The town of Sorrento should not be held liable for then-Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr.’s decision to misuse his power and have sexual contact with a drunk St. Amant woman in his office in 2013, an attorney for the town contends.
In the wake of a Baton Rouge federal judge’s ruling last month that the now former police chief violated the woman’s constitutional rights, lawyers for Sorrento, the victim and Theriot have weighed in through court filings on whether the town is liable for the former elected chief’s actions.
Former Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. violated the rights of a St. Amant woman who t…
Lawyers for the woman and Theriot argue in their separate filings that the answer to the question is “yes,” but the town’s attorney vehemently disagrees.
Scott Thomas, who represents Sorrento in the civil case, says the woman failed to offer any real evidence at the June 6 trial of her lawsuit to prove that Theriot had final policymaking authority from the town, that he was acting as a final decision-maker for the town when he engaged in the acts or that the town authorized his behavior on Nov. 1, 2013.
“An official acts within his official policymaking capacity when he acts in accordance with the responsibility delegated to him under state law ...” Thomas contends. “An official acts wholly outside his official policymaking capacity when he misuses his power to advance a purely personal agenda.”
The woman testified in federal court that Theriot used the threat of arrest to coerce her to perform sex acts on him. Theriot was called as a witness by her attorney, Tregg Wilson, but the former police chief refused to answer any questions.
In her June 6 decision that Theriot violated the woman’s rights, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick withheld ruling on monetary damages for the woman and whether the town of Sorrento is liable for his actions.
Wilson argues in court documents that the town is responsible for Theriot’s acts because he was “clearly acting in the course and scope of his duties” as police chief when he violated her rights.
Wilson notes that Theriot’s contact with his client was borne out of an Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office dispatch call for assistance due to her public intoxication. Theriot was in uniform, on duty and using his patrol car when he brought the woman back to the Sorrento Police Department, he adds.
The woman also testified Theriot groped her in his police car.
“Theriot abused the authority given to him by law as the chief law enforcement officer of Sorrento in order to coerce sex from (the woman),” Wilson argues.
Theriot’s resignation took effect Jan. 31, 2014, Wilson noted, which was after the woman filed her suit Jan. 17, 2014.
Theriot pleaded guilty in February 2014 to lying to the FBI about the sexual encounter, admitting he had “inappropriate sexual contact” with the woman. He was put on probation for two years in September 2014.
With state charges still possible, former Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. apologized …
Municipalities, according to Wilson, are liable for actions taken by an official with final policymaking authority in that area.
“Municipal officials should not be allowed to make decisions contrary to their own established policies, and then escape liability by asserting that their actions are inconsistent with the policies they promulgate,” he argues.
Theriot’s attorney, Sally Fleming, pointed out that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a Texas case in 1996 that a county was liable for the actions of a sheriff accused of using his office to coerce a suspect into sex.
Fleming says the New Orleans-based appellate court reasoned that “the Sheriff’s actions were those of the County because his relationship with (the woman) grew out of the attempted murder investigation and because ... he used his authority over the investigation to coerce sex with her.”
The Texas case “mirrors” the allegations in the case involving Theriot, Fleming claims, and so “municipal liability attaches.”