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$6,500 Settlement after Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Retaliatory Ad-seg Case

by Lonnie Burton

On October 26, 2016, the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a suit filed by a California prisoner who claimed prison officials had wrongly punished him for reporting staff misconduct. The 2-1 decision vacated a grant of summary judgment to the defendants.

The case began when two prison guards – one identified as T. Quillen – at an unnamed California state prison attempted to escort prisoner Lamont Shepard to a holding room after they said the newly-arrived Shepard refused to identify himself. Once in the holding area, Shepard informed Lt. J. Wise that Quillen had roughed him up during the transport and he needed medical treatment.

Wise told Shepard to recant his allegation and then he could “maybe work something out.” When Shepard persisted with his complaint against Quillen, he was placed in administrative segregation (ad-seg), where he stayed for three months. Wise contended in court filings that the ad-seg placement was for Shepard’s “own safety.”

Shepard then filed a § 1983 action alleging that Wise had retaliated against him for reporting Quillen’s misconduct. Wise moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The excessive force claim against Quillen went to a jury trial and the jury found in his favor. Shepard appealed both the verdict and the grant of summary judgment to Wise.

Focusing only on the claims against Wise (the verdict for Quillen was affirmed in a separate opinion), the Ninth Circuit held that, as an initial matter, Shepard had alleged a valid constitutional violation. A guard “may not retaliate against a prisoner for exercising his First Amendment right to report staff misconduct,” the Court of Appeals held. The Court added that Shepard had met all the criteria to support a valid retaliation claim, contrary to the district court’s ruling.

The first of those criteria is whether there was sufficient evidence of a retaliatory motive, which Shepard showed by, among other things, the close proximity between his accusation against Quillen and his placement in ad-seg. In addition, the Ninth Circuit found that the form filled out by Wise to authorize ad-seg had a box marked next to “placement for disciplinary reasons,” contradicting Wise’s assertion that Shepard’s safety was his concern. The Court of Appeals said the inconsistencies supported an inference that Wise’s actions were retaliatory.

The Court then dismissed Wise’s arguments that his actions, whether retaliatory or not, did not chill Shepard’s First Amendment rights, and that Shepard’s transfer to ad-seg advanced legitimate penological goals.

The threat of segregation, the Ninth Circuit found, would “chill a person of ordinary firmness from complaining about officer misconduct.” The Court of Appeals similarly dismissed Wise’s second contention, noting that his argument simply borrowed “general justifications” nearly verbatim from prison policy books.

Finally, the Court rejected Wise’s qualified immunity claim, finding that the right to be free from retaliation was clearly established at the time he had Shepard placed in segregation.

“Inmates must be able to complain about staff; doing so provides a crucial check against those who are in a position to abuse them. Forcing inmates to choose between exercising that right and going into ad-seg for an indefinite period of time impermissibly burdens that right,” the appellate court concluded.

Finding that Shepard had established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Wise had retaliated against him, and that Wise was not entitled to qualified immunity, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings. One circuit judge dissented.

Following remand the case settled for $6,500 in March 2017, according to a pleading filed by Shepard in the district court. See: Shepard v. Wise, 840 F.3d 686 (9th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Shepard v. Wise