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Statement on Minnesota Supreme Court Ruling That State Agencies May Be Liable for Sexual Violence by Employees

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that a state employer may be held vicariously liable for sexual assault by a state employee if the employee was acting within the scope their office or employment. The ruling clarified that scope of employment is not limited to duties or tasks assigned by the employer but may include other conduct, even if that conduct is illegal. MNCASA applauds the court’s decision.  

Plaintiff Nicholas Sterry was formerly incarcerated at Moose Lake Correctional Facility, where he was sexually assaulted by a woman correctional officer. Sterry sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The Department of Corrections moved to dismiss the case before any evidence was introduced, arguing that the State can never be held responsible for the illegal conduct of an employee. Dismissing the case would have meant that the courtroom doors would be closed on Sterry, and he wouldn’t even get to have a trial to test his claims. The Supreme Court disagreed with this outcome and ruled in Sterry’s favor. Sterry gets his day in court. 

MNCASA filed an amicus brief in this case, explaining that all victims/survivors have a right to have their claims heard in court, and state agencies should not be automatically immune from liability. It can be a long and arduous road to hold systems accountable for harm. Incarcerated victims/survivors often have even fewer pathways to justice, particularly when the person who harmed them is a state employee. Men and masculine victims/survivors often face additional bias in reporting and navigating the criminal legal system.

Victims/survivors need the truth of sexual violence to be told, heard, and accepted; for perpetrators and systems to take accountability for violence; for restitution to be paid; and for systems to change to prevent harm. Litigation plays an important role in this process, putting necessary pressure on systems to take accountability for harm and address systemic issues.  

The root of sexual violence is violence, power, and control. Sexual violence by state employees often serves and reinforces power and control over those in a state agency’s care, and the state benefits from the oppression of those in its care. This is especially true in prisons.  

Systems are not passive bystanders, automatically immune from accountability for harm. The state of Minnesota has a responsibility to create environments where people are safe from violence and to be accountable when it fails to do so.  

All victims/survivors deserve to be heard in court even if the person who harmed them is employed by the state. This ruling lays a foundation for safety, healing, and support for victims/survivors and accountability from state systems.  

Contact: Kate Hannaher | khannaher@mncasa.org | 651.288.7442