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Wisconsin Prisoner’s Civil Rights Action Alleging Verbal Harassment Reinstated

Ronald J. Beal, a Wisconsin state prisoner, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his civil rights by Department of Corrections (DOC) staff who had subjected him to verbal harassment. After his complaint was dismissed by a magistrate judge during the initial screening process, Beal appealed. The Seventh Circuit reversed on October 2, 2015 and remanded the case for further proceedings.

According to the Court of Appeals, the “magistrate judge stated that ‘standing alone, verbal harassment of an inmate does not constitute a constitutional violation.’” That, the appellate court said, was incorrect. Even if harassment by prison staff is “purely verbal,” it can still be “as cruel ... as in cases of physical brutalization of prisoners by guards.”

Beal claimed that DOC sergeant Russell Schneider had “made verbal sexual comments directed towards inmate Brian Anthony, telling Ronald Beal to place his penis inside Brian Anthony.” Schneider also urinated on several occasions in front of Beal and other prisoners, “while smiling.” Those allegations led the appellate court to distinguish its prior decision in DeWalt v. Carter, 224 F.3d 607 (7th Cir. 2000), which held that “standing alone, simple verbal harassment does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Seventh Circuit noted that “recurrences of abuse, while not a prerequisite for liability, bear on the question of severity,” and also found that Schneider’s status as a sergeant “may have amplified the impact of his remarks.”

“In his appellate filings the plaintiff further claims that other inmates would harass him by calling him names such as ‘punk, fag, sissy, and queer,’ all of course derisive terms for homosexuals and possibly inspired or encouraged by Schneider’s comments...,” the Court of Appeals added. “Conceivably the plaintiff feared that Sergeant Schneider’s comments labeled him a homosexual and by doing so increased the likelihood of sexual assaults on him by other inmates.”

The Court indicated that it was persuaded to reverse the dismissal of Beal’s suit because the magistrate judge had not only misconstrued the law, but also, by dismissing the case at the initial screening stage, had deprived Beal of a chance to respond. Beal’s additional allegations that he had sought psychological treatment as a result of the verbal harassment was also cited by the appellate court, which further took note of the fact that Beal’s grievance against Schneider had been upheld. Plus in any event, the magistrate judge had clearly mischaracterized “urination” as being a form of “verbal” harassment.

“A certain latitude should be allowed in the interpretation of complaints filed by pro se prisoner litigants, such as the plaintiff in this case, whose legal knowledge and expressive skills are palpably deficient. This is a case in which before dismissing the complaint the district court should have considered seeking clarification and amplification,” the Seventh Circuit concluded. The case remains pending on remand. See: Beal v. Foster, 803 F.3d 356 (7th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Beal v. Foster