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Court: Leaders not liable for subordinates' bad decisions

Aug. 5, 2014 - 02:41PM   |  
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Janet Galla was serving as a hospital corpsman on a Navy ship in 2004 when she was brutally attacked by a co-worker.

On June 11, after returning to the ship from dinner with friends, she stopped by the medical department to check her email. She was approached by a fellow corpsman who lured her into an empty operating room and then raped her after she rebuffed his advances.

Galla reported the assault and her attacker later was convicted. But from that night on, the rape haunted her.

First, supervisors isolated her “for her own safety” during the investigation. Then she was transferred from the ship for the sake of unit morale. And later, her work performance plummeted after she developed post-traumatic stress disorder.

At her new command, after she was told by a superior to “get over it already,” she left the Navy, according to court documents.

In 2012, she joined 11 other sailors and Marines, including former Marine 1st Lt. Ariana Klay, who alleges she was raped in 2010 by two Marine officers at her home near the Corps’ historic barracks at 8th and I streets in Washington, D.C., in filing a lawsuit against former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other secretaries as well as the secretary of the Navy and the Marine Corps commandant.

Their charge: That military leaders failed to institute policies protecting subordinates in sexual assault cases.

On July 18, a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court issued the final ruling on the case — upholding an earlier dismissal that ruled senior military leaders cannot be held personally liable for their management decisions, including choices made by subordinates about discipline and supervision of service members.

Similar to a previous case, Cioca v. Rumsfeld, filed in 2011 against the defense secretary and other leaders, Baltimore attorney Susan Burke argued in the most recent case that the plaintiffs’ rights of due process and equal protection were violated following the assaults, as were their First Amendment rights to discuss their attacks.

But while the appellate judges wrote that they empathized with the plaintiffs, they concluded that the lower court was correct in dismissing the suit.

“[This] appeal is both difficult and easy. Difficult, because it involves shocking allegations that members of this nation’s armed forces who put themselves at risk to protect our liberties were abused in such a vile and callous manner. Easy, because plaintiffs seek relief under a legal theory that is patently deficient,” wrote Judge Thomas Griffith.

The judges decided that the lower court’s dismissal of the case, based on previous decisions that make it extremely difficult for individuals to sue for monetary damages against government officials also applied in this instance.

The “existence of grievous wrongs does not free the judiciary to authorize any and all suits that might seem just. Our authority to permit [cases like this] is narrow to start, and narrower in the military context,” Griffith wrote.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld the dismissal of Cioca v. Rumsfeld on the same basis. That case, also argued by Burke, had been brought against military leaders by 25 women and three men, all of whom had served or were serving in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard at the time of their assault or harassment.

Burke expressed dismay over the dismissal of the suit against Panetta.

“We are disappointed that the federal courts are not allowing service members access to the court to protect their constitutional rights,” she said.

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