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Whitfield v. Althoff

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

November 19, 2013

BENYEHUDAH WHITFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
ERIC ALTHOFF, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

RICHARD MILLS, District Judge.

Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis on claims arising from three allegedly false disciplinary tickets he received during his incarceration in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Plaintiff was released from the IDOC on or around July 7, 2011.

The "privilege to proceed without posting security for costs and fees is reserved to the many truly impoverished litigants who, within the District Court's sound discretion, would remain without legal remedy if such privilege were not afforded to them." Brewster v. North Am. Van Lines, Inc. , 461 F.2d 649, 651 (7th Cir. 1972). Additionally, a court must dismiss cases proceeding in forma pauperis "at any time" if the action is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim, even if part of the filing fee has been paid. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d)(2). Accordingly, this Court grants leave to proceed in forma pauperis only if the complaint states a federal claim.

In reviewing the Complaint, the Court accepts the factual allegations as true, liberally construing them in Plaintiff's favor. Turley v. Rednour, 729 F.3d 645, 649 (7th Cir. 2013). However, conclusions and labels are insufficient. Enough underlying facts must be offered to "state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'" Alexander v. U.S. , 721 F.3d 418, 422 (7th Cir. 2013)(quoted cite omitted).

ANALYSIS

I. Plaintiff states federal procedural due process and retaliation claims against the Adjustment Committee Members who presided over Plaintiff's disciplinary hearings. Plaintiff states no federal equal protection claim.

Plaintiff pursues claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged procedural due process violations arising from three prison disciplinary reports he received while incarcerated. The reports at issue are dated January 13, 2002, September 18, 2003, and July 14, 2007. Plaintiff lost good conduct credits as part of his punishment for all these reports.

Plaintiff alleges that the disciplinary findings were not supported by the evidence or adequately explained. Plaintiff also alleges that he was not permitted to present exonerating evidence. See Wolff v. McDonnell , 418 U.S. 539, 556 (1974)(setting forth procedural due process requirements in prison disciplinary hearing). Plaintiff alleges that the Adjustment Committee Members presiding at the disciplinary hearings falsely wrote down that Plaintiff had not requested any witnesses when in fact Plaintiff had requested witnesses.

Plaintiff was entitled to a meaningful opportunity to oppose the disciplinary charges, including the opportunity to present exonerating evidence if consistent with security concerns. Wolff , 418 U.S. at 564-565. To succeed, Plaintiff will need to show that the exonerating evidence would have made a difference in the outcome, but more facts are needed to make that determination. Piggie v. Cotton , 344 F.3d 674, 678 (7th Cir. 2003)(applying harmless error analysis to refusal to call witnesses in prison disciplinary hearings). Plaintiff therefore states procedural due process claims against the Adjustment Committee Members.

At this point, Plaintiff may also proceed on his claim that the Adjustment Committee members were motivated by retaliation for Plaintiff's exercise of his First Amendment rights, though Plaintiff's allegations are largely conclusory.

Plaintiff also alleges that his equal protection rights were violated because he was subjected to arbitrary discipline that other similarly situated inmates were not. This allegation is too vague and conclusory to state an equal protection claim. No plausible inference arises that other inmates accused of the same infractions with the same disciplinary record as Plaintiff received lighter punishments. What Plaintiff appears to be saying is that he was treated arbitrarily because of his grievances and other protected First Amendment activity. That is a retaliation claim, which is already proceeding.

Of the twenty-one Defendants named, only seven bear plausible personally responsibility on the due process and retaliation claims, at least on the present allegations. Kuhn v. Goodlaw , 678 F.3d. 552, 555 (7th Cir. 2012)("§ 1983 liability is premised on the wrongdoer's personal responsibility"). These seven are the Adjustment Committee Members who presided over Plaintiff's disciplinary hearings, for they are the ones who committed the alleged procedural due process violations. These Defendants are: Julia Vincent and Jon Wilson (Adjustment Committee Members hearing 1/13/02 disciplinary ticket); Benny Dallas, Erika Howard, and Michael Williams (Adjustment Committee Members hearing 9/18/03 disciplinary ticket); Cynthia Jordan and Carol McBride (Adjustment Committee Members hearing 7/14/07 disciplinary ticket).

Plaintiff names as Defendants members of the Prisoner Review Board, alleging that they were complicit in the Adjustment Committee Members' transgressions.[1] However, the Board cannot increase the loss of good time above that recommended by the Adjustment Committee. 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(c); 20 Ill.Admin. Code 107.150(c); 20 Ill.Admin.Code 1610.170(a). Thus, no constitutional liberty interest is implicated by the Prison Review Board's approval of Plaintiff's loss of good time. Lucas v. Montgomery , 583 F.3d 1028 (7th Cir. 2009)("Since the PRB does not find facts, but rather only approves, reduces or abrogates penalties based on the prison adjustment committee's findings, Wolff is not implicated.").

Plaintiff alleges that the Board members turned a "blind eye" to the Adjustment Committee Members' misconduct. True, individuals can be liable under § 1983 if they turn a blind eye to or condone unconstitutional behavior. Matthews v. City of East St. Louis , 675 F.3d 703, 708 (7th Cir. 2012)("To show personal involvement, the supervisor must know about the conduct and facilitate it, approve it, condone it, or turn a blind eye for fear of what they might see.'")(quoted cite omitted). However, ruling against Plaintiff in an administrative appeal does not amount to approving of or turning a blind eye to constitutional violations which allegedly occurred in the disciplinary hearing. George v. Smith , 507 F.3d 605, 609-10 (7th Cir. 2007) ("Only persons who cause or participate in the violations are responsible. Ruling against a prisoner on an administrative complaint does not cause or contribute to the violation."); Soderbeck v. Burnett ...


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