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Dismissal of Mississippi Prisoner’s Suit Over Grievance Retaliation Upheld

The dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Mississippi state prisoner Bobby Wilson, Jr., alleging violation of his free speech rights and retaliation by prison officials, was upheld by the Mississippi Court of Appeals on August 30, 2016.

Wilson claimed that prison guard Tameka Edwards refused to open his cell door so he could use the restroom during two-hour dayroom activities. Edwards allegedly told Wilson that the doors could only be opened on the half-hour. Wilson argued that his door hadn’t been opened in over an hour, and told Edwards he would be filing a grievance against her.

True to his word, Wilson submitted a grievance that night but addressed it incorrectly. And true to her position as a prison guard, Edwards issued a Rule Violation Report (RVR) against Wilson the next day for intimidating and threatening her by saying he would file a grievance. He was found guilty and received a 30-day suspension of phone privileges, but successfully appealed his disciplinary conviction.

Wilson then filed a § 1983 suit in Sunflower County Circuit Court, alleging that Edwards had issued the RVR in retaliation for his statement that he would file a grievance, which he claimed was constitutionally protected speech. He also argued that Edwards retaliated against him when he actually filed his grievance.

The trial court rejected his arguments, finding he had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and Wilson appealed.

The appellate court noted that “[a] prison official may not retaliate against or harass a prisoner for complaining through proper channels about a guard’s misconduct,” but “may legitimately punish inmates who verbally confront institutional authority without running afoul of the First Amendment.” Balancing those statements, the Court of Appeals found that Wilson’s verbal statement to Edwards that he would file a grievance was not constitutionally protected speech; as such, it could not support a retaliation claim.

The Court also rejected Wilson’s claim of retaliation following the actual filing of his grievance, because the grievance was not “properly” submitted until after the RVR was issued by Edwards – despite the fact that the grievance had been submitted before the RVR but sent to the wrong office, and returned to Wilson after the RVR was issued. “[T]he record does not show that Officer Edwards was even aware that Wilson had attempted to file a grievance before citing him with an RVR,” the appellate court noted. See: Wilson v. Edwards, 202 So.3d 275 (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Wilson v. Edwards