Is the county responsible for the acts of its deputies?

Who is responsible when an on-duty sheriff’s deputy sexually assaults a citizen? The arrest of former Tulsa County Sheriff’s deputy Gerald Nuckolls will test that question.

Nuckolls was arrested in September for allegedly assaulting two women while on duty, and the Tulsa World is now reporting that prosecutors have charged Nuckolls in connection with another incident from last March. The charges now include three counts of sexual battery, one count of indecent exposure and one count of outraging public decency. The Tulsa World article is available here.

So, is the county responsible for the actions of Nuckolls? Under state statutory law, the answer is generally no. To hold the county responsible, the victims would need to show that Nuckolls was acting in good faith, and allegations of sexual assault are inconsistent with good faith conduct. However, this does not mean that victims are without a remedy under state law.

A recent decision from the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that governmental entities may be held responsible under the Oklahoma state constitution for the actions of their employees taken within the scope of their employment- a standard that encompasses a greater degree of conduct than actions taken in “good faith”:

Under the theory of respondeat superior, one acts within the scope of employment if engaged in work assigned, or if doing what is proper, necessary and usual to accomplish the work assigned, or doing that which is customary within the particular trade or business.

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[T]here is no reason why the doctrine of respondeat superior should not apply to hold [government] employers liable for their employees violations of a plaintiff’s rights under [the Oklahoma constitution] where the employees act within the scope of their employment

See Bosh v. Cherokee County Governmental Building Authority, 2013 OK 9, 305 P.3d 994.

The distinction between actions taken within the scope of employment and actions taken in good faith is best demonstrated by another case highlighted by the Bosh Court. In Baker v. Saint Francis Hospital, 2005 OK 36, 126 P.3d 602 the court held that a daycare caregiver was acting within the scope of employment so as to hold her employer liable for intentionally striking a child’s head on corner of shelf. The court cited numerous examples dating back to statehood where Oklahoma courts held employers responsible for the acts of employees, even in circumstances where the employee acted “wantonly and recklessly, or . . . against the express orders of the company.”

The underlying rationale is based on the common-sense notion that an entity may only act through its employees, and so long as the action taken was in furtherance of the employer’s interest, the employer is rightfully called to answer for that conduct.

So how does this apply to Nuckolls? If his victims can successfully demonstrate that Nuckolls committed the act of sexual assault in furtherance of some law enforcement interest, the county may be liable. The victims may have additional claims against the county based upon Nuckolls continued employment as a deputy if there is some evidence that his supervisors had knowledge about the March incident and failed to take reasonable steps in response.

If you have questions about police misconduct or abuse of power, call the attorneys at Bryan & Terrill at 918-935-2777.