Eric Quallen’s heart thumped as he walked up the linoleum stairs that lead from the Albany County Sheriff’s underground office.
He reached the top of the staircase scared, tired and confused.
Looking toward Grand Avenue in Laramie, adrenaline coursed through his body.
Eric, who then presented to the world as a lesbian woman, had reported only days earlier to law enforcement that a fellow University of Wyoming student had sexually assaulted him.
Deputies investigated the case. And, on Feb. 7, 2017, they invited him to their headquarters. There – while making repeated reference to Eric’s sexual orientation – they said they thought he’d made a false report, threatened him with a criminal charge and then then closed the case, a transcript shows.
Now, years later, the sheriff’s office faces a federal lawsuit alleging that deputies violated Quallen’s civil rights in that final interview. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that it was plausible the sheriff’s office inadequately trained the deputies. The judge permitted the case to proceed toward trial on claims that the sheriff’s office prevented Quallen from receiving equal protection under the law.
In making the decision, Judge Alan Johnson cited a transcript of Investigator Aaron Gallegos’ questions to Quallen that center on his sexual orientation. The judge notes that Sgt. Christian Handley – Gallegos’ supervisor, who was also in the interview room – asked similar questions.
The case is still a long way from being determined. If the matter does go to trial – it still may face further procedural challenges and could still be settled – it won’t happen for another year. But just getting to this point has taken years.
And, back in February 2017, when Quallen reached the top of those stairs, he didn’t know what to do. The path forward hadn’t been spelled out for him. There was no road map.
So he learned along the way how to navigate the different systems that purport to create accountability when people say they’ve been wronged by law enforcement. His navigation of those systems – that include the sheriff’s criminal complaint process, the county attorney’s office, the ballot box, and, ultimately, the civil legal process – has been a matter of trial and error.
He wants to show you that path.
Quallen, 25, grew up on the East Coast. When he graduated high school, Quallen joined the Coast Guard. It was a natural fit: he swam in high school and responded well to organizations seeking to instill discipline. But he found he didn’t want to spend his whole life on ships. So, when honorably discharged, he decided to travel and re-evaluate.
He took an internship in Wyoming with a Christian program that teaches outdoor skills. And, while here, he fell in love with Wyoming’s backcountry. So he decided to settle in Laramie and enroll at the University of Wyoming.
When he arrived here in 2015, Quallen was halfway to a Bachelor’s degree. He figured he could access the outdoors he loved and earn a diploma. He signed on with the campus Army ROTC program, which would assist with his tuition payments. And, with his military background and interest in the outdoors, he fit in.
That changed, Quallen said, when he was assaulted by another ROTC member. At the time, Quallen presented to the world as a lesbian, and he was still using the name he went by as a woman when he reported the assault to sheriff’s investigators. He told them he typically dated women.
Quallen reported to law enforcement he’d gone to the man’s house. They’d had sex at night. Then, in the morning, the man had raped him, Quallen said.
It’s the identity of a queer person that is central to Quallen’s civil rights case. He alleges that police violated his right to equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The equal protection clause promises Americans that their government will treat them the same as other people who are in similar circumstances.
And, in his final interview with the sheriff’s office, Quallen alleges, the office failed in its duty.
According to a transcript of the recorded interview, Gallegos and Handley dominated the conversation. In the interview, Gallegos said he thought Quallen had given bad information to police. The investigator said that he thought a friend of Quallen's had come up with a false story of rape.
Quallen had gone along with the story because of his sexual orientation, Gallegos said.
“This blew up into something that would’ve possibly said, ‘Hey, (he) said (he) was strictly into girls,’” said Gallegos. “Which you had told everybody, so people would’ve been confused. You don’t want to look like a liar to them.”
Gallegos and his sergeant told Quallen they wouldn’t charge him with false reporting. But Gallegos characterized multiple times the alleged sexual contact as consensual and said he needed Quallen to confirm his understanding.
