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Pretrial Detainee’s First Amendment Retaliation Claim Survives Summary Judgment

Pretrial Detainee’s First Amendment Retaliation Claim Survives Summary Judgment

by David M. Reutter

In a December 26, 2013 decision, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment, holding that a former pretrial detainee had presented sufficient evidence that he was subjected to retaliation for filing grievances and a lawsuit.

Randy G. Spencer filed suit alleging a First Amendment claim related to his stay at the Jackson County Detention Center (JCDC) in Missouri. When he entered the JCDC in January 2005 he faced multiple charges, including tampering with a motor vehicle, assaulting a police officer, theft and resisting arrest.

Despite those charges and a prior criminal record, Spencer was approved for and assigned to the Inmate Worker Program (IWP), also known as the trustee program. The IWP not only provided special privileges such as late nights, contact visits, movies, sodas, popcorn and extra food for kitchen workers, it also paid detainees for each shift worked.

Spencer was commended by the program’s supervisor, Margo Carter. He was reentered in the IWP after completing a substance abuse treatment program, and remained in the IWP until he was released from jail. In 2006, Spencer filed a lawsuit against Carter and other JCDC employees, alleging he received inadequate medical and dental care at the facility and faced retaliation by Carter.

Spencer returned to the JCDC in October 2009 on a theft charge. He was again approved for the IWP. About 10 days later, he saw Carter and apologized for filing the lawsuit against her. After a “few seconds,” she advised him that he was being terminated from the IWP.

The next day, Spencer filed a request for administrative remedy, known as a JPO, which is required before filing a formal grievance. Carter denied his request to return to the trustee program due to his “past charges, behavior and actions.”

Spencer then filed several other JPOs and requested grievance forms from his case manager, Gale Anthony. He made repeated requests which were denied, and Anthony had him moved to another unit with “younger, aggressive inmates.” His new case manager, Brenda Williams, advised him that he “wasn’t going to get any grievance forms.” Spencer filed suit and the district court granted summary judgment to Carter, Anthony and Williams.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit held the district court had erred, noting that “In order to demonstrate retaliation in violation of the First Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Spencer must ‘show (1) he engaged in a protected activity, (2) the government official took adverse action against him that would chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing in the activity, and (3) the adverse action was motivated at least in part by the exercise of the protected activity.’”

As to the claim against Carter, the appellate court wrote that she had not “explained how Spencer became disqualified from the trustee program when his record was essentially the same as when he entered it originally in 2005.” She did not claim he had a disqualifying offense, nor did she present “evidence that Spencer’s record changed between his October 2009 approval for the trustee program and his later removal from that program.” Thus, a jury could conclude his lawsuit against her was the motivating factor for his termination from the IWP.

A jury could also conclude the actions of Anthony and Williams were motivated by retaliation for Spencer’s efforts to file grievances. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. Following remand the defendants filed a renewed motion for summary judgment on April 22, 2014, which remains pending. See: Spencer v. Jackson County, Missouri, 738 F.3d 907 (8th Cir. 2013).


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Related legal case

Spencer v. Jackson County, Missouri