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Seventh Circuit Rejects Retaliation Claim Based on Suspicious Timing Alone

by Mark Wilson

On July 20, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment on a prisoner’s retaliation claim. The court found that suspicious timing alone is insufficient evidence of retaliatory motive.

Illinois prisoner Elijah Manuel’s disabled cellmate became hostile toward him and requested a cell move. Manuel reported the issue, but no action was taken. Soon thereafter, the cellmate beat Manuel unconscious with his wheelchair’s foot.

Guard Nick Nalley investigated the attack and Manuel filed a grievance, alleging that prison officials failed to protect him from a known and foreseeable attack. Manuel filed several more grievances and status requests.

When counselor Cindy Miller did not respond, Manuel filed a federal civil suit against the prison warden and other staff.

The district court liberally construed Manuel’s complaint as alleging three claims: First Amendment retaliation; to prosecute the disabled cellmate for assault; and harassment by unidentified prison employees. The court dismissed all but the retaliation claim.

Another prisoner later reported that Manuel had asked him and another prisoner to file fraudulent paperwork concerning the altercation with his disabled cellmate. Both men refused, and prison officials filed an incident report and shakedown slip.

Two weeks later, Manuel again asked Miller for a status update. When they disagreed about the response deadline, Miller asked Manuel if he was going to file a grievance against her. He said “maybe” and Miller ended their “heated conversation.”

Nine minutes later, Nalley searched Manuel’s cell, confiscating: a handwritten note describing trading and trafficking; two forged handwritten letters describing the disabled cellmate altercation; two typed letters addressed to the court; and a contraband cassette tape.

Following a disciplinary hearing, Manuel was found guilty of forging documents and possessing contraband.

The district court ultimately granted prison officials’ summary judgment on Manuel’s retaliation claim, concluding that he presented insufficient evidence to create a triable issue of the motive element of a retaliation claim.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Noting that prison officials may not retaliate against prisoners for filing grievances, the Court found that the parties agreed that Manuel’s grievances were protected conduct and the cell search was adverse action. The dispute turned on the element of whether the search was motivated by Manuel’s protected conduct. While most courts refuse to grant summary judgment on the issue of motive because it almost always depends on circumstantial evidence and requires the court to sift through disputed issues of fact, the Seventh Circuit found that Manuel failed “to establish a prima facie case of First Amendment retaliation” because he “presents no evidence that a reasonable jury could infer Nalley searched his cell due to a retaliatory motive.”

The court rejected Manuel’s reliance on the timing of the search. “The proximity between Manuel and Miller’s conversation and the shakedown does not create an inference that Nalley knew of the protected activity,” the Court found. “Other, non-retaliatory motive for the shakedown exists here. Nalley conducted the search based on contraband in the disciplinary report filed two weeks earlier that was found in his cell.” See: Manuel v. Nalley, _ F3d _ (7111 Cir. 2020).

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Related legal case

Manuel v. Nalley