Correctional officer’s free-speech claim gets go-ahead

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

A lawsuit filed by a Colorado correctional officer who alleges she faced retaliation for speaking out against sexual harassment has been allowed to proceed by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Louella Watkins, who worked at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility through March 1996, sued the Colorado Department of Corrections and two supervising officials, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation for the exercise of her free-speech rights.

Watkins contends that the defendants engaged in a number of retaliatory actions against her for reporting abuses against women and minorities in the workplace. She said that the defendants encouraged others to spy on her, searched her office, ostracized her and called her names after she complained.

Richard Marr and Joseph Paolino, the individual defendants named in the suit, filed a motion to dismiss, claiming qualified immunity. In a civil rights lawsuit, defendants are entitled to a qualified-immunity defense if they did not violate a clearly established constitutional right.

A federal court refused to grant the motion to dismiss, saying that the plaintiff's complaint alleged violations of clearly established constitutional rights.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit also refused to dismiss Watkins' complaint, writing: “Taking her [Watkins] statements as true, we conclude at this stage of the proceedings, plaintiff [Watkins] has adequately set forth sufficient facts showing the personal involvement of these defendants to survive a motion to dismiss.”

The appeals court also noted in its Aug. 9 opinion in Watkins v. Colorado Department of Corrections that speaking out against matters of sexual discrimination is a clearly established constitutional right, which the defendants reasonably should have known.

A plaintiff in a First Amendment retaliation case must also establish that the speech she or he was allegedly punished for was on an important public issue or a “matter of public concern.” The 10th Circuit stated that speaking out against sexual discrimination was clearly a matter of public concern.

Thomas J. Lyons, attorney for the two individual defendants, refused to speak about the case to the First Amendment Center, saying “I do not comment on pending litigation.”

Calls placed to Watkins' attorney were not returned.