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Benjamin v. Stevens County

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 27, 2019

STEVENS COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Washington; PAT WALSH, an employee of the Stevens County Public Works Department; and NADINE BS, an employee of Stevens County District Court, Defendants.



         BEFORE THE COURT are three motions for summary judgment filed by Defendants. ECF Nos. 36, 39, & 44. Defendant Pat Walsh moves for summary judgment on Plaintiff Rachel D. Benjamin's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. ECF No. 36. Defendant Stevens County moves for summary judgment on Ms. Benjamin's claims under section 1983. ECF No. 39. Defendant Nadine Borders moves for summary judgment on all of Ms. Benjamin's claims. ECF No. 44. Having reviewed the briefing, the applicable law, and the record, the Court is fully informed.


         On August 4, 2015, Rachel Benjamin was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in Stevens County District Court. ECF No. 41-1. She was sentenced to 81 days in jail. Id. With the district court's permission, Ms. Benjamin converted her jail sentence into a work crew sentence. ECF No. 1 at 3. She completed 45 of her 81 assigned days of work crew from April to August of 2017. ECF No. 41-2 at 3.

         Defendant Pat Walsh worked as a work crew supervisor for Stevens County in 2017. ECF No. 47 at 5. He would drive the work crew van to the job sites and manage the work crew workers, such as Ms. Benjamin. Id. Mr. Walsh was a seasonal employee of Stevens County's public works department. ECF No. 45-1 at 4.

         Ms. Benjamin alleges that Mr. Walsh shared vulgar and repulsive stories with her and the other members of the work crew throughout the summer of 2017. Ms. Benjamin testified that Mr. Walsh told them a variety of stories including about: a girl whose vagina was so smelly that he needed to spray air freshener in the work crew van; a girl who previously worked in the work crew who wore a see-through shirt so everyone would stare at her nipples; an employee of Stevens County who liked to sleep around with younger men; his time in the Navy when he would have threesomes; women constantly making sexual advances on him when he went out shopping with his wife; a man so big in Hawaii that he could hold a woman in one hand and have sex with her and hold his beer in the other; and other repulsive comments regarding masturbation, sex, and other people's wives, daughters, and girlfriends. ECF No. 41-3 at 5-9; ECF No. 47 at 18-20. She stated that Mr. Walsh also would comment about the size of her breasts. ECF No. 47 at 19. Ms. Benjamin claims that Mr. Walsh “singled her out” by having her sit in the front seat of the van with him after Ms. Benjamin became carsick, and telling others that the front seat was reserved for Ms. Benjamin. Id. at 5.

         Ms. Benjamin testified that Mr. Walsh's comments, stories, and behavior made her feel uncomfortable and sexually harassed. ECF No. 47 at 18. Ms. Benjamin testified that Mr. Walsh also touched her without her consent, including brushing dirt and dust off her thigh, putting his hand on her back while they were speaking, and grabbing her by the arm to recreate events in a story that Mr. Walsh told. ECF No. 38-3 at 22-23. She does not allege that Mr. Walsh made any sexual advances toward her. However, she stated that Mr. Walsh would say that because he was the supervisor for work crew, if Mr. Walsh did not like somebody, he could report them to the district court, have their work crew status revoked, and have them sent to jail. Id. at 18-19.

         Toward the end of the 2017 work crew season, Ms. Benjamin reported Mr. Walsh's conduct to Defendant Nadine Borders. ECF No. 41-3 at 10. Ms. Borders is the court administrator for Stevens County District Court. ECF No. 45-1 at 2. She serves as the liaison between the district court and the work crew supervisor regarding people who are sentenced to work crew, like Ms. Benjamin. Id. at 3. Even though she coordinates the work crew program for the district court, Ms. Borders does not have the authority to discipline or fire work crew supervisors. Id. at 4-5.

         When Ms. Borders heard from Ms. Benjamin what Mr. Walsh had been saying to the work crew group, including comments about Ms. Borders and her family, Ms. Borders told Ms. Benjamin that she was upset. ECF No. 41-3 at 11. Ms. Benjamin alleges that Ms. Borders told her that multiple people previously had complained about similar conduct by Mr. Walsh. ECF No. 47 at 14. Ms. Borders reported Mr. Walsh's conduct to his direct supervisor in public works, Kevin Dionas. ECF No. 45-1 at 4. Mr. Dionas assigned an additional supervisor to work with Mr. Walsh and monitor his behavior. ECF No. 41-3 at 13; ECF No. 45-1 at 5. Ms. Borders also set up a meeting between herself, Mr. Walsh, and the pastor of their church to discuss the comments that Mr. Walsh made about Ms. Borders and her family. ECF No. 45-1 at 5-6. After this meeting with their pastor, Ms. Borders called Mr. Dionas and told him that she thought Mr. Walsh's conduct should be taken very seriously. Id. at 8.

