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Eighth Circuit Reinstates Iowa Prisoner’s Retaliation Claims

by Matt Clarke 

On February 26, 2019, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated some of the retaliation claims in a prisoner’s civil rights action that had been dismissed by the district court.

Iowa state prisoner Mark Bitzan filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) against 21 current and former Iowa Department of Corrections employees, raising numerous claims. The district court dismissed the case and Bitzan appealed.

The Eighth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the lower court’s separation of unrelated claims from the claims underlying Bitzan’s lawsuit. It agreed that he had failed to exhaust administrative remedies on some claims and failed to show violations of his rights under the First Amendment or RLUIPA on others. The Court of Appeals also agreed that Bitzan failed to link five of the defendants to allegedly retaliatory actions taken against him, and that all of those claims and defendants had been properly dismissed. 

The appellate court concluded, however, that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding the retaliation claims against defendants Mike Schierbrock, David DeGrange, Berl Wilcox, Mike Eisnnicher, Rebecca Bowker, Mark Roberts and Jill Johnson. In doing so, it noted that “Bitzan presented evidence these specific defendants placed him in administrative segregation and prevented him from providing his attorney with legal documents shortly after he filed a previous lawsuit against prison officials (including Schierbrock, DeGrange, Bowker, and Roberts), and that they knew of the lawsuit.” 

Those defendants “offered no evidence justifying the adverse actions.” Instead, they argued their actions could not have been retaliatory “since they occurred prior to the filing of the lawsuit.” That was incorrect, though, since Bitzan had been placed in segregation two weeks after he filed suit.

The failure of the defendants to even address the retaliation claim left a material issue of fact in dispute and required reversal of that claim as to those defendants. Therefore, the Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the retaliation claim, affirmed the remainder of the judgment and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. Bitzan argued the appeal pro se. See: Bitzan v. Bartruff, 916 F.3d 716 (8th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Bitzan v. Bartruff