7th Circuit: Caseworker didn’t retaliate against prisoner

An Indiana prisoner whose discipline conviction was overturned for lack of evidence did not persuade the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that his case manager later retaliated against him for activity protected by the First Amendment.

After he was falsely accused of threatening a prison nurse, inmate Monwell Douglas had his discipline conviction from the allegation overturned. But the conviction still adversely impacted Douglas, who was placed in “segregation” housing, lost his job as a “wheelchair pusher” and stopped receiving wages.

Eventually Douglas secured a new job and was returned to the normal cell block, but not to his original cell. That prompted him to file a lawsuit against nine defendants alleging violations of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The Indiana Southern District Court screened the complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b) and allowed only the First Amendment claim against Faith Reeves, Douglas’ casework manager, to go forward. It later granted summary judgment to Reeves on that claim despite Douglas’ assertion that she punished him for taking the appeal by refusing to restore the benefits he had lost.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court on Tuesday in Monwell Douglas v. Faith Reeves, 18‐2588, finding no reasonable jury could conclude that Reeves inflicted deprivations on Douglas likely to deter a person of ordinary firmness from engaging in First Amendment activity.

“Whether retaliatory conduct is sufficiently severe to deter is generally a question of fact, but when the asserted injury is truly minimal, we can resolve the issue as a matter of law. … Douglas did not provide evidence of any deprivation inflicted by Reeves that can clear this hurdle in the prison context,” Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote.

The 7th Circuit further noted that Douglas failed to show any disparities between the different cells he was placed in and between three potential job positions. With regard to Douglas’ allegedly denied backpay for the days he was furloughed, the 7th Circuit found that “Douglas simply did not present a threat theory to the district court.”

“His consistent view was that Reeves denied him money he deserved. Even though we construe his pro se filings generously, they did not raise the deprivation he now describes on appeal,” Hamilton concluded.

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