Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Sixth Circuit Orders Judgment Against Three Defendants in Prisoner's Retaliation Case

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated judgments in favor of three prison officials in a prisoner's lawsuit alleging a retaliatory transfer, and ordered that judgment be entered against them. The district court then awarded damages on remand.

Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) prisoner Kevin King actively participated in a 1988 state court class-action suit regarding prisoner property issues, Cain v. MDOC, Michigan Court of Claims Nos. 88-61119-AZ, 93-14975-CM and 96-16341-CM.

On September 17, 1999, King was transferred to the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility from the Saginaw Correctional Facility, allegedly because he had attempted "to incite a demonstration amongst the prisoners." Seven days later, prison employee Sandra Naves issued a notice of intent to place King in segregation upon the order of Unit Manager Sharon Wells, who told Naves what to put in the notice even though Naves had no personal knowledge that King had been involved in inciting a demonstration or any other misconduct.

On March 31, 2000, guard Bonnie Lewis issued King a major misconduct ticket for "creating a disturbance." She later retracted her statement, and admitted in deposition testimony that Wells had asked her to write the ticket, which was dismissed.

On April 20, 2000, Wells submitted a memo requesting that King be transferred. Transfer Coordinator Curtis Chaffee sent an email to MDOC Classification Specialist Chuck Zamiara, requesting King's transfer to another prison because he was creating "problems" by filing grievances and raising complaints with the Warden's Forum.

Zamiara responded by suggesting that King be sent to a higher-security level facility as a "disruptive prisoner who is manipulating others to create unrest." Chaffee signed the transfer order on May 12, 2000, changing the order by hand to score King as Level III security, as "approved by Wells." King was transferred on May 17, 2000 to the Chippewa Correctional Facility, a Level III prison.

On June 14, 2000, Zamiara emailed the warden at Brooks about concerns raised by defense counsel in the Cain case, who warned "that 'the issue of retaliation' may be raised over the fact that King's transfer documents were edited by hand."

The following month, King filed suit in federal court against Wells, Chaffee, Zamiara and five other MDOC officials, alleging that they retaliated against him for participating in the Cain litigation and for helping other prisoners file grievances.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, which was reversed by the Sixth Circuit. See: King v. Zamiara, 150 Fed.Appx 485 (6th Cir. 2005). The district court then granted the defendants' motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, which also was reversed on appeal.

Following remand, the district court granted summary judgment to three of the defendants before finally appointing counsel for King. The case proceeded to trial and King called twelve witnesses, including himself and all five remaining defendants. Other than offering deposition testimony, the defendants called no witnesses. Following a two-day trial in June 2009, the district court ruled in favor of the defendants.

King appealed, representing himself pro se, and the Sixth Circuit reversed as to defendants Wells, Chaffee and Zamiara on May 22, 2012.

Finding that the lower court had applied the wrong legal standard, the Court of Appeals concluded "that the adverse action taken against King was proximately caused by the Wells memo." The appellate court found both legal and factual errors in the district court's conclusions. "Although the record is silent as to disruptive behavior by King, the record speaks volumes as to repeated attempts by Wells to punish King following his arrival at Brooks as a known participant in the Cain litigation."

Even affording "the district court's findings substantial deference," the Sixth Circuit held that "... the district court's finding regarding Wells's motivation was wholly unsupported by the record evidence; more problematically, this finding was specifically contradicted by uncontested documents and testimony from neutral parties establishing Wells's retaliatory motive. We are left with the firm impression that on this evidence the district court committed clear error in finding that Wells's actions were not motivated 'at least in part' by King's protected conduct."

The appellate court noted that "a person who sets in motion an adverse action can be liable for retaliation for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of his actions."

Additionally, the district court's judgment in favor of Chaffee and Zamiara had "applied the wrong legal standard and made a key finding of fact unsupported by the record evidence and explicitly contradicted by other undisputed evidence."

As such, the Sixth Circuit vacated the district court's judgment in favor of Wells, Chaffee and Zamiara, and instructed the lower court to enter judgment against those defendants. The judgment in favor of the other two defendants was upheld. Judge Sandra Beckwith concurred in part and dissented in part, and would have found no retaliation claim based on an increase in King's security level. See: King v. Zamiara, 680 F.3d 686 (6th Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

Following remand, the district court entered judgment against defendants Wells, Chaffee and Zamiara on May 14, 2013, and proceeded to determine "what remedy is appropriate to provide relief for these Defendants' violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights when they transferred him from a Level II security facility to a Level III facility in retaliation for Plaintiff's participation" in Cain v. MDOC.

The district court provided a lengthy discussion of what damages were available given the PLRA's limitation, under § 1997e(e), on compensatory damages for mental or emotional injuries in the absence of physical injury. The court awarded King $1,475 in compensatory damages, based on $5.00 per day for the time he was housed at the Level III prison. The district court declined to award punitive damages and found no basis to enter injunctive relief. The court also awarded King $2,212.50 in attorney fees, reflecting the fee cap of 150% of the damages award pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d). See: King v. Zamiara, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 4:02-cv-00141; 2013 WL 2102655.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

King v. Zamiara