Employer Not Liable For CO’s Murder Attempt

Written on 09/02/2022
Will Aitchison

Erika Aguirre was a corrections officer for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) in Illinois. She and Deisy Jaimes had been in a relationship since 2011. They eventually moved in together and got engaged. By 2013, however, their relationship had deteriorated. For exam­ple, in one incident Aguirre threatened to kill Deisy and claimed she could get away with it because she was a corrections officer. In 2015, the two broke up, and Jaimes moved back into her family home.

On November 15, 2015, after her shift at the Cook County jail, Aguirre learned that Jaimes was seen in public with another woman. Aguirre then dressed in all black, including a black ski mask, broke into the house where Jaimes lived with her family, and start­ed shooting with a gun purchased as a requirement for her job. Aguirre found Jaimes’s basement bedroom and shot her in the head, eye, arms, and leg.

Jaimes’s father Enrique began com­ing down the stairs, and Aguirre fired shots at him, hitting him in the head and torso. Aguirre then shot and killed herself. Jaimes and her father survived the shooting but suffered catastrophic injuries. Jaimes has disabling brain damage, vision loss, permanent disfig­urement to her face, and paralysis on her left side, while her father is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Aguirre purchased the gun she used for the shooting, a semiautomatic hand­gun, pursuant to an official CCSO policy that requires all its correctional officers to purchase a firearm. Before she bought the weapon, Aguirre had never owned a gun or expressed interest in owning one. The CCSO provides officers like Aguirre with funds that can be used to buy their service weapons.

Jaimes and her father sued the CCSO, contending that the CCSO’s gun-ownership requirement made the CCSO liable for the actions of its employ­ee under a theory of respondeat superior. The heart of their claim was that their “substantive due process rights” were violated by the CCSO.

The Court ruled that “plaintiffs must demonstrate that they suffered a constitutional injury in the first place. They have not done so. The due process clause provides that ‘no state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’ In other words, the clause does not impose a duty on the state to protect against injuries inflicted by private actors. Plain­tiffs’ injuries were inflicted by Aguirre, a private actor, while she was off duty.

“Jaimes and her father cite the ‘state-created danger’ exception, un­der which the government violates an individual’s due process rights when it affirmatively creates a danger that injures the individual. To succeed under the state-created danger theory, Plaintiffs must show: (1) that the CCSO, by its affirmative acts, created or increased a danger that Plaintiffs faced; (2) that the CCSO’s failure to protect Plaintiffs from the danger was the proximate cause of their injuries; and (3) that the CCSO’s conduct ‘shocks the conscience.’ We have stressed that liability under the state-created danger theory has only been found under ‘rare and often egregious’ circumstances.

“Plaintiffs’ state-created danger claim fails on the third element. A policy is arbitrary in the constitutional sense – i.e., it shocks the conscience – when it evinces deliberate indifference to a known, serious risk and policymakers fail to avert the risk though it could easily have been averted. Plaintiffs maintain that the CCSO knew of the risk of do­mestic violence and failed to take steps that could have averted this danger.

“But the CCSO implemented var­ious measures to support and monitor correctional officers’ mental health and trained them in using firearms. Correc­tional officers participate in 16 weeks of pre-service training covering the proper use of firearms, coping skills, and domestic violence; complete an annual firearms qualification; and undergo a personality exam as part of the hiring process as well as routine background checks. The CCSO also runs the Peer Support Program and Employee Assis­tance Program to help officers who are experiencing mental health problems. Although the Early Warning System did flag Aguirre for being involved in a higher than usual number of use-of-force incidents at the jail, the CCSO found that she did not use excessive force in any of the incidents.

“That the CCSO could have done more, however, does not mean that it acted with deliberate indifference. The CCSO clearly took steps to identify and mitigate the risk of violence, precluding a finding of deliberate indifference. We do not wish to minimize the tragic consequences of Aguirre’s actions. But that is the point – they were Aguirre’s actions, not the CCSO’s, and the CCSO cannot be held constitutionally liable in these circumstances.”

Jaimes v. Cook County, 2022 WL 2806462 (7th Cir. 2022).

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