial) record entitled the jury to find the Department liable under Title VII.”

The opinion is available here