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Third Circuit Vacates Dismissal of Grievance Threat Retaliation Claim

by Mark Wilson

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a reasonable fact finder could conclude that a prisoner was issued a misconduct report in retaliation for threatening to file a grievance.

Pennsylvania prisoner Joseph Watson's radio was broken while guard Kline was inspecting it during a cell search. The antenna broke off when Kline pulled it out too far. He claimed, however, that the antenna was already broken and had been secured with tape. Watson admitted that it was secured with tape but claimed that it was merely loose, not broken. Watson accused Kline of breaking the radio and insisted that Kline have it repaired. Kline refused, saying a broken radio is contraband, which must be confiscated.

Watson insisted that Kline actually broke the radio and asked him to prepare an incident report, taking responsibility for doing so. When Kline refused, Watson requested a grievance form, but Captain Simosko refused to give him one.

Guard Coutts later questioned Watson and accused him of giving Simosko and Kline a "hard time" by asking for a grievance and insisting that the radio be repaired, rather than just dropping the matter. Coutts told Watson that he was going to issue him a misconduct report because Watson did not handle the situation "the polite way" when he insisted on filing a grievance.

Watson eventually obtained a grievance form from another prisoner. Before he could file it, however, he was served with a misconduct report that had been prepared by Coutts and approved by Security Captain Snyder. Watson was charged with a class one violation, which subjected him to a range of sanctions including less preferential housing, up to 90 days in segregation, detrimental program level changes, and denial of work release and temporary home furlough eligibility.

Watson was ultimately found guilty of the charged misconduct. However, the hearings officer reduced the violation to class two misconduct.

After Watson's administrative appeal was denied, he brought federal suit, alleging due process, search and seizure and retaliation claims. The district court dismissed all but Watson's retaliation claim. It then granted Defendants summary judgment on that claim.

The Third Circuit reversed, concluding that the evidence was sufficient to survive summary judgment on the retaliation claim against Coutts. The court first found that Watson was engaged in constitutionally protected activity when he informed prison officials of his intent to file a grievance and requested a form to do so. It also found that the sanctions Watson faced for a class one violation were "substantially more than a de minimis consequence for someone confined in a prison cell," and therefore, "Watson clearly suffered an adverse consequence when Coutts charged him with a class one misconduct."

Finally, "the record supports conflicting inferences regarding Coutts' motive in issuing Watson's misconduct," the Court found. "Accordingly, Watson has established a prima facie case against Coutts, because there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Watson's decision to file a grievance motivated Coutts to charge him with misconduct."

Given that "a reasonable fact finder could conclude that the misconduct was issued in retaliation for Watson's statement that he was going to file a grievance, and not in furtherance of legitimate penological goals," the Court reversed the grant of summary judgment "even though the charge against him may have been factually supported."

See: Watson v. Rozum, F.3d (3rd Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

Watson v. Rozum