Inmate wins retaliation claim against his jailers

This inmates rights case finds the prisoner has a legitimate retaliation case against his jailers, whom he claims punished him for filing grievances over the conditions of confinement.

The case is Brandon v. Kinter, issued on September 10. I wrote about the plaintiff's big win on the religious freedom portion of this case at this link. But plaintiff also says the guards retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment, which protects the right of inmates to grieve their living conditions. He says the defendants retaliated against him in three ways: (1) they took away his medical diet; (2) one of the guards served him a meal containing pork, prohibited under Muslim practices; and (3) the guards allowed another inmate to spit on him. The case got dismissed in the district court, but the Court of Appeals (Walker, Calabresi and Chin) reinstate the lawsuit. Brandon will have his day in court.

The legal standard for constitutional retaliation claims is whether the government's response to your speech activity would deter a person of ordinary firmness from complaining or speaking out again. This separates the trivial claims from the real claims, and recognizes that silencing critics prevents those critics from speaking out again. If the inmate can prove that, then he's got an "adverse action" worth suing over.

As for the removal of plaintiff's medical diet, the Court finds that the diet was intended to address his high cholesterol and heart problems. The medical diet ensured he would be served foods to which he was not allergic. "Given the potential consequences for Brandon's health, the removal of his medical diet could reasonably be found to be an adverse action." We can also infer the removal of the medical diet was caused by plaintiff's speech, as it happened shortly after plaintiff filed most of his grievances, and the guards made hostile comments to plaintiff about his grievances, further demonstrating a link between his grievances and the diet shenanigans.

The same analysis applies to plaintiff's claim that the jail gave him pork in retaliation for the grievances, which themselves involved the improper pork in his diet. One way plaintiff can win the case is through evidence that he got pork when other inmates at the same meal got no pork at all in a supposedly meatless meal. This is a close call, but it's going to the jury. Finally, the Court says plaintiff can prove the guards allowed another inmate to spit on plaintiff shortly after he filed his grievances. The guards knew the offending inmate (his name as Tiny) was aggressive and had attacked another inmate. The placed him in the cell with plaintiff. Not only does plaintiff show this happened after he filed grievances, but the guards made hostile statements: "If he grieves another tray, I'm going to lock his ass up!" said one in reference to plaintiff's complaints about the pork.