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the entrance gate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Moose Lake
The Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Moose Lake. (Photo: Department of Corrections)

Inmate harassment case remanded

Court of Appeals orders further proceeding in suit against department

The Department of Corrections may be vicariously liable for an employee’s tortious actions. On March 13, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed dismissal of an inmate’s tort claims stemming from sexual harassment and remanded for further proceedings.

According to the facts outlined in the court’s opinion, Nicholas Sterry was incarcerated at Moose Lake. Ashley Youngberg was employed as a correctional officer, employed to supervise inmates including Sterry. Youngberg sexually harassed and stalked Sterry by her language, facial expressions, and bodily poses. The harassment included comments on Sterry’s physical appearance, as well as sucking on a piece of candy in a sexually suggestive way.

A couple of months later, according to the fact summary, Youngberg ordered Sterry into a supply room to conduct inventory when Sterry was working in the prison kitchen. Youngberg allegedly placed her hand inside Sterry’s pants and fondled him. Sterry was in shock, unsure in the moment of whether Youngberg was conducting a legal search. He eventually pulled away, informing Youngberg that he was not interested in physical conduct with her. Youngberg responded by threatening Sterry, letting him know that no one would believe him and she would claim that he was the one who sexually assaulted her. She also threatened Sterry with administrative discipline and criminal charges for the sexual assault of a correctional officer.

Apparently, the Department knew that Youngberg has a history of sexually harassing and intimidating DOC inmates but did not respond. Youngberg’s tendency to suck on hard candy in a sexually suggestive way, while making eye contact with DOC inmates, was not limited to Sterry.

Sterry sued the department and others in 2021, arguing that the department was vicariously liable for Youngberg’s tortious conduct. He alleged battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and negligence per se. The department moved to dismiss the claim, asserting that it was immune from liability under the Minnesota State Tort Claims Act (MSTCA).

The district court dismissed Sterry’s tort claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Sterry appealed, asserting that the district court did not correctly analyze his allegations under the statutory language and applicable case law. The Department of Corrections argued that Youngberg’s sexual assault fell outside the scope of employment, meaning the department was absolutely immune from vicarious liability.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals had to address what the “scope of office or employment” meant — finding it was consistent with the common-law understanding of the scope of employment. It also considered whether an employee could sexually abuse or harass someone while acting in the scope of employment.

Zorislav Leyderman, of the Law Office of Zorislav R. Leyderman, represented Sterry. “Here, we have a situation where Officer Youngberg was supervising Mr. Sterry in his employment duties. He was there in the kitchen. She was there to supervise him. She specifically directed him to enter a certain room for doing some kind of inventory, and then, without any kind of a warning, she made sexual contact with him,” Leyderman asserted. “The district court should have considered whether it’s possible that these were acts committed within the scope of employment.”

Anna Veit-Carter, assistant attorney general, represented the department. She disagreed that anything Youngberg allegedly did would fall into the scope of employment. “An employee is never going to be directed, and cannot lawfully be directed, to sexually harass or sexually assault somebody,” Veit-Carter stated.

At oral arguments, Judge Diane Bratvold raised the question of what to look at when considering the scope of duties or tasks. “Should we be looking at when she assigned him to do the inventory check in the storage room? Was that within her scope of duties? Or do we wait for when she sexually harassed or assaulted him?”

“Our position is, in terms of deciding what is in the scope of employment, that we should be looking at a broader picture of what the officer was doing,” said Leyderman. “If you limit the scope of employment to the specific act, then there would never be liability in any case.”

Veit-Carter disagreed. “There could hypothetically be a situation where an officer is directed to use force to address a fight or another situation in a prison and could be sued for battery or assault under those circumstances. This would not prohibit recovery against the state.”

While the Court of Appeals determined that the allegations were “not conclusive” that Youngberg’s acts were within the scope of her employment, it found that dismissal of Sterry’s claim was inappropriate at this stage. “For example, discovery could reveal that Youngberg was never assigned to supervise Sterry, that she was off the clock when the alleged assault occurred, or that she lacked the authority to order Sterry into the supply room,” the court said.

The court reversed and remanded. Aaron Swanum, media information officer of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, stated, “The Court of Appeals decision is under review by the agency.”

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