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Sixth Circuit Court Reverses a First Amendment Retaliation Issue

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded in May 2012 a Michigan district court’s decision for the defendant in a prison guard’s suit against prison officials for retaliatory job reassignment at the prison. Ruth Mosholder was assigned as school officer, a job exempt from the normal rotation of assignments at Thumb Correctional Facility (TCF) in Michigan.

Frustrated over the coddling of newly arrived youthful offender portion of the general prison population, she wrote a letter to several Michigan state representatives and senators detailing her concerns over certain conditions and policies, either tacitly or officially observed and condoned at TCF.

In her letter of October 2008, Mosholder recounted a rap competition as a prime example of such policies, one which administration called rehabilitative, and which she characterized as gang encouragement. Included in the letter were statistics to back up her claims of building a volatile situation.

In February 2010, Mosholder was transferred from her job as school officer at TCF to the regular prison staff rotation. Mosholder initiated proceedings in circuit court against prison officials alleging violation of her First Amendment rights to free speech. In November 2010, the district court granted appellee’s motion for summary judgment. Mosholder appealed.

The district court concluded Mosholder’s speech was not a matter of public concern, but rather the “quintessential employee beef.” The court of appeals disagreed, holding the content and context of Mosholder’s letter reflected some personal interest and some public concern, and that the public concern element of the letter satisfied that prong of the test in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968). Similarly, it satisfies the prong that weighs the interests of the employee commenting on an issue against the effect the employee’s concerns would have on the efficiency of the state instrument and, in this case, its penological objectives. The district court ruled the status quo of prison operations outweighed the individual’s concern. The circuit court, however, held that Mosholder’s concern did not undermine prison efficiency, and decided Pickering favored Mosholder.

The circuit court reversed the district court and remanded for further proceedings. See: Mosholder v. Barnhardt, 679 F.3d 443 (6th Cir. 2012)

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Related legal case

Mosholder v. Barnhardt