Sexual Assault Case Against Kentucky Fire Department Dismissed

A federal court has dismissed a Kentucky fire department and two chief officers from a lawsuit brought by a woman who claims she was sexually assaulted by an off-duty firefighter. The suit was brought by Emmalee Young, and accused former City of Paris firefighter William Michael Fields Jr. of providing her with alcohol, sexually assaulting her, and creating child pornography by recording it. Young was 17 at the time the assault took place.

Fields, 37, was convicted of creating child pornography. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison. At the time of the assault, Fields was a career firefighter with the City of Paris, a volunteer firefighter with the Harrison County Volunteer Fire Department (where he met Young), and a constable with Harrison County. He was in uniform serving as a constable when one of the incidents occurred, and took Young to the fire department’s training facility for another.

Young claims the city’s fire department and the two chiefs, (the fire chief and a battalion chief), should be responsible because they were Field’s supervisors, and should be held liable for violating her civil rights based on a failure to train and/or failure to supervise theory. The court rejected Young’s arguments, reasoning as follows (citations and quotation marks removed to facilitate reading):

  • As to Chief Duffy and Battalion Chief Hensley, Young asserts that both are liable for Fields’ conduct because they were his supervisors at the Paris Fire Department.
  • A supervisory official’s failure to supervise, control or train the offending individual is not actionable unless the supervisor either encouraged the specific incident of misconduct or in some other way directly participated in it.
  • At a minimum a plaintiff must show that the official at least implicitly authorized, approved, or knowingly acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct of the offending officers.
  • Young has produced no evidence that Duffy or Hensley was aware that Fields had sexually harassed or violated the bodily integrity of Young or anyone else or that he intended to.
  • Though the deposition testimony established that other members of the Fire Department were aware that Fields had engaged in multiple sexual encounters outside of his marriage, Young points to no evidence that any other employee was aware that any of Fields’ sexual encounters involved nonconsenting women or minors or otherwise constituted sexual harassment or violations of bodily integrity.
  • In her response, Young argues that the city should by liable for Fields’ actions because every firefighter deposed in this matter acknowledged longstanding and unchecked violations of The City of Paris’s Personnel Policies and Procedures.
  • This case is not about violations of the city’s personnel policies and procedures. This case is about the violations of a minor’s constitutional rights by having sex with her and videotaping the incident.
  • Young has not produced evidence that any city policymaker was aware that any employee would engage in such conduct prior to the events at issue.
  • One way to prove an unlawful policy or custom is to show a policy of inadequate training or supervision.
  • As to inadequate training, only where a failure to train reflects a deliberate or conscious choice by a municipality —  can a city be liable for such a failure under § 1983.
  • This is the case where, in light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the city can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to their need.
  • Nevertheless, a municipality’s culpability for a deprivation of rights is at its most tenuous where a claim turns on a failure to train.
  • Young can demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of a failure-to-train claim in one of two ways.
  • First, she can show a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees which would demonstrate the city’s continued adherence to an approach that it knows or should know has failed to prevent tortious conduct by employees.
  • Young has not pointed to any evidence of similar constitutional violations by Paris city employees. She presents evidence that fire department employees discussed sexual activities and shared nude images of females while on duty.
  • She has also produced evidence that at least some fire department employees engaged in sexual activities with nonemployees at facilities used by the Paris Fire department employee other than Fields engaged in sexual behavior with an underage or otherwise nonconsenting individual, which is the kind of constitutional violation suffered by Young.
  • The second way Young can establish inadequate training by the city is by showing a single violation of federal rights, accompanied by a showing that the municipality has failed to train its employees to handle recurring situations presenting an obvious potential for such a violation.
  • This mode of proof is available in a narrow range of circumstances where a federal rights violation may be a highly predictable consequence of a failure to equip employees with specific tools to handle recurring situations. For example, the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force can be said to be so obvious, that failure to do so could properly be characterized as deliberate indifference to constitutional rights.
  • In such cases, the likelihood that a constitutional violation will occur could lead to a finding that the policymaker’s decision not to train reflects deliberate indifference to the violation of that constitutional right. Likewise, the high degree of predictability may also support an inference that the policymaker’s indifference caused the constitutional violation that was so predictable.
  • While using excessive force may be a highly predictable consequence of the recurring need for law enforce officers to arrest individuals, having sexual intercourse with a minor or otherwise nonconsenting individual is not a predictable consequence of any portion of a fireman’s duties.
  • Accordingly, Young has failed to present evidence sufficient to support a claim against the city of Paris for failing to train fire department employees.
  • As to a failure-to-supervise claim, this is a rare claim. Most agree that it exists and some allege they have seen it, but few actual specimens have been proved.
  • To sustain this claim, the plaintiff must show that the city acted with deliberate indifference to the risk of the constitutional violation and that its deliberate indifference was the moving force behind the assault.
  • Young could show the city was deliberately indifferent to the risk that its employees would have sexual intercourse with minors or other nonconsenting individuals with evidence of a pattern of similar constitutional violations, with a record of city employees going unpunished for similar constitutional violations or other circumstances tending to show that the city was aware or could have been aware that Fields was prone to have sexual intercourse with minors or other nonconsenting individuals.
  • Young presents no such evidence.
  • Accordingly, the Court will enter summary judgment in favor of the city of Paris, Kentucky on Young’s constitutional claims.

The case also discusses the liability of two local police officers, but since those discussions do not involve the fire department they are not included here. While the fire department and the chiefs have been dismissed, the suit against Fields personally will proceed.

It is worth pointing out that Young’s allegations against the city and the chiefs involve civil rights violations, not allegations of negligence. As such, readers should not assume that when the court says “A supervisory official’s failure to supervise, control or train the offending individual is not actionable unless the supervisor either encouraged the specific incident of misconduct or in some other way directly participated in it,” that this is an accurate statement of the law for all purposes. It is stated in the context of a civil rights violation, not in the context of a negligence allegation.

Here is a copy of the decision.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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