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Sixth Circuit: Prisoner’s “Insolent Speech” at Disciplinary Hearing Not Protected Under First Amendment

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted summary judgment to prison guards and nurses on a Michigan prisoner's retaliation, excessive force and denial of medical care claims.

On July 21, 2004, Michigan prisoner James A. Lockett faced a prison disciplinary hearing before Hearings Officer L. Maki. During the hearing, Lockett became angry "because he believed that Maki had ‘conspired with various staff officers in regards to the misconduct report,’ was ‘in cahoots’ with the prison officer who had filed the misconduct charges, and ran a ‘kangaroo court.’”

"I felt a need to tell this hearings officer exact(ly) how I felt," said Lockett. "I called this hearings officer ‘a foul and corrupted bitch.’"

Maki immediately terminated the hearing and, according to Lockett, guards Joseph Suardini and Harry Irvine injured him during a struggle. He also claims that he was refused medical treatment for his injuries.

Lockett was charged with assault, found guilty and sanctioned to 30 days of lost privileges. He also lost good-time credits pursuant to Mich. Comp Laws § 800.33(6).

Lockett brought federal suit, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated when guards attacked him and denied him medical attention in retaliation for his comments to the hearings officer, guards subjected him to excessive force, and he was denied medical care. The district court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

The Sixth Circuit first concluded that Lockett's claims were not barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 US 477, 114 SCt 2364 (1994). However, the court noted that it had previously held in Thaddeus-X v. Blatter, 175 F3d 378 (6th Cir. 1999) (en banc) that "if a prisoner violates a legitimate prison regulation, he is not engaged in 'protected conduct,' and cannot proceed beyond step one" of the three-step retaliation analysis. "Lockett's comment that the hearings officer was 'a foul and corrupted bitch' was insulting, derogatory, and questioned her authority as well as the integrity of the proceeding," the court found. "It thus falls well within the definition of 'insolence' and "Lockett's First Amendment claim fails as a matter of law because his comment to the hearing officer was not protected conduct under Thaddeus-X."

The court also rejected Lockett's excessive force claim, concluding that "Lockett's admittedly minor injuries did not rise to a level that is sufficient to sustain his ... claim."

Finally, the majority concluded that "no reasonable jury would find that Lockett's injuries were serious or that either nurse was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs." Therefore, the court held that Lockett's denial of medical care claim lacked merit.

One judge dissented on the excessive force claim, finding "that Lockett has created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the degree of force ... used against him exceeded that which was reasonably necessary and thus constituted a malicious effort to cause harm rather than a good-faith effort to restore discipline." See: Lockett v. Suardini. 526 F.3d 866 (6th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Lockett v. Suardini