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Transferred Prisoner May Sue Oklahoma Officials in Oregon Court

Transferred Prisoner May Sue Oklahoma Officials in Oregon Court

by Mark Wilson

In an October 9, 2013 ruling, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that Oregon courts have personal jurisdiction over Oklahoma prison officials with respect to claims brought by an Oregon prisoner transferred to Oklahoma.

In May 2007, Oregon prison officials transferred Liam O’Neil, aka Jacob Barrett, to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) under the Interstate Corrections Compact. Soon thereafter, Barrett sent several letters and grievances to OSP Warden Marty Sirmons concerning his treatment and living conditions at the facility.

Oregon attorney Charles Simmons represented Barrett in several legal actions and regularly communicated with him by letter and telephone while he was confined at OSP.

In August 2008, Simmons sent Barrett legal mail containing attorney-client privileged materials. OSP Case Manager Estes intercepted and read the mail, stating, “This doesn’t look legal. I’m confiscating it.”

Barrett asked Estes and Sirmons to deliver his legal mail and explain why it had been confiscated. When they did not respond, he filed a grievance.

Simmons had previously verified to Oregon prison officials that he was a licensed attorney who represented Barrett. Nevertheless, Sirmons directed Simmons to explain how the materials he had sent Barrett were legal mail; provide proof, such as an employment contract, that he was Barrett’s attorney; and prove that he was licensed to practice law in Oklahoma. Simmons responded with a 10-page letter and 29 pages of attachments. Barrett was never given or shown the legal mail, however, because Warden Sirmons determined that Simmons had not adequately explained how it constituted legal materials.

Barrett challenged the opening of legal mail outside his presence by Oklahoma prison officials by filing a state habeas petition in Oregon. That case was dismissed, and the dismissal was affirmed on appeal. See: Barrett v. Williams, 247 Ore. App 309, 270 P.3d 285 (Or. Ct. App. 2011), review denied.

OSP prisoners began threatening Barrett after a guard told several United Aryan Brotherhood (UAB) prisoners that Barrett was a “rat” who was transferred to OSP because he was providing information against “White boys” at an Oregon prison. Guards allegedly plotted with UAB members to have Barrett killed by opening his cell so other prisoners could attack him.

After receiving threatening notes from a UAB prisoner named “Fester,” Barrett contacted Oregon prison officials claiming that his life was in danger. He sent copies of the threatening notes, offered to identify staff members, prisoners and others who could confirm the UAB activities, and requested a transfer.

Oklahoma internal affairs investigators questioned Barrett and OSP officials, but did not interview any other prisoners. Oregon prison officials did not investigate the threats.

Barrett was then assaulted by a UAB member and again requested a transfer; Simmons asked Oregon prison officials to place Barrett in protective custody. Oklahoma prison officials refused to move Barrett or take any other action.

Barrett filed suit in Oregon state court against more than three dozen Oregon and Oklahoma prison officials. He alleged § 1983 claims of retaliation, interference with his legal mail and attorney-client relationship, failure to protect him from known threats and negligence claims under Oregon state law. Barrett sought damages and declaratory and injunctive relief, plus attorney’s fees.

After Barrett filed suit, he was transferred to a New Mexico prison. Oklahoma and Oregon officials moved to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim and lack of personal jurisdiction over the Oklahoma officials. The trial court granted the motions and refused to grant Barrett leave to amend his complaint.

The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed. Noting that Barrett did not challenge the dismissal of any Oklahoma officials except Sirmons and Estes, the appellate court found in a detailed ruling that their interference with Barrett’s legal mail was sufficient to bring them within the personal jurisdiction of Oregon courts. The Court of Appeals also concluded that the trial court had improperly refused “to allow plaintiff his right to file an amended complaint.” Finally, although Barrett had been transferred to New Mexico, his claims were not moot because he had requested monetary damages in addition to injunctive and declaratory relief. See: O’Neil v. Martin, 258 Ore. App. 819, 312 P.3d 538 (Or. Ct. App. 2013), review denied.


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Related legal cases

O’Neil v. Martin


Barrett v. Williams