LIHUE — A former social worker will get a new trial after losing a two-year-long court battle in which she alleged the warden of Kauai Community Correctional Center fired her after she reported him for allegedly subjecting female inmates to psychological humiliation and abuse.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday issued a remand for a new trial in a 2014 lawsuit, reversing a district court decision dismissing Carolyn Ritchie’s claims against the state Department of Public Safety and KCCC warden Neal Wagatsuma.
Wagatsuma took the stand in the trial and admitted to subjecting prisoners to a program he called “shame therapy,” in which he showed inmates movies depicting extreme violence and rape and yelled gender-specific derogatory obscenities at female prisoners during group-therapy sessions he conducted.
Following a 16-day trial and a week of deliberations in late-2016, a federal jury reached a unanimous verdict in favor of the defendants, dismissing Ritchie’s claims on the grounds that her First Amendment rights weren’t violated because she was not acting as a private citizen when she made internal reports regarding Wagatsuma’s conduct.
Ninth Circuit judges overturned that decision Tuesday, ruling that a jury “could have reasonably concluded that Ritchie spoke as a private citizen when she made complaints to her supervisor and others” in the public safety department.
In a memo detailing the ruling, Ninth Circuit judges “enumerated a number of factors” for future jurors in the new trial to consider regarding whether Ritchie’s complaints were made in the course of her duties as a KCCC employee. The First Amendment protects the free speech of public employees in the workplace unless that speech is made pursuant to official responsibilities.
First among factors the judges said jurors should take into account is the fact that Ritchie’s complaints about Wagatsuma were not confined to her chain of command, citing evidence showing Ritchie spoke to investigators from the Department of Public Safety internal affairs division and reported suspected abuse to the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI and multiple state agencies.
The state’s defense argument in the appellate case largely relies on Ritchie’s testimony, stating that as a licensed social worker she was a mandatory reporter. But the Ninth Circuit Court decided a juror reviewing the evidence presented “could decide that Ritchie’s reports were not part of her job,” and found “the district court erred in holding otherwise.”
Wagatsuma was also named as a defendant in another lawsuit, filed in 2014 on behalf an ex-inmate at KCCC who alleged Wagatsuma subjected her and other female prisoners to public sexual shaming. The original complaint in that case was also dismissed and successfully appealed. A trial is scheduled early next year.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.