People For the American Way

Trump Judge Reverses District Court and Grants Qualified Immunity in Sexual Assault Case: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump Second Circuit judge Steven Menashi wrote an opinion reversing a district court and granting qualified immunity to a prison official in a case involving repeated sexual assaults of a woman by guards. The December 2020 decision, which also effectively overturned prior court precedent concerning supervisory liability in such cases, is Tangreti v. Bachmann.

Carla Tangreti was confined in York Correctional Facility for slightly over a year in 2013-14. During that time, she was “sexually abused on numerous occasions” by several prison guards, including rape, forced oral sex, and other misconduct. The guards were later fired and criminally prosecuted. Tangreti filed a federal lawsuit for damages against eight prison supervisors, contending that they violated the Eighth Amendment by being deliberately indifferent to the serious risk of such harm at the prison. There was extensive discovery in the case, leading to motions for summary judgment.

Federal district judge Michael Shea wrote a comprehensive 52-page opinion in which he granted summary judgment in favor of seven of the officials on the Eighth Amendment claims, but ruled that one supervisor, Christine Bachmann, should not receive qualified immunity and the case against her should go to trial. Tangreti had described Bachmann as “the most culpable” of the supervisors because, among other things, she had direct interaction with several of the guards, had an office on the same floor as them, and had observed one of the most clearly guilty guards, Jeffrey Bromley, in “interaction” with Tangreti.

Bachmann appealed the denial of qualified immunity and, in an opinion by Trump judge Menashi, a panel of the Second Circuit reversed. Menashi claimed that the lower court ruling rested on a conclusion that there was a “genuine issue of material fact” as to whether Bachmann was “grossly negligent.” According to Menashi, that conclusion rested on a previous Second Circuit ruling in the Colon case that a supervisor like Bachmann could be liable for gross negligence, but that this legal principle had effectively been overruled by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Iqbal case, which ruled that a federal official could not be liable for intentional discrimination committed by subordinates. Menashi maintained that after Iqbal, courts “may not apply a special rule for supervisory liability,” but must find that a supervisor’s “own individual actions” violated the Constitution. Menashi concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” in the record to indicate that Bachmann herself “displayed deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of sexual abuse”, and that the court should have granted Bachmann qualified immunity and summary judgment against Tangreti’s  claims.

Menashi’s opinion ignored several important conclusions and findings of the district court. Initially, Judge Shea concluded that the “weight of the caselaw” suggests that Iqbal “addressed supervisory liability specifically in the context of intentional discrimination,” and “therefore does not affect” the continued viability of Colon in cases like this one. In two recent cases, the judge noted, the Second Circuit had applied Colon “without any mention of Iqbal.”  Menashi never addressed these specific conclusions by the district court.

Perhaps more importantly, Menashi ignored several district court factual findings concerning Bachmann. According to Judge Shea, Bachman’s liability under Colon was based not only on gross negligence, but also on her failure to act “on information indicating that constitutional violations were occurring.” The record indicated, the court went on, that Bachmann had “considerable interaction” with Bromley, observed “inappropriate conversations” by Bromley with Tangreti, admitted that she had seen “questionable behavior” by Bromley including being “too close” to prisoners like Tangreti or having them in his office without good reason, and “”knew of at least one prior incident of sexual assault” in the building. Based on such evidence, the district court concluded that a “reasonable juror” could conclude that Bachmann “failed to respond reasonably to her observations of inappropriate interaction” between Bromley and Tangreti and her “knowledge of the risk of sexual abuse,” and that there was an “affirmative causal link” between Bachman’s indifference to and failure to report what she observed and the “sexual abuse of Ms. Tangreti.” Bachman was “on notice” that she could be “held liable for failing to respond reasonably to a known substantial risk of sexual abuse,” Judge Shea concluded, and Bachmann thus should not receive qualified immunity and escape a jury trial on the claims against her.

Menashi nevertheless ordered that Bachmann receive qualified immunity and dismissed Tangreti’s federal claims against her without a trial. He also wrote an opinion that may well harm people in other cases by limiting supervisor liability concerning official misconduct. The decision is yet another example of Trump judges favoring qualified immunity and limiting liability for serious misconduct by law enforcement officials.