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Henderson v. Johnson

March 12, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harold A. Baker United States District Judge


The jury in this case returned a verdict on the plaintiff's claim of retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights against all the defendants, awarding compensatory damages of $300.00, and punitive damages of $18,500.00. Before the Court is the defendants' renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or in the alternative for a new trial (d/e 76) and the plaintiff's objections.

The court concludes that the evidence supports the verdict only against defendant Johnson. There was no evidence presented at trial that the other defendants were personally responsible for Johnson's retaliatory actions. Judgment as a matter of law must therefore be entered in favor of each of the defendants other than Johnson.

As to Johnson, the court concludes that the plaintiff failed to prove any compensatory damages and that the punitive damages ($5000) awarded were excessive. In the court's view, the evidence presented at trial supports a nominal compensatory damage award of $1.00, and, at most, punitive damages of $500.00 against Johnson. A new trial on damages against defendant Johnson will be held if the plaintiff does not accept the court's remittitur of damages.

The Law

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a)(1) permits judgment as a matter of law if "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for" the non-moving party. The inquiry is "'whether the evidence presented, combined with all reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Susan Wakeen Doll Co., Inc., v. Ashton-Drake Galleries, 272 F.3d 441, 449 (7th Cir. 2001)(quoting Goodwin v. MTD Prods., Inc., 232 F.3d 600, 606 (7th Cir. 2000)(additional citations omitted)). In reviewing the evidence, courts are not permitted to make credibility determinations, "and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

The test for determining whether to grant a new trial is whether "'the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the damages are excessive [or insufficient], or if for other reasons the trial was not fair to the moving party." Shick v. Illinois Dep't of Human Serv., 307 F.3d 605, 610 (7th Cir. 2002)(brackets in original)(other citations omitted). "Only when a verdict is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence should a motion for a new trial challenging the jury's assessment of the facts carry the day." Cefalu v. Village of Elk Grove, 211 F.3d 416, 424 (7th Cir. 2000). A jury verdict cannot be set aside if "a reasonable basis exists in the record to support the verdict, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, and leaving issues of credibility and weight of evidence to the jury." Kapelanski v. Johnson, 390 F.3d 525, 530 (7th Cir. 2004).

"The federal courts have long recognized a prisoner's right to seek administrative or judicial remedy of conditions of confinement, . . . as well as the right to be free from retaliation for exercising this right." Babcock v. White, 102 F.3d 267, 276 (7th Cir. 1996)(citations omitted)(denying qualified immunity for retaliation claim). "Prisoners are entitled to utilize available grievance procedures without threat of recrimination . . ." Hoskins v. Lear, 395 F.3d 372, 375 (7th Cir. 2005). " "To succeed on a retaliation claim, the plaintiff must "establish that his protected conduct was a motivating factor behind [the defendants' actions], but that should not end the inquiry. Because the ultimate question is whether events would have transpired differently absent the retaliatory motive . . ." Babcock v. White, 102 F.3d 267, 275 (7th Cir. 1996).

However, while an inmate may not be retaliated against for filing a grievance, he may be disciplined for the language he uses in the grievance. For example, an inmate may be punished for making false, libelous, threatening, or insolent statements in a grievance. See, e.g., Hale v. Scott, 371 F.3d 917 (7th Cir. 2004). However, unless Defendants have uncontradicted evidence that the inmate lied, whether Defendants believed he lied in his grievance is a question for the jury. See Hasan v. U.S. Dept. Of Labor, 400 F.3d 1001, 1005 (7th Cir. 2005); Greeno v. Daly, 414 F.3d 645, 655 (7th Cir. 2005)(whether medical professionals believed inmate was malingering and did not really have a serious medical need is jury question).

The Evidence

In May, 2003, the plaintiff was an inmate assigned to work in the warehouse at Pinckneyville Correctional Center. Defendant Johnson was his supervisor. Plaintiff was terminated from his job. The plaintiff filed a grievance against Johnson, complaining that Johnson had terminated the plaintiff because the plaintiff had refused to engage in "homosexual joking."

Defendant Wingerter, the plaintiff's counselor, reviewed the grievance and read it to Johnson. Johnson denied the accusations. Johnson then filed a disciplinary report charging the plaintiff with "intimidation or threats," based on the contents of the plaintiff's grievance. Defendant Pickering approved the plaintiff's placement in temporary segregation until the disciplinary hearing. At the hearing, the adjustment committee reduced the charge to insolence and found the plaintiff guilty, sentencing him with one month grade demotion and seven days of segregated confinement. The Administrative Review Board reversed the findings and expunged the ticket. Sherry Benton, one of the ARB members, testified that the ticket was expunged because the Illinois Administrative Code prohibits punishment for language in grievances. This is not entirely accurate. An inmate can not be punished for using the grievance procedure, but the Code does allow punishment for making knowingly false accusations in a grievance. 20 Ill. Admin. Code 504.810.

The plaintiff testified that on May 15th or 16th, 2003, he was: moving throughout the warehouse doing what was asked of me concerning my assignment and alone; and during that time, the defendant, Trey Johnson, who constantly throughout the time in which I worked there engaged other inmates in homosexual jokes in which I tried my best to avoid by constantly staying busy and staying out of the presence of the defendant, Trey Johnson. On this particular date, the Defendant Johnson had -- while I was in the aisles stacking boxes on the shelf, had whistled at me and blew kisses at me, and while I was bending down stacking the boxes on the shelf, if I am not mistaken, he had also tried to joke with me as well, and I turned around and confronted him in a respectful manner and told him I just don't interact and I do not play like that. Upon me saying that, he told me that I had no longer had to worry about working here no more to get my things and go back to the housing unit, in which I obeyed on his direct order. . .

(Tr. pp. 11-12).

Plaintiff called Rodney Grace as a witness, an IDOC inmate who worked at the warehouse at the time in question. Grace testified that he had worked in the warehouse for three or four years, and that Defendant Johnson regularly engaged in homosexual joking with inmates, though Grace had never complained to anyone about it. (Tr. pp. 31-32). Grace ...

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