U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Thursday that 10 current and former Juvenile Corrections employees raised enough questions of fact in their lawsuit to merit bringing it before a jury.
The group filed the lawsuit last year alleging that some staffers at a Nampa juvenile detention facility sexually abused incarcerated youths, and that agency leaders knew about the abuse but didn't effectively act to stop it. The group also contends that the department is rife with cronyism, wastes taxpayer money and that managers failed to take action when one youth was caught inappropriately touching another.
They also say in the lawsuit that after they complained, they were forced to work undesirable shifts, given "performance improvement plans" and experienced other adverse job actions. The state has denied those claims, and an attorney representing the department told the judge during a hearing Wednesday that the case should be thrown out.
In a 21-page ruling, Winmill partly agreed, but said much of the case could move forward.
"This is a whistleblower case. The 10 plaintiffs employees at the Nampa facility operated by the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections claim they suffered retaliation when they protested unsafe conditions at the facility. They claim that the retaliation was designed to suppress their protected speech and prevent the public from finding out about deplorable conditions at the facility that placed juvenile inmates in danger," Winmill wrote.
The employees' claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress must be thrown out because they didn't file a tort claim against the state first, as required by law, Winmill said. But the judge also said their claims under the Idaho Whistleblower Act a law designed to protect public employees who reveal corruption or waste by their employers could go to trial because the tort claim requirements don't apply to whistleblower cases.
Winmill also said the group couldn't seek monetary damages against the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, but they could try to get monetary damages from the agency's director, Sharon Harrigfeld, and the former superintendent of the Nampa detention facility, Betty Grimm. To succeed at trial, the employees will have to prove that Harrigfeld and Grimm acted in a personal capacity when they allegedly retaliated against the group.
Jeff Ray, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, said the department respected the court process and didn't want to comment on the case outside of the courtroom.
Andrew Schoppe, the attorney representing the employees, said he was still reviewing the ruling.
"And of course I'm never happy when part of a case fails, but I am pleased with where things now stand," Schoppe said.