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Burden-Shifting Jury Instruction Requires New Trial in Prisoner's Lawsuit

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial in a civil rights action that alleges a prisoner was subjected to improper strip searches to humiliate him, then was subjected to an “especially protracted, gratuitous and humiliating strip search” in retaliation for having filed grievances complaining about the earlier searches.

The Court of Appeals had previously reversed an Illinois district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law to the defendants. See: Mays v. Springborn, 575 F.3d 643 (7th Cir. 2009). Following remand, the case went to trial and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. The plaintiff, Tiberius Mays, formerly incarcerated at the Illinois state prison at Stateville, filed another appeal arguing that he was prejudiced by the instructions and special interrogatories submitted to the jury.

Mays’ attorney had failed to object to the instructions and interrogatories. As such, the appellate court said it could reverse only if there was “plain error” – meaning error that was both indisputable and likely to have influenced the outcome of the case.

The appellate court found misleading an interrogatory related to an Eighth Amendment claim that asked the jury to state whether each defendant did or did not “have a valid penological reason for the group search conducted [in a specified month or on a specified date].” As the Seventh Circuit held in the previous reversal in this case, even if there was a valid penological reason for the strip searches, “the manner in which the searches were conducted must itself pass constitutional muster.”

The evidence showed the group searches had gratuitously exposed the nudity of each prisoner being searched, and the guards conducted the searches while wearing dirty gloves in a freezing basement and uttering demeaning comments about the prisoners’ genitals.

In instructing the jury on Mays’ First Amendment claim, the district court placed the burden of proof regarding causation on the wrong party by requiring Mays to negate the possibility that the retaliatory strip searches would have occurred even if there had been no retaliatory motive.

The Court of Appeals held the jury should have been instructed that Mays had the burden of proving retaliation was the motivating factor for the strip search, but even if he presented such proof, the defendants could still prevail if they persuaded the jury that it was more likely than not that the strip search would have occurred even had there been no retaliatory motive.

The failure to give such an instruction was found to be plain error, and that error was compounded by the special interrogatories submitted to the jury by the district court, which asked four times whether retaliation was “the sole motivating factor” for the strip search. Therefore, the judgment was reversed and the case remanded for another trial. See: Mays v. Springborn, 719 F.3d 631 (7th Cir. 2013).

Mays obtained new counsel following remand and a jury trial has been scheduled for May 20, 2014. This civil rights action, initially filed in 2001, has been pending for 13 years.

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