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Fifth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Mississippi Retaliation For Letters to a Newspaper Claim

In an unpublished opinion the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's dismissal, for failure to state a claim, of a prisoner's retaliation suit against one prison official, but upheld the dismissal of claims against three other officials.

On December 15, 2003, Mississippi prisoner Clinton Cressionnie used the personal identification number (PIN) of fellow prisoner Patrick Presley to call his sister. That same night, Presley committed suicide.

Two days later, Department of Corrections (DOC) investigator Jeffery Hample questioned Cressionnie about Presley's suicide. Cressionnie asked if he was going to be issued a Rule Violation Report (RVR) for using Presley's PIN. Hample did not say whether he would file an RVR or not.
Under DOC procedures, Hample had 24 hours to issue an RVR but failed to do so.

On December 30, 2003, Cressionnie mailed letters to Presley's mother and wife and their attorney, claiming Presley had committed suicide because of a new prisoner classification system that required Presley's extended isolation.

On December 31, 2003, a local newspaper quoted DOC Commissioner Christopher Epps as saying prison officials had no role in Presley's suicide, which was due to a "Dear John" letter he'd recently received from his wife. Another article about Presley's suicide ran on January 12, 2004 that included "references to statements by, and quotes from, an anonymous inmate  that blamed the suicide on the new prisoner classification system." 

On January 20, 2004, Hample issued Cressionnie an RVR for unauthorized use of telephone privileges. Cressionnie requested that Hample appear as a witness at his disciplinary hearing. "Hample refused to give a statement  because of the sensitive nature of his discussion with Cressionnie," but agreed to appear at the hearing. However, fellow DOC investigator Marvin Overstreet appeared in Hample's place.

Hearings Officer Patty Legg rejected Cressionnie's argument that the RVR was issued in retaliation for his statements appearing in the local newspaper. Legg found Cressionnie guilty, and he was placed in isolation. A guard later told him that the Hearings Officer had been ordered to find him guilty.

Cressionnie brought suit in federal court against Hample, Overstreet, Legg and Epps, alleging that the RVR and guilty finding were in retaliation for Cressionnie sending letters to Presley's family and attorney that criticized the DOC. Prior to service being issued, the district court dismissed Cressionnie's complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) for failure to state a claim.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit upheld dismissal of the action against Epps, finding that Cressionnie's mere "personal belief" of Epps' involvement was insufficient to state a retaliation claim. Johnson v. Rodriguez, 110 F.3d 299, 310 (5th Cir. 1997). The court also upheld dismissal of the claim against Legg, finding that "Cressionnie alleged no evidence from which retaliation could be inferred." Woods v. Smith, 60 F.3d 1161, 1165 (5th Cir. 1995). The appellate court further upheld dismissal of the claim against Overstreet, holding that "Cressionnie did not allege that Overstreet took an adverse act against him." 

The Fifth Circuit reversed dismissal of the claim against Hample, however, ruling that Cressionnie's allegations against Hample were "sufficient to state a valid claim for retaliation under § 1983." See: Cressionnie v. Hample, 184 Fed Appx. 366 (5th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Cressionnie v. Hample