Sheriff can be sued by rape victim denied anti-conception pill by religious jail guard

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In R.W. v. Spinelli, (MD FL, June 14, 2012), a Florida federal district court denied a sheriff’s motion to dismiss an official capacity suit against him under 42 USC Sec. 1983 by a woman alleging privacy and equal protection violations.  Plaintiff, R.W., was a rape victim and was prescribed two anti-conception pills at a rape crisis center. She took one there and was instructed to take the other 12 hours later.  Shortly thereafter, while investigating the rape, a police officer discovered that R.W. had an outstanding arrest warrant against her and took her to jail.  Her remaining pill was taken from her, and the only employee on duty with authority to do so refused to give it to her to take because doing so would violate the employee’s religious beliefs. R.W. was allowed to take the pill the next morning just prior to her release. In an earlier decision (see prior posting), the court permitted R.W. to move ahead with her suit against the jail employee, but dismissed the claims against the sheriff in his official capacity.  Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint against the sheriff, who again sought dismissal. In moving to dismiss, the sheriff argued that the complaint did not allege that an unconstitutional official policy or custom of the county was involved. The court this time, however, disagreed, saying: “the single action of a final policy-maker can represent official government policy, even when the action is not meant to control later decisions….”  Since the sheriff had not promulgated any policy on refusing to dispense anti-conception medication, the jail employee essentially became the final policy maker on this issue. Courthouse News Service reports on the decision.