United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
J. PHIL GILBERT, District Judge.
Plaintiff, an inmate in Pinckneyville Correctional Center ("Pinckneyville"), brings this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1). Plaintiff claims that fourteen Pinckneyville officials conspired to retaliate against him for filing grievances (Doc. 1, p. 2). He asserts claims against these officials under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and Illinois tort law (Doc. 1, p. 1). Plaintiff seeks declaratory judgment, monetary damages, and injunctive relief.
Plaintiff filed a nearly identical action in this Court against nineteen Pinckneyville officials on June 11, 2013. Smith v. State of Illinois, et al., 13-cv-551-MJR (S.D. Ill. June 11, 2013) (Doc. 1) ("prior action"). The Court dismissed Plaintiff's original complaint under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8. Id. (Doc. 7). Plaintiff was granted leave to file an amended complaint, but failed to do so. On November 12, 2013, the Court dismissed the action without prejudice. Id. (Doc. 14).
Plaintiff's latest complaint is now before the Court for preliminary review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under § 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court is required to dismiss any portion of the complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).
At the outset, the Court notes that, as compared to the complaint filed in Plaintiff's prior action, the instant complaint is substantially streamlined. Plaintiff has reduced the number of defendants by five. The length of the complaint is reduced from twenty-nine pages to eighteen. The length of Plaintiff's total submission, including the complaint and exhibits, is reduced from almost two hundred pages to fifty-four. After fully considering the substantive allegations set forth therein, the Court concludes that the complaint passes muster under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 and survives preliminary review under § 1915A.
According to the complaint, fourteen Pinckneyville officials conspired to retaliate against Plaintiff beginning in June 2011. These officials include a former warden (Gaetz), nine officers (Hubler, Liszewski, Peter Johnson, Harris, Flowers, Bobby Johnson, Rolla, Lawrence, and Barker), three counselors (Deen, Paulsmeyer, and Sanders), and Defendant Klindworth. Together, Defendants allegedly launched a campaign of harassment and bullying against Plaintiff in June 2011 that continued through February 2013.
Plaintiff points to a grievance he filed on June 21, 2011, as the triggering event (Doc. 1, pp. 6, 27-32). The grievance was dated June 11, 2011, and refers to events occurring earlier that month. Plaintiff complained that Defendants Harris and Johnson repeatedly allowed another inmate to sort through his property, resulting in the loss of several items. The grievance also indicates that Defendant Harris threatened Plaintiff with physical harm when Plaintiff tried to address the issue directly with him (Doc. 1, p. 27).
This grievance allegedly triggered a wave of retaliation by prison officials, which includes the following acts among others: (1) threats of physical harm by Defendant Harris (Doc. 1, pp. 6-7); (2) excessive cell searches (i.e., three in a single day) by Defendants Harris, Johnson, and Flowers (Doc. 1, pp. 7-8); (3) taunting and verbal harassment by Defendants Harris, Lawrence, Johnson, and Hubler (Doc. 1, pp. 7, 8); (4) circulation of the grievance and public readings of it by Defendants Harris and Sanders (Doc. 1, pp. 7-8, 10); (5) confiscation or destruction of Plaintiff's personal property by Defendants Johnson, Harris, and Flowers (Doc. 1, pp. 7-8, 13); (6) denial of commissary by Defendants Flowers and Lawrence (Doc. 1, p. 8); (7) repeated denial of library, lunch, yard, and/or dayroom privileges by Defendants Lawrence, Hubler, Johnson, and Rolla (Doc. 1, pp. 8-10); (8) failure to investigate grievances by Defendant Sanders (Doc. 1, p. 10); (9) disposal of Plaintiff's grievances by Defendant Paulsmeyer (Doc. 1, p. 11); (10) issuance of false disciplinary reports in an attempt to send Plaintiff to segregation by Defendant Paulsmeyer and other Pinckneyville officials (Doc. 1, p. 11); and (11) mischaracterization of grievances by Defendant Deen (Doc. 1, pp. 12-13).
Plaintiff now sues Defendants for conspiracy, retaliation, and due process violations arising under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. He also asserts a negligence claim against Defendants under Illinois tort law. Plaintiff seeks declaratory judgment, monetary damages, and injunctive relief.
After fully considering the allegations in the complaint, the Court finds it convenient to divide the complaint into four counts. The parties and the Court will use these designations in all future pleadings and orders, unless otherwise directed by the judicial officer of this Court.
Count 1: Retaliation claim against Defendants;
Count 2: Conspiracy claim against Defendants;
Count 3: Due process claims against Defendants;
Count 4: Negligence claim against Defendants.
Count 1 - Retaliation
Upon careful review of the allegations, the Court finds that the complaint states a viable retaliation claim (Count 1) against Defendants Flowers, Harris, Hubler, Bobby Johnson, Peter Johnson, Lawrence, Paulsmeyer, Rolla, and Sanders. To prevail on a First Amendment retaliation claim, Plaintiff must establish that (1) he engaged in activity that is protected by the First Amendment; (2) he suffered a deprivation that would likely deter First Amendment activity in the future; and (3) the First Amendment activity was "at least a motivating factor" in each defendant's decision to take the retaliatory action. Woodruff v. Mason, 542 F.3d 545, 551 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Massey v. Johnson, 457 F.3d 711, 716 (7th Cir. 2006)).
The complaint points to Plaintiff's grievance dated June 11, 2011, as the protected First Amendment Activity. The Seventh Circuit has made it clear that prison officials may not retaliate against inmates for filing grievances or otherwise complaining about their conditions of confinement. See, e.g., Walker v. Thompson, 288 F.3d 1005 (7th Cir. 2002); DeWalt v. Carter, 224 F.3d 607 (7th Cir. 2000); Babcock v. White, 102 F.3d 267 (7th Cir. 1996); Cain v. Lane, 857 F.2d 1139 (7th Cir. 1988). At this early stage, the allegations in the complaint satisfy the first requirement.
With regard to the second requirement, Plaintiff identifies acts taken by each defendant that would deter future First Amendment activity, including excessive cell searches, denial of privileges, confiscation of property, issuance of false disciplinary reports, etc. While each of these acts, when standing alone, might not be actionable, they become actionable under the First Amendment in a Section 1983 action if taken in retaliation for the exercise of a constitutionally protected right. See Howland v. Kilquist, 833 F.2d 639, 644 (7th Cir. 1987). The allegations satisfy the second prong of a retaliation claim.
The third prong is also satisfied at this early stage. The defendants' frequent references to the June 2011 grievance when taking action against Plaintiff suggest that the grievance is "at least a motivating factor" in the retaliation.
Based on the foregoing discussion, Plaintiff shall be allowed to proceed with Count 1 against Defendants Flowers, Harris, Hubler, Bobby Johnson, Peter Johnson, Lawrence, Paulsmeyer, Rolla, and Sanders. The Court will ...