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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit issues one Indiana opinion today

In Watkins v. Kasper (ND Ind., Judge Springmann), a 16-page opinion, Judge Tinder writes:

In this civil rights case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we consider the scope of prisoners’ First Amendment rights to complain about prison conditions. Charles Watkins, an inmate at Indiana’s Miami Correctional Facility (“MCF”), brought a § 1983 action against Dr. Barbara Kasper, a librarian for the MCF’s law library, alleging that Kasper retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to criticize library policies. The case went to a trial before a jury, who heard the following evidence. * * *

[ILB - What follows are details of a dispute between the librarian and the prisoner, centering on the fact that "Kasper disapproved of the law clerks’ practice of helping other inmates prepare their own legal documents."]

The continued friction between Watkins and Kasper apparently didn’t undermine Watkins’s library skills, for Kasper rehired him as a law clerk on March 25, 2004. Still, the controversy between them was just beginning. In February 2005, Watkins brought this § 1983 suit against Kasper (and several other prison officials no longer parties to the case) for retaliating against his exercise of free speech. At trial, Watkins, proceeding pro se, argued that Kasper was angry at him for criticizing library policies and responded with a series of illegitimate disciplinary actions, including filing false work evaluations and conduct reports against Watkins, disposing of his personal legal materials, and denying him access to the library. * * *

It seems that experience as an offender law clerk pays off in the courtroom; Watkins won. The jury found that Kasper retaliated against Watkins’s First Amendment rights and awarded Watkins $150 in compensatory damages and $1000 in punitive damages. Kasper made two post-trial motions for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, which the district court denied. Kasper appeals, arguing that Watkins’s speech during both the February 13 library meeting and February 26 confrontation with Kasper is unprotected as a matter of law, such that this speech cannot support Watkins’s First Amendment retaliation claim. * * *

We conclude that the confrontational, disorderly manner in which Watkins complained about the treatment of his personal property removed this grievance from First Amendment protection. Watkins did not confine himself to a formal, written grievance or a courteous, oral conversation with Kasper about the placement of his legal materials. Instead, he confronted Kasper faceto- face in the library, presumably within earshot of other prisoners, using a loud voice and active hand gestures, prompting Kasper to file a conduct report for intimidation. See id. (observing that the prisoner went beyond internal grievance procedures to a “public rebuke” of a prison official). The confrontational approach that Watkins used to make his grievance was inconsistent with the legitimate penological interest of prison discipline and order. * * *

It is also important that the MCF’s prison disciplinary board found, and Watkins doesn’t dispute, that Watkins committed the offense of disorderly conduct by confronting Kasper in such a disruptive manner. Watkins cannot rely on an act of speech that he concedes violated legitimate prison rules as the basis for his free speech retaliation claim. * * *

Both acts of speech on which Watkins bases his First Amendment retaliation claim are inconsistent with legitimate penological interests. These speech acts are unprotected as a matter of law and cannot support the jury’s verdict in favor of Watkins. We REVERSE and REMAND with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Kasper. 3-31-

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 31, 2010 11:07 AM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions