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Seventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Wisconsin Retaliation Suit

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a Wisconsin federal district court improperly dismissed a prisoner’s civil rights claim of retaliation for filing grievances because a prison disciplinary board found the prisoner was lying when filing his grievances.

Wisconsin prisoner Willie Simpson filed a civil rights action alleging that guards that he had wrote complaints on, and a lawsuit, for abusing him retaliated against him by issuing bogus conduct reports and arranging for him to be disciplined; Simpson spent 300 days in segregation and lost 25 days’ recreation privileges.

The district court dismissed for failure to state a claim, holding Simpson “failed to set out all ‘elements’ of a retaliation claim—foremost among them that his original allegations against the staff had been truthful, for there is no constitutional right to lie.” That court said Simpson was bound by the prison disciplinary board’s finding that his original complaints were false until a state court set aside that finding.

The Seventh Circuit condemned the district court’s “code-pleading approach” as being contrary to civil procedure rules. “One pleads ‘claims’ (which is to say, grievances) rather than legal theories and factual specifics,” the Seventh Circuit said. That is why “[a]ny district judge (for that matter, any defendant) tempted to write, ‘this complaint is deficient because it does not contain…’ should stop and think: what rule of law requires a complaint to contain that allegation?” Because the truth of a prisoner’s prior statements is not among matters required to be pleaded under Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), Simpson’s grievance was set out clearly enough to put the defendants on notice; no more was required.

The Court also noted that because Wisconsin courts do not treat the factual conclusions of prison disciplinary boards (or any other state agency) as beyond the power of examination, a federal court may also review those findings. The Court, further, said that the decisions in Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997) and Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) do not affect this case because neither disciplinary segregation nor a reduction in the amount of recreation is a form of “custody” under federal law.

The Court said a determination of whether Simpson is lying or truthful in his prior complaints is a matter to be determined on summary judgment and not a motion to dismiss. It was evident the district court did not want to make that determination, but to do otherwise would allow prison disciplinary boards to immunize guards who violate prisoner’s rights, and the act of penalizing speech would be self-vindicating.

The Court cautioned Simpson that he could be monetarily sanctioned if found to be lying, but reversed for further proceedings. See: Simpson v. Nickel, 450 F.3d 303 (7th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Simpson v. Nickel