Quallen repeatedly declined to do so: “It blew up, but I didn’t say I wanted it.”
The investigator returned the conversation to Quallen’s sexual identity.
The interview ended, Quallen said, because he gave up arguing. So he walked up the stairs that lead from the Albany County Sheriff’s underground office to the street. He reached the top of the stairs terrified.
“It never occurred to me when I initially went in there that they wouldn’t believe me,” Quallen said in an interview for this story. “Let alone that they would believe that I was potentially deserving of criminal charges.”
When contacted by email – requesting comment from Sheriff Dave O’Malley, Gallegos and Handley – the sheriff’s office declined to comment for this story.
“At the direction of Counsel, we will not be involved,” read the entirety of the email from O’Malley.
It wasn’t right, Quallen thought. He went to law enforcement for help and left feeling like they had treated him like crap. They disregarded, he said, a real crime and a real danger. He was bewildered and disappointed.
Quallen felt he needed deputies to take him seriously. But he didn’t know how to make that happen.
Back on the University of Wyoming’s campus, he met with the coordinator of a program that aims to prevent sexual and relationship violence.
He told her his case had been poorly handled. She suggested he speak with a lawyer. He put that idea on the back burner. But, when he told a friend about the experience, she made the same suggestion.
That lawyer, Quallen recalls, brought him to meet with Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent. Quallen hoped they would be able to convince the prosecutor to re-examine and ultimately pick up the case against Quallen’s alleged assailant.
The lawyer – Rennie Phillips – said she wasn’t retained to represent Quallen. Phillips, though, thought she would be able to help Quallen navigate an attempt to review a recording of the interview.
So about a month after the final interview with sheriff’s deputies, Quallen, Trent and Phillips sat down to talk about the case. Quallen said he provided Trent a copy of the police report, marked up where – he says – deputies mischaracterized his statements or attributed their statements to him.
Quallen remembers being optimistic then – Trent seemed to listen to what he had to say. She seemed sympathetic. Trent, Quallen recalls, said she’d look into things.
But, in March 2018, nearly a year after their first meeting, Trent said she wouldn’t take the case. A criminal prosecution would never happen. Trent told Quallen she’d talked to the deputies but that the details of that conversation were private, Quallen said. Trent said she didn’t think the case was winnable, Quallen recollects.
When asked this past week about Quallen’s recollection, Trent said that she was circumscribed by ongoing litigation in which she expects to be a witness. The county attorney, though, said that she did recall the case being closed by the sheriff’s office. Trent re-opened the case, which she says her office does with every investigation pertaining to sexual assault, even if only to review evidence.
In Quallen’s case, Trent said, she met again with the sheriff’s office. She said she expressed to that agency “concerns (with) techniques that were used.” And she declined to prosecute.
“Could I win on the facts of the case, the strengths of the case?” Trent asked rhetorically. “I felt that our office would not be successful.”
So Quallen once again had to reasses his options. Sheriffs, in theory, should be highly accountable to the public. After all, they answer directly to voters at the ballot box. The investigators were the sheriff’s employees.
Elected sheriffs, who answer directly to voters, can frequently be highly responsive to their constituents. But things don’t always work that way.
Rebecca Neusteter, director of the University of Chicago’s health lab and whose work focuses on equity in criminal justice and health care systems, told reporters that although the accountability and broad discretion granted sheriffs can create space for responsive policies, there are downsides too. Because sheriffs don’t answer to county commissioners or the county attorney, the end of the road really is at the ballot box, every four years.
Data analysis of sheriff’s elections conducted for this story indicate that in Wyoming the ballot box itself rarely creates change. A statistical regression found that incumbent sheriffs are 34 times more likely to win a contest against their challenger. And that’s assuming there is any race at all.
Since 2006 in Wyoming, less than a third of general elections for sheriff were contested, according to reporters’ statistical analysis of county clerk records statewide. So, 68 percent of the time, the options come down to voting for the incumbent, writing in a name on the blank space or not marking that portion of the ballot at all.
