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Retaliation Claim Not Barred by Heck

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held a prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is not barred when a victory for the prisoner “would have at most the potential to decrease his period of detention,” in a case where the prisoner “alleged adequately the elements of a First Amendment retaliation claim.”

This action was filed by Michigan prisoner Jerald Thomas, who is imprisoned at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility. The appellate court found the accounts of the facts at issue varied widely. According to Thomas, “Corrections Officer Eby” kicked his cell door at 1:30 a.m. on October 23, 2003. After Thomas awakened, Eby told Thomas she was going to “teach [him] a lesson” for writing a grievance against a guard named Grieke. She also said, “You people are as dumb as you look,” which Thomas took as a slur against African-Americans.

Eby, however, contended that Thomas was already awake and “was standing in the observation window with his penis exposed masturbating.” She took the act as an attempt to “degrade” her. Eby wrote Thomas a Major Misconduct Report. The next day, Thomas wrote a grievance. At a hearing, Thomas was found guilty of “intentionally exposing his sexual organ to officer Eby.” Thomas’ grievance was denied.

Thomas attempted to challenge the misconduct report in state court, but because he failed to pay a partial filing fee the court dismissed the action. Thomas then filed his civil rights action in federal court. That court granted Eby’s motion to dismiss, and Thomas appealed.

On appeal Eby argued the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred Thomas’ claim. That doctrine deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Courts apply the doctrine “only when a plaintiff complains of injury from the state court judgment itself.” Thomas complained of injury from retaliation, not from a state court judgment. Thus the doctrine did not apply, the Sixth Circuit found.

The Court then had to determine if Thomas’ § 1983 claim was an evasion of the habeas exhaustion requirement when challenging the duration of confinement. See: Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) and Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997). The Sixth Circuit determined this case was more properly viewed under Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74 (2005).

Under Dotson, a § 1983 action can be pursued when the claim has only a potential effect on the amount of time a prisoner serves, and the habeas bar does not apply. The appeals court held that under Michigan law, disciplinary credits “are explicitly tied to a prisoner’s parole eligibility date and discharge date … thus, credits do not determine when a sentence expires or is completed, but only when a prisoner is subject to parole or discharge.” Since his § 1983 claim did not necessarily affect the duration of his sentence, because prison officials retained discretion to parole Thomas, the habeas bar did not apply to his claim.

The appeals court further held that Thomas stated a retaliation claim. First, he properly asserted he had engaged in protected activity. Next he showed adverse action because of that activity. Finally, he stated adequate causation to defeat a dismissal motion.

Accordingly, the District Court’s order of dismissal was reversed. See: Thomas v. Eby, 481 F.3d 434 (6th Cir. 2007), rehearing denied.

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Eby