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Seventh Circuit: Transfer of Indiana Prisoner Based on Substance of Grievances Not Retaliatory

Indiana prisoner Robert Holleman was described by the Seventh Circuit as “the quintessential jailhouse lawyer.” From 2012 until November 2015, Holleman was confined at Pendleton Correctional Facility. While there, he worked as a law clerk, helped others file lawsuits and pursue legal remedies, and successfully prosecuted several of his own lawsuits.

His civil rights complaint recounted “a troubled history between himself and officials at Pendleton,” specifically its superintendent, Dushan Zatecky. That history of retaliation included termination as a law clerk, removal from preferential housing, placement in segregation, and subjection to a sham investigation.

Those instances were cited as context for the alleged retaliation that formed the basis for his lawsuit. In March 2015, Holleman sued over cold conditions at Pendleton. Then, in October 11, 2015, he contributed statements to a newspaper about allegedly poor medical care provided to prisoners at Pendleton. Three days later, he filed a grievance alleging the nutritional value of lunches was inadequate.

Zatecky’s response was to contact the superintendent at Wabash Correctional Facility to ask if he would trade another prisoner for Holleman. It was conceded by Zatecky that the transfer was due to letters, complaints, and grievances about conditions at Pendleton, which was built in 1922. Transfer to a more modern facility seemed the “only viable solution.” After the transfer occurred, Holleman sued alleging it was retaliation in violation of his First Amendment right to protected speech.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgement on qualified immunity grounds. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit found the evidence reflected that Holleman’s “First Amendment activities were a motivating factor in Defendants decisions to take steps to transfer him.”

That motivation, however, was not the determinative of the causation factor to determine if a constitutional violation occurred. “[A] transfer initiated to punish a prisoner for engaging in protected activity would satisfy the causation element of retaliation, but a transfer initiated as a rationale, justifiable response to the substance of the prisoner’s complaint would not,” wrote the Seventh Circuit.

It found the transfer was not motivated by the fact that Holleman engaged in protected activity, but that it was done based on the substance of his complaints. This alone was enough to doom the claim. The court said it owed deference to prison officials on how to resolve a prisoner’s grievance.

The disruption inherent in a transfer to a different facility does not make the transfer adverse. “Without some additional aggravating factor, such as a relocation to a much more restrictive or dangerous environment, a transfer is not likely to deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in protected conduct,” the court wrote.

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Related legal case

Holleman v. Zatecky