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$1.1 Million False Arrest Award Affirmed

by David Reutter

A federal jury’s $1.1 million awardin a false arrest claim was affirmed by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This case stemmed from the arrest of Richard Wesley, a counselor and intervention specialist at Sixth District Elementary School in Covington, Kentucky. Wesley was informed on February 9, 2009 that J.S., a seven-year-old youth whom Wesley counseled for psychological and behavioral problems, was attempting to harm himself in the hallway.

Wesley brought J.S. back to his office. J.S. waited there with two other students as Wesley called J.S.’s mother to notify her that J.S. needed to be taken to a local mental health center. After the mother picked J.S. up, he told her that Wesley had sexually assaulted him in his office earlier that day. J.S. was interviewed about that allegation by a social worker and Detective Joanne Rigney. During the interview, J.S. said Wesley had sodomized him multiple times throughout the year. He also said Wesley had sexually abused two other students.

Rigney and the counselor interviewed 32 students at the school who had contact with Wesley, but none reported any abuse. None of the school employees were interviewed. An administrator who sat at a desk directly across from Wesley’s office testified at trial that Wesley was alone with J.S. for only a few minutes, and she was able to observe them the entire time on the day in question. A medical exam of J.S. did not reveal any evidence of abuse.

Despite those exculpatory facts, 84 days after J.S.’s allegation against Wesley, Rigney sought and obtained a warrant for Wesley’s arrest. However, in obtaining the warrant, Rigney omitted the numerous facts pointing to his innocence. The charges were ultimately dismissed. Wesley filed a federal civil rights complaint against Rigney for false arrest.

After a four-day trial, the jury found that (1) Rigney lacked probable cause to secure a warrant for Wesley’s arrest; (2) the facts misrepresented in or omitted from Rigney’s affidavit and warrant application were material; and (3) the misrepresentation or omission of material facts was done intentionally, deliberately, or with reckless disregard of the truth. The jury awarded Wesley $589,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.

Rigney appealed the jury’s verdict and award. The Sixth Circuit instructed that both “inculpatory and exculpatory evidence” must be taken into account when deciding if probable cause exists. Based upon the evidence presented at trial, Rigney was aware of information that showed J.S.’s allegations were implausible “but did not disclose it in her affidavit supporting the application for an arrest warrant.” Accordingly, it was reasonable for the jury to conclude “that Rigney did not have probable cause to make the arrest.”

The Sixth Circuit also determined that Rigney was not entitled to qualified immunity. It further ruled the punitive damage award was not unconstitutionally excessive, and the compensatory damage award was supported by the evidence. The district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Wesley v. Campbell, 864 F.3d 433 (6th Cir. 2017). 

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