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A supervisor who allegedly ignored complaints that her parole officer was sexually harassing his parolees does not have qualified immunity, the Seventh Circuit ruled on Friday. According to a lawsuit filed by Adam Locke, a Minnesota parolee, Mya Haessig repeatedly ignored complaints that Locke was being sexually harassed by his parole officer and threatened him with retaliation for pursuing those complaints.
Failure to act on the sexual harassment complaints was a violation of Locke's equal protection rights, according to the court, and a reasonable jury could find that Haessig's failure to act was a form of discrimination against men who report sexual harassment.
No Action After Sexual Harassment Complaint
According to Locke's complaint, his parolee was overseen by one parole agent primarily, but a second agent would often fill in. That second agent, Anthony Flores, allegedly repeatedly sexually harassed Locke, propositioning him and offering him reduced parole conditions in exchange for sexual favors. Complaints of sexual harassment from parole officers are not unheard of, though Locke's appears to be relatively unique in that both the harasser and victim were men.
When Locke reported the harassment to Haessig, Flores's supervisor, she never filed a written report, nor did she take any action to stop the harassment. Rather, she threatened Locke, telling him that he would never have his ankle monitoring bracelet removed if he continued to complain. Later, Locke's harasser resigned after the FBI investigated is harassment of several other parolees.
Inaction Can Show Intent
Locke filed a pro se 1983 suit, alleging that the harassment and Haessig's refusal to act on his complaints violated his constitutional right to equal protection. Locke alleged that Haessig discriminated against him on the basis of gender -- essentially, she ignored sexual harassment complaints which she would have pursued had Locke been a woman. Flores seems to have skipped town, being served but failing to appear to defend himself. Haessig claimed that she was protected by qualified immunity, since her failure to act could not be taken as intentional discrimination.
That's not so, the Seventh Circuit ruled. Failure to investigate a sexual harassment complaint because of the complainant's gender can be an equal protection violation. Intent to discriminate, as required under Ashcroft v. Iqbal, does not require that a supervisor take affirmative, discriminatory actions. Deliberate indifference to a complaint of sexual harassment, coupled with Haessig's threats of retaliation, can be enough to convince a jury that the failure to act was discriminatory.
Of course, the court noted, this is simply a response to Haessig's motion for summary judgment -- Haessig can always argue before the jury that she was simply incompetent, not sexist.