Reversal: Inmate fired for attending prayer service didn’t miss step in grievance process

An inmate who filed a First Amendment complaint after he was fired from his prison job for going to a prayer service instead of work can proceed with his case against a prison officer after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment for the officer.

While incarcerated at the Indiana State Prison, inmate Phillip Miles was hired for a job in the commissary. Miles was hired with the understanding that he would miss work on Fridays from noon-2 p.m. to attend the prison’s weekly Jumu’ah Muslim prayer service.

However, officer Julie Anton — who was Miles’ supervisor but was not the officer who hired him — refused to allow the inmate to attend the prayer service. She told Miles that if he missed work, he would be “done” in the commissary.

Miles attended the service anyway, and Anton fired him later that day based on a work evaluation that accused him of stealing kitchen supplies.

After unsuccessfully trying to resolve the issue informally with Anton, Miles filed a grievance disputing the allegation of theft as well as the negative work evaluation. Both issues were resolved and Miles eventually applied for new positions elsewhere.

Miles then sued Anton in her personal capacity for violating his rights under the First Amendment, alleging she violated his rights by refusing to let him attend religious services and then retaliating against him when he did so.

But because Miles did not file a formal grievance before filing his federal complaint, the Indiana Northern District Court determined he had failed to comply with the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s exhaustion requirement and granted summary judgment to Anton.

In a reversal, the 7th Circuit found Miles’ case fell into a category where the text of the grievance policy is dispositive. It found that the policy was best read as barring prisoners from grieving an officer’s hiring or firing decisions.

In deciding whether Miles challenged his firing as opposed to some other action separate from that decision, the 7th Circuit concluded that because Anton’s firing of Miles was the “action” at the crux of the First Amendment claims, Miles was not required to engage the grievance process before he turned to federal court.

“The district court’s distinction between the treatment reflected in Anton’s firing decision and the firing decision itself assumes that prisoners will have their legal claims formed at the outset,” Judge Diane Wood wrote. “That puts the cart before the horse.”

In ruling for Miles, the 7th Circuit made two points.

First, it held that resolving interpretative ambiguity against an official “goes hand in hand with our practice of placing the broader burden of proof with the official.” Second, it said the exhaustion requirement creates an incentive for prisoners to make full use of whatever administrative process a prison chooses to create.

“If it wishes to do so, Indiana State Prison is free to amend section IV to strike a different balance between grievable and non-grievable issues,” Wood wrote. “But whatever the rules may be, they must be written clearly if the grievance system is to function predictably and meaningfully.”

Finally, the appellate court concluded that textualism must be for everyone, including those who are incarcerated.

“Because the written policy excepted his case from the administrative process, Miles had complied with the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement when he brought his suit in federal court,” Wood wrote. “We therefore reverse and remand the case for further proceedings.”

The case is Phillip L. Miles v. Julie Anton, 21-2796.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}