Quallen didn’t know those numbers when he was in the midst of the process. But he perceived that the political realities of elections for hyper-local office – where community and party ties weigh heavily – would stand in his way. So he kept looking for a solution.
When Quallen turned back to Phillips, his initial lawyer, she referred him to a Cheyenne firm, Overstreet, Homar and Kuker. The process seemed hopeless. Quallen had been pouring his effort into a black hole that returned nothing.
Still, he didn’t have any better options. He figured it wouldn’t hurt to talk.
So Quallen sat down with Megan Selheim, the same campus coordinator who’d referred him to Phillips, the first lawyer. They called the Cheyenne office. And during the initial consultation, Quallen was heartened.
“After hitting wall after wall after wall it felt like there was finally a door or a window,” said Selheim. “Like an official acknowledgement of how bad things had gone.”
“They not only told me that they would take the case if I wanted them to, but they believed truly that what had happened was wrong,” Quallen said. “It wasn’t just: We could win. It was: We should win.”
Quallen found himself at an inflection point. He’d talked to police, thinking they’d help him. Since then – at every turn – he’d found only pain and disappointment. He wanted to give up.
And going forward with a civil case against the sheriff’s office could mean years of litigation. He’d long ago given up hope on accountability for the person who’d assaulted him. But the sheriff’s office would keep acting the same way, Quallen reasoned, until somebody did something. It might as well be him.
“If we wanted to move forward with any other kind of litigation – especially in terms of holding law enforcement accountable – it wasn’t going to be for me. It was something that I was going to have to go through, but for the sake of all of the other people that were gonna come after me,” Quallen recollects. “Hopefully at some point down the road we would help someone else who hadn’t yet been wronged.”
So, Quallen said, let’s at least try.
The type of litigation on the table didn’t promise to be easy. Lawsuits involving police tend to involve certain hurdles that don’t show up elsewhere. A big portion of the challenge shows up in Qualified Immunity, a legal doctrine created by the U.S. Supreme Court starting in the 1960s, and that became a particular challenge following precedent drawn from cases decided in the ‘80s.
The justices reasoned that lawsuits against the government – even when they turned out to be invalid – could be exorbitantly expensive for those entities and divert their attention from important issues. People who might otherwise decide to work in public office might not take the job for risk of lawsuit. And – justices thought – law enforcement would be afraid to act with the threat of litigation hanging over officers’ heads.
So the court’s doctrine, which is the law of the land, requires plaintiffs to show not only that a police officer violated civil rights law, but that the right was clearly established and the officer would therefore know about it.
Part of the reason that doctrine is such a high hurdle today, say lawyers who handle lawsuits against law enforcement, is because over the past 10 or 15 years judges have expanded their application of the doctrine dramatically.
A statistical analysis performed for this story reflects the attorneys’ anecdotal observations. Wyoming Public Media and the Casper Star-Tribune collected every case filed between 2000 and 2019 in Wyoming federal court related to the section of federal law pertaining to civil rights violations by local government and not directly pertaining to prison conditions.
For the purposes of this analysis, reporters considered a case as favorable for the plaintiff when public dockets stated that parties had reached a settlement, when judges ruled that plaintiffs were entitled to compensation or when a jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
Some settlements were likely not captured by this analysis: occasionally, lawyers will agree to dismiss a case without referencing a settlement. It is possible – or even likely – that some of those cases included monetary settlement agreements. Although such cases make up only 1% of the total seen before the court, reporters decided to exclude unclear circumstances from their analysis altogether. Reporters decided to do the same with cases that have not yet received a final determination from the trial court.
The results indicate that cases brought by pro se litigants – people who haven’t hired a lawyer – are almost never successful.
When people hire lawyers, they do far better. Nearly half the time – 46 percent – such claims were successful. But that number has been on the decline.
