A federal judge ruled Thursday that a retired officer’s sexual assault case against Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the military’s second-highest ranking officer, can proceed to the next phase.
The ruling, issued by Judge Michael Fitzgerald of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, is a major win for retired Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser after the Air Force last year said it could not corroborate her accusations against Hyten. At the time, Spletstoser had accused Hyten, then President Donald Trump’s nominee for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault in a hotel room at a conference in 2017.
Hyten has denied Spletstoser’s accusations and argued she couldn’t sue him because the alleged assault was “incident to military service,” a key element of the Feres Doctrine, which prohibits service members from being sued in civil court and has generally prevented troops from suing their superior officers.
The judge denied the motion on Thursday, arguing that the alleged assault could not “conceivably serve any military purpose.”
“Regardless of whether General Hyten came to Plaintiff’s hotel room under the pretense of work-related purposes, it is not conceivable that his military duties would require him to sexually assault Plaintiff, or that such an assault would advance any conceivable military objective,” according to the ruling.
The Air Force can appeal, but the ruling means that the case can proceed for now.
“The DoJ is reviewing the ruling. As is our practice in all ongoing litigation, we are not going to comment on the details,” said Air Force Maj. Trisha Guillebeau, a spokersperson for Hyten.
Spletstoser’s lawsuit says that in December 2017, Hyten, who was then her boss at U.S. Strategic Command, came to her hotel room while they were attending the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif. Once inside, the lawsuit states, he grabbed her and rubbed against her, ejaculating in his shorts. Spletstoser alleges that he later retaliated against her for rejecting his advances.
When Trump nominated Hyten for the job of the nation’s No. 2 military officer in 2019, Spletstoser filed a complaint that prompted an Air Force investigation. The complaint was a major issue during Hyten’s confirmation hearing last year, but Hyten received strong backing from senators on both sides of the aisle and was eventually confirmed.
Even Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz), a retired Air Force pilot who revealed last year that she was raped by a superior officer, came to Hyten’s defense.
“The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges,” McSally said. “Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case.”