BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge says he will decide soon whether a whistleblower lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections should go to trial.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill told attorneys during a hearing Wednesday afternoon that he had already begun working on his ruling and expected to issue it soon.
A group of current and former Juvenile Corrections employees 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. During Wednesday's hearing, the agency's attorney, Phillip Collaer, told Winmill the case should be thrown out because the employees don't qualify for protections under the whistleblower law. Collaer said the employees were disgruntled because they wanted to treat juveniles more harshly than agency leaders would allow. They experienced no retaliation for expressing their concerns, Collaer said.
"Retaliation isn't when you complain about something and I ignore it. That's not retaliation — there has to be an adverse employment action," Collaer said.
If there's been no prior retaliation, then common sense dictates that there is no threat of future retaliation, making their request for a ruling barring the state from future retaliation moot, the attorney said.
Collaer also told the judge that the 11th Amendment bars the plaintiffs from seeking monetary damages against the state, the agency or the agency leaders.
But Andrew Schoppe, the attorney representing the group of employees, said there's more than enough evidence in the case to merit giving it to a jury to consider.
The court "has seen evidence in bulk showing that there is a culture of retaliation, a lack — a serious lack — of required safety under the juvenile corrections act, PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act), Health and Welfare code," Schoppe said.
It's too late for the state to try to claim some sort of immunity under the 11th Amendment, Schoppe said.
"This is not a case where there's been three or four depositions and then a motion for summary judgment," he said.
Instead, the sides have exchanged more than a million pages of evidentiary documents, he said, and police are currently investigating additional allegations of the sexual abuse of youths at the Nampa detention facility. Evidence suggests the regular sexual abuse of male youths by mostly female employees stretches back 15 years, Schoppe said.
"We're going on a year and a half now of depositions. ... I think there's more than enough evidence to go to a jury on all of this," he said.