7th Circuit: Litigious inmate’s transfer not retaliation

An inmate serving a life sentence who is known for being a “quintessential jailhouse lawyer” did not prevail in an appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday after the court found his transfer to another prison prompted by his multiple and continued grievances was not a move of retaliation.

Robert Holleman, formerly a prisoner at Pendleton Correctional Facility, was transferred to the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in response to his multitudinous lawsuits, grievances, and an interview he provided to a local newspaper about the conditions of Pendleton.

Soon after arriving at Wabash Valley, Holleman filed a lawsuit alleging the retaliatory nature of the transfer. The Southern District Court ultimately granted summary judgment to the Department of Correction defendants in the case, finding that although Holleman had engaged in protected speech and his protected speech had been “a motivating factor in Defendants’ decision to take steps to transfer him,” “[i]t was not clearly established that transferring Holleman from a facility that he persistently complained about to another facility with the same security level would violate Holleman’s constitutional rights.”

In an appeal to the 7th Circuit, Holleman asserted his transfer to Wabash Valley violated his First Amendment right to speak to the media and access the courts without facing retaliation. Additionally, Holleman argued that the district court erred by focusing on the lack of precedent establishing a right to a particular prison placement.

“Holleman has a strong argument here; after all, the First Amendment protects against retaliation even if the retaliatory action itself does not amount to an independent constitutional violation,” Circuit Judge Daniel Manion wrote for the 7th Circuit, turning to answer the question of whether the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to Holleman could support a finding that the transfer constituted First Amendment retaliation.

Although it found Holleman was engaged in protected activity and that superintendent of Pendleton Correctional Facility, Dushan Zatecky, “plainly stated the reason for the transfer was Holleman’s multiple grievances, complaints, and letters,” the 7th Circuit was not convinced that the causation element should be so easily brushed aside.

“In other words, a transfer initiated to punish a prisoner for engaging in protected activity would satisfy the causation element of retaliation, but a transfer initiated as a rational, justifiable response to the substance of the prisoner’s complaint would not,” it wrote, pointing to Sisneros v. Nix, 95 F.3d 749, 752 (8th Cir. 1996) as instructive.

The 7th Circuit ultimately found Holleman’s arguments failed to overcome the significant deference owed to the defendant’s nonretaliatory justification for the transfer, finding Holleman’s pretextual argument fell short of supporting a finding that the transfer was based on retaliatory motive.

“Holleman complained about several inadequate conditions at Pendleton, and the Defendants responded by transferring him to Wabash Valley. Even taking the facts in the light most favorable to Holleman, they do not support a finding that the transfer was motivated by the fact that he engaged in protected activity rather than the substance of his complaints,” the 7th Circuit wrote. “This alone is enough to doom his claim because it means he cannot establish the causation element of retaliation.”

Finally, the 7th Circuit found Holleman’s claim also failed to establish the transfer was adverse and motivated by his engagement in protected activity. It therefore concluded that Holleman’s First Amendment right to be free from retaliation not violated in Robert Holleman v. Dushan Zatecky, 19-1326.

Holleman, 66, is serving a life sentence for a 1977 Lake County murder conviction, according to DOC records.

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