Crime

Idaho taxpayers’ tab for lawsuits just grew another $1.8M, up to more than $5M since 2012

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a social and public health problem in the U.S. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey says nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.
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Sexual violence is a social and public health problem in the U.S. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey says nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives.

A former Idaho prison officer’s nearly six-year legal battle against the state of Idaho ended in victory on Valentine’s Day when a Boise federal jury awarded her $1.8 million.

Cynthia Fuller, a former Idaho probation and parole employee, accused Idaho Department of Correction administrators of creating a hostile work environment and causing emotional distress after she reported a co-worker, with whom she had been in a relationship, raped her.

“We are so proud of Cynthia’s strength and fortitude in this case,” her attorney, Erika Birch, told the Statesman. “She had to fight long and hard just to get her day on court, and now she finally received justice.”

The jury, comprised of five men and two women, deliberated about five hours before reaching its verdict. The trial began Feb. 4

Fuller claimed she was raped by co-worker Herbt Cruz three times over a two-week period in 2011. Her lawsuit focuses on how her supervisors at the Caldwell probation and parole office and IDOC’s top administrators handled her claims and other complaints by female employees about Cruz.

Fuller said she reported the rapes to Canyon County sheriff’s detectives several days after the third assault and obtained a restraining order against Cruz.

One week before the first sexual assault, IDOC placed Cruz on administrative leave because he was under criminal investigation for another rape, according to court documents. A supervisor later told employees (including Fuller) that the agency “looked forward” to his prompt return from leave.

Fuller sued in August 2013. A federal judge in December 2014 dismissed the case. Fuller appealed, and in August 2017, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to court for trial.

“Providing a safe and respectful workplace for all Idaho Department of Correction staff is our highest priority,” Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray told the Statesman on Friday. “The men and women of IDOC are on the frontlines of keeping the people of Idaho safe. We are committed to giving them the support they need to perform their difficult and often dangerous jobs.”

The department had no further comment on Fuller’s lawsuit or the verdict.

The Idaho Office of Risk Management, which handled the case on behalf of IDOC, said it could not provide how much it has spent defending Fuller’s lawsuit because the case is still pending.

Past lawsuits, and more cases on the way

Since 2012, at least three other employment-related cases against the state agencies have ended in a verdict or settlement:

  • Idaho State Police: An Ada County jury in August 2017 awarded $1.5 million to Brandon Eller, an ISP detective who sued the agency for retaliating against him after he raised concerns about a fatal crash investigation. The state said it could not provide how much it has spent defending the lawsuit because the case is still open while the state appeals the award.

  • State Controller’s Office: Former deputy legal counsel Lourdes Matsumoto filed a tort claim alleging sexual harassment. To avoid a lawsuit, the state settled with Matsumoto for $83,000 in December 2017.

  • Idaho Transportation Department: Former Director Pam Lowe sued the state for wrongful termination. The state settled the case for $750,000 in 2012. Additionally, the state paid nearly $600,000 to a private law firm that represented the state in court.

These four successful cases against the state have one thing in common: all were filed by Erika Birch and her law firm, Strindberg and Scholnick, which specializes in whistleblower cases.

Birch has another case against the state coming up for trial in Boise federal court starting April 15.

Former Idaho Department of Labor purchasing agent James Cryer claims the department retaliated against him and fired him for his efforts to stop employees from skirting purchasing rules. Among his allegations: The department issued a dummy subpoena and obtained his phone records as they hunted for the source of anonymous complaints of purchasing and hiring violations in the department.

Additionally, Birch and her firm filed three more whistleblower cases against the state last year:

In September, former Idaho State Police human resources employee Karen Drew sued the agency alleging it fired her after she raised concerns several times about fraud and waste within agency.

In August, current Idaho Department of Health and Welfare employee Kelly Hardy sued the agency alleging it retaliated against her for raising concerns about abuse and neglect and Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa.

In April, former Idaho Transportation Department technician John Christopher Turner sued the agency alleging it fired him because he raised concerns about Nuclear Regulatory Commission violations involving damaged or missing tools that contain a radiation source.

All three cases are pending in Ada County district court.

The Statesman has filed a public record request with Idaho Office of Risk Management to learn if the state has an other pending lawsuits or claims filed by state employees.

Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named the 2017 Idaho Press Club reporter of the year. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.

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