For the five years beginning in 2000, such cases were successful 56 percent of the time. Between 2005 and 2009 that number dropped to 48 percent, where it stayed stable for another five years. But it dropped again. Between 2015 and 2019, only 27 percent of cases were resolved in favor of the plaintiff.
The data doesn’t clearly indicate the reason for the decline.
But John Robinson – partner in a Wyoming law firm that handles a large portion of civil rights cases in the state – said that he does anticipate courts becoming more reticent to employ the doctrine going forward.
The strength of the qualified immunity doctrine functions like a pendulum. Robinson, who isn’t involved in Quallen’s case, said he expects that pendulum to slowly begin swinging in the other direction, strengthening people’s ability to enforce their civil rights.
Quallen’s lawyers started by filing notices of claim with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.
That’s typical. Those notices can serve as jumping off places for negotiations. They also keep a claimant’s legal remedies open under state law.
As soon as a claim is filed, agencies loop in their insurers. In the case of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, that means the agency informed the Local Government Liability Pool.
That’s also typical. Nineteen of the state’s 23 county governments are insured through the pool, which was created by the Wyoming Legislature and is governed by a joint powers board.
Local governments pay fees – in Albany County’s case about $67,000 a year – and are also responsible for deductibles on their claims. That money is put in a big pot used to cover the costs of defending and paying out claims.
The structure of the insurers, though, might undermine attempts at accountability.
Although the insurance pool has an interest in reducing risk of claims, the pool can’t mandate actions to municipalities and their agencies. Executive Director Mark Pring, speaking generally, said that law enforcement can be resistant to training and consultations offered by the pool.
“We can make recommendations, but we can’t make law enforcement and elected officials do anything,” Pring said. Some officials are more open than others, he said. For the most part: “law enforcement are opinionated and don’t like being told what to do, which is frustrating.”
Quallen, when he filed suit, named the individual officers involved as well as the sheriff’s office. That’s also typical. And the officers – like every sworn officer in Wyoming – are covered by a second pot of money managed by the State Self-Insurance Program.
The self-insurance program creates a deep challenge, said a law professor who studies the topic. John Rappaport, of the University of Chicago, said officers nationwide are indemnified against claims made against them. So agencies typically purchase insurance to cover the claims on their officers’ behalf.
But Wyoming – in an unusual fashion – insures itself by keeping a $40 million reserve account on hand. That means small municipalities won’t have to worry about struggling to pay for premiums or the claims associated with them.
But, Rappaport said, when the agencies and officers know they’ll be covered no matter what, their incentive to change is limited to the $20,000 deductible that agencies are responsible for paying in the self-insurance program. The strength of that incentive – by Rappaport’s thinking – likely depends on the size of the agency’s budget.
The State Self-Insurance Program has every year for the past decade reported in annual filings that it has “historically worked with law enforcement agencies across the State and the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy to enable trainers to instruct other peace officers on a variety of liability related issues.”
When asked for records of the actions, though, the insurance program couldn’t provide them. According to the State of Wyoming, the person responsible for handling the pool has never made a recommendation or paid for such trainings. In a written statement, a spokesperson said that the risk manager – who oversees the pool – did not know of any trainings recommended before her tenure.
Erin Edwards, the risk manager, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Quallen’s legal team looked to reforms as they sent a series of requests during settlement negotiations. They asked for money and they asked for changes such as new policies for training officers who will take reports of sexual assault, Quallen said.
Both those types of settlement terms can inspire change, say lawyers in the field. Darold Killmer – a partner in the Denver civil rights law firm that has recently attracted national attention for representing the family of Elijah McClain, a Black man killed by police – said that lawsuits are among the few effective methods of holding police accountable.
When he negotiates settlements, said Killmer, he aims for and wins concessions from agencies that include changes to training and policy. But, Killmer – who is not involved in Quallen’s case – said money talks. Even when insurance pools dilute the message, agencies take notice of legal settlements and judgements.
