Attorneys Sam Hall, Tim Johnson, and Molly Woodford recently received a favorable decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a case involving claims against a county under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Slabey v. Dunn County, 2023 WI 2, the plaintiff argued that the county was liable for a violation of her constitutional rights pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), because a then-county corrections officer sexually assaulted her while she was incarcerated in the county jail. However, in affirming decisions of both the circuit court and the court of appeals, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that no reasonable fact finder could conclude that the county was the causal, moving force behind the former officer's sexual assault of the plaintiff. In turn, no reasonable jury could find that the county was deliberately indifferent and therefore liable to the plaintiff.
In reaching its decision, the court focused on the fact that the county had extensively trained the corrections officer in question against fraternization with inmates and that the county had implemented and enforced a Prison Rape Elimination Act ("PREA") policy requiring zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. In fact, just two days prior to the date on which the officer sexually assaulted the plaintiff, the officer had attended a jail training update that included PREA training. The officer further admitted that he knew his actions were against state law, county policy, and PREA. Additionally, the county had thoroughly investigated and strictly disciplined the officer for a prior infraction involving fraternization.
Ultimately, the court reaffirmed the rigorous standard applicable to § 1983 claims against municipalities. The court reminded that the "high bar" for plaintiffs in these kinds of cases is well-established, and it will not suffice for a plaintiff to argue that a municipal entity "merely allowed" --rather than caused--the constitutional deprivation. What a municipality could have done in hindsight is not the proper legal standard, and Attorneys Hall, Johnson, and Woodford were successful in demonstrating a lack of any evidence that might support municipal liability.