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Texas Court of Appeals Reverses Dismissal of Prisoner's Retaliation Suit

By Matt Clarke

On September 10, 2008, a Texas state court of appeals reversed the Chapter 14, Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code, dismissal of a state civil rights action brought by a prisoner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Van Lee Brewer, a Texas state prisoner, brought suit in state district court alleging eight employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who worked at the Wynne Unit prevented him from accessing the law library and retaliated against him when he complained. Brewer alleged that guard Jason A. Simental knew Brewer had a pro se action pending before the Texas Supreme Court with a deadline in the near future. To prevent Brewer from using the law library, Simental allegedly informally changed his work hours and ordered Brewer to report to work, even removing him from the law library if he went there instead. Brewer filed grievances and complained, Simental filed disciplinary reports for failure to report to work. This went on for weeks with the law library refusing to change the time of the law library session Brewer was scheduled for because the other sessions conflicted with his official work hours and Simental preventing him from attending the law library sessions he was scheduled for. The other defendants allegedly helped Simental change Brewer's work hours after the fact, were involved in the disciplinary actions and refused to allow Brewer to present evidence or improperly investigated Brewer's grievances. The trial court dismissed the suit with prejudice citing Chapter 14, stating the Brewer failed to comply with the requirement that he submit an affidavit of the grievances he filed and copies of the grievances, and that the claims were frivolous or malicious. Brewer appealed.

The court of appeals held that Brewer had technically complied with the affidavit and grievance filing requirement. It was irrelevant whether the defendants were mentioned in the grievance by name because the purpose of the grievance was to give notice to the government of the facts, not to allow defendants notice of potential litigation. It went on to analyze whether the claim was frivolous. Since no hearing was held, the claim could only be dismissed as frivolous if, taking the facts alleged in the petition as true, it had no legal basis in law. Brewer claimed retaliation and conspiracy to retaliate for his attempt to access the courts. This states a non-frivolous claim enforceable under § 1983.

Brewer pleaded a detailed, specific chronology of events from which retaliatory intent could arguably be inferred. The court of appeals noted that the prison administration's position in its answers to Brewer's grievances that a prisoner could be ordered to work at any time allowed any prison guard to prevent access to the law library. It did "not hesitate to find that despite the apparently legitimate disciplinary charges, Brewer's §1983 retaliation claim has an arguable basis in law." Brewer also adequately pleaded retaliatory adverse actions, the disciplinary actions.

The court of appeals held that Brewer could not plead conspiracy against multiple individuals who worked for the same government entity. All these individuals are considered a single entity. Thus, the court of appeals reversed the dismissal except for the conspiracy claim, which had no arguable basis in law. The case was returned to the district court for further proceedings.

See: Brewer v. Simental, 268 S.W.3d 763 (Tex.App.-Waco 2008).

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Related legal case

Brewer v. Simental