“At some point a responsible adult has to sit up, pay attention and say: Why do we keep paying out these settlements for police misconduct?” Killmer said. “I no longer care that much whether they agree its constitutional, so long as they’re persuaded that it’s not good business to keep doing it.”
Quallen, for his part, wonders if litigation could be better leveraged to hold agencies accountable. He thinks monetary awards could sometimes go toward policy reviews or improved training.
But, when defense lawyers rejected his offers in negotiation, Quallen turned to the courthouse.
In February, Quallen’s lawyers filed suit in federal court, alleging that Handley and Gallegos, the two deputies who conducted the final interview with Quallen, violated his constitutional rights by interrogating him about his sexual history and preferences when he reported to them.
Lawyers for the deputies asked Judge Alan Johnson to dismiss the case against them, and Johnson in an April ruling did so.
In the order to dismiss, Johnson wrote that Handley did not understand what qualifies as consensual sex. However, the federal judge ruled that Quallen wasn’t able to provide case law that would have clearly established a right that the deputies violated. Because he failed to do so – and because he failed to show that another person was treated differently in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause – the judge determined that the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity.
“The Court recognizes it may be all but impossible to show another individual alleging sexual assault was treated differently, given the sensitive nature of such a matter. However, the Court cannot rewrite the law. Defendants might deeply inquire into the sexual behavior of anyone reporting a sexual assault, which might be inappropriate but would not be an equal protection violation,” the judge wrote in the ruling.
“The court does not condone defendants’ behavior …. Defendant Handley appears to believe if sexual activity is consensual at night it is automatically consensual in the morning. He is wrong,” Johnson wrote. “This was not handled well. However, this is a Court of law, not a Court of public opinion. Plaintiff did not overcome the high burden of qualified immunity on (his) equal protection claim.”
The qualified immunity doctrine does not apply to parallel claims against agencies themselves. And the judge in May ruled that Quallen’s case against the sheriff’s office could go forward. Although the judge dismissed a claim made pertaining to state law and a claim alleging that police had coerced a confession from Quallen, the judge ruled that Quallen’s complaint against the county under Section 1983 – the portion of law used to sue local governments for civil rights violations – could go forward. Johnson wrote that it is plausible the sheriff’s office inadequately trained the deputies who then violated Quallen’s constitutional rights.
To support that plausibility, Johnson wrote, was the fact that Handley – a sergeant responsible for supervising Gallegos – let the investigator question Quallen about his sexual orientation. Then Handley did the same himself. The judge in his determination also cited Quallen’s allegation that Sheriff Dave O’Malley was aware of the interview and let it proceed. Johnson as well determined that Quallen had done enough to show that he – then identifying as a lesbian woman – was treated differently on that basis.
“It is unclear what discovery will reveal, but Plaintiff has shown it is plausible (he) was treated differently based on (his) sex or sexual orientation. It is inconceivable Defendants would tell a straight woman that it must be weird being with a man,” Johnson wrote. “Plaintiff may very well have not been treated similarly to straight women claiming sexual assault. At this stage, all (he) needs to plead is disparate treatment was plausibly based on the facts (he) submits. The Court finds (he) has.”
The case is now proceeding toward trial, which Johnson set for July of next year.
Quallen, who still lives in Laramie, has seen years slip by as he’s sought justice. He completed the bachelor’s degree. Now he’s midway through a Ph.D.
While fighting for accountability, Quallen lost a lot. The majority of the social circle he once had is gone. So is his dream of becoming an Army Chaplain. He thought about giving up the fight. But he hasn’t.
His reward thus far has been pain, a preliminary trial date and a lot of experience navigating unfamiliar systems.
“If I didn’t advocate for myself nobody was going to. Nobody did, unless I asked and reached out and went from lawyer to lawyer to lawyer. … There’s no road map. There’s no tour guide,” Quallen said. “It was scary. It’s still scary. And we’re doing it still.”
Eda Uzunlar, for Wyoming Public Media, contributed to this report.
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