         Ms. Borders later received a phone call from Jason Hart, the public works supervisor for Stevens County, who told her that an employee filed a formal complaint against Mr. Walsh for conduct similar to the conduct reported by Ms. Benjamin. ECF No. 45-1 at 9. The employee reported that she had been informed that Mr. Walsh was saying vulgar things about the employee and the employee's daughter. ECF No. 41-5. Shortly after the employee filed the formal complaint against Mr. Walsh, Mr. Hart terminated Mr. Walsh's employment with Stevens County. ECF No. 41-8.

         Ms. Benjamin filed a complaint against Stevens County, Mr. Walsh, Ms. Borders, and Stevens County District Court Judge Gina Tveit, alleging that they were liable to Ms. Benjamin for violations of her Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, outrage, and negligence, all based on Mr. Walsh's behavior and comments. ECF No. 1. The Court previously granted Judge Tveit's motion to dismiss Ms. Benjamin's claims against her because the claims were barred by judicial immunity or, alternatively, that Ms. Borders's complaint failed to state a claim against Judge Tveit. Benjamin v. Stevens Cty., No. 2:18-CV-204-RMP, 2018 WL 4935448 (E.D. Wash. Oct. 11, 2018).

         The remaining Defendants all moved for summary judgment in separate motions. ECF Nos. 36, 39, & 44. Mr. Walsh moves for partial summary judgment on Ms. Benjamin's section 1983 claims, negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, and negligence claim. ECF No. 36. Stevens County moves for partial summary judgment on Ms. Benjamin's section 1983 claims. ECF No. 39. Ms. Borders moves for complete summary judgment. ECF No. 44.


         A court may grant summary judgment where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” of a party's prima facie case, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-33 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists if sufficient evidence supports the claimed factual dispute, requiring “a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987). A key purpose of summary judgment “is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

         The moving party bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, or in the alternative, the moving party may discharge this burden by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's prima facie case. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to set forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. See Id. at 324. The nonmoving party “may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but his response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 322 n.3 (internal quotations omitted).

         The Court will not infer evidence that does not exist in the record. See Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888-89 (1990). However, the Court will “view the evidence in the light most favorable” to the nonmoving party. Newmaker v. City of Fortuna, 842 F.3d 1108, 1111 (9th Cir. 2016). “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).


         Abandoned Claims

         In response to all three motions, Ms. Benjamin abandoned her claims based on the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. ECF No. 46 at 14; ECF No. 49 at 15; ECF No. 52 at 14. The Court dismisses these claims with prejudice.

         Judicial Immunity

         Ms. Borders argues that she is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity on all of Ms. Benjamin's claims. ECF No. 44 at 12. Mr. Walsh argues that he is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity on Ms. Benjamin's section 1983 claim. ECF No. 36 at 25.

         Judicial immunity completely shields a judicial officer from civil liability if the judicial officer acts within the scope of the officer's judicial authority. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 355-56 (1978). Judicial immunity applies to judicial acts, not people. Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227 (1988). For this reason, judicial immunity “is not reserved solely for judges, but extends to nonjudicial officers for ‘all claims relating to the exercise of judicial functions'” in the form of quasi-judicial immunity. In re Castillo, 297 F.3d 940, 947 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 499 (1991)). Quasi-judicial immunity is appropriate for non-judges when those people “exercise a discretionary judgment as a part of their function.” Antoine v. Byers & Anderson, Inc., 508 U.S. 429, 436 (1993) (internal quotations omitted). Additionally, non-judges who simply enforce facially valid court orders are absolutely immune from liability. Engebretson v. Mahoney, 724 F.3d 1034, 1039 (9th Cir. 2013).

         Those people “who perform functions closely associated with the judicial process” have been afforded quasi-judicial immunity. Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 200 (1985). Prior examples of non-judges receiving quasi-judicial immunity include prosecutors who prosecute a case, administrative law judges and agency hearing officers performing adjudicative functions, agency officials performing functions analogous to a prosecutor presenting evidence in an administrative adjudication, and individuals vital to the judicial process including grand jurors, petit jurors, advocates, and witnesses. Castillo, 297 F.3d at 948. The person asserting judicial immunity has the burden of proving that judicial immunity applies. Id. at 947.

         Ms. Borders claims that she is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity because the actions supporting Ms. Benjamin's claims against Ms. Borders were all in her role as the Stevens County District Court Administrator. ECF No. 44 at 12. She argues that “the sentencing of offenders is an integral part of the judicial process.” Id. Similarly, Mr. Walsh argues that Ms. Benjamin's section 1983 claims against him are barred by quasi-judicial immunity because, as work crew supervisor, Mr. ...

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