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Jury Awards Indiana Prison Law Library Clerk $1,150 for Retaliation

Jury Awards Indiana Prison Law Library Clerk $1,150 for Retaliation

On April 3, 2008, a federal jury awarded $1,150 to a prison law library clerk in a lawsuit claiming retaliation by a prison librarian.

Charles Watkins, a law clerk at the Indiana Department of Corrections’ Miami Correctional Facility, sued librarian Barbara Kasper after she retaliated against him for complaining about changes to the institutional law library.

On February 13, 2004, Kasper held a meeting with Watkins, other law clerks and prison administrators to discuss changes she intended to implement regarding the operation of the law library. Kasper expressed her belief during the meeting that prisoners had too much law library access, and that law clerks should be limited to passing out books and forms requested by prisoners rather than assisting with the completion of forms and preparation of legal documents. Watkins disagreed, asserting that law clerks should be able to provide as much help as possible short of giving legal advice.

Soon after the meeting, Kasper instituted policies designed to restrict the law clerks’ privileges and responsibilities. For example, she prohibited the law clerks from keeping personal property in the library and precluded them from assisting other prisoners with legal matters except for retrieving books and handing out forms.

On February 26, 2004, Watkins complained to Kasper after she left his personal items out in the open in the library where they could be tampered with or stolen by other prisoners. As a result of Watkins’ complaint, Kasper filed two misconduct reports against him. The first alleged that he had improperly stored personal property in the law library. He was acquitted of that charge. The second charged him with intimidation. Watkins was acquitted of that charge as well, but was found guilty of disorderly conduct, a lesser offense.

Watkins sued, and appearing pro se, argued to the jury that Kasper’s actions amounted to retaliation that was impermissible under the First Amendment. The jurors agreed and awarded him $150 in compensatory damages and $1,000 in punitive damages.Kasper then moved for judgment as a matter of law; she argued, among other issues, that the verdict should be set aside because Watkins had failed to show he was speaking on a matter of “public concern” when he expressed disagreement with Kasper’s intention to change the law library policies. The public concern element is a requirement for prisoner First Amendment retaliation claims in the Seventh Circuit.

The district court denied Kasper’s motion in an exhaustive ruling on June 6, 2008. Watkins’ “comments addressed the appropriateness and constitutionality of prison library policies that applied to all inmates during a meeting that included the participation of all the relevant prison administrators and law clerks,” the court wrote. Watkins’ speech, therefore, “related to a matter of public concern and was constitutionally protected.” Accordingly, judgment was entered for Watkins and against Kasper in the amount of $1,150. See: Watkins v. Kasper, 560 F.Supp.2d 691 (N.D. Ind., 2008).?Not satisfied, Kasper filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or alternatively for a new trial, and a motion to stay enforcement of the judgment. Those motions were denied by the district court on July 15, 2008. See: Watkins v. Kasper, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ind.), Case No. 3:05-cv-28-TS; 2008 WL 2783260.

Apparently a sore loser, Kasper then filed a notice of appeal and a second motion to stay enforcement of the judgment. The court granted the motion to stay pending the outcome of the appeal, and also granted Kasper’s request to waive the appeal bond requirement under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 62(d). See: Watkins v. Kasper, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ind.), Case No. 3:05-cv-28-TS; 2008 WL 4623522.

Needless to say, the cost of litigating the post-trial motions and an appeal of the jury verdict will far exceed the $1,150 awarded to Watkins – but in their wisdom, prison officials apparently believe this is an appropriate expenditure of taxpayer funds.

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Related legal cases

Watkins v. Kasper

Watkins v. Kasper