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$281,000 Awarded to Colorado Prisoner Retaliated Against for Grievances

by David M. Reutter

On August 14, 2020, a federal judge in Colorado refused to set aside a judgment for a state prisoner who won $180,002 the year before when a jury agreed that guards retaliated against him for exercising “his right to grieve/complain.” Then the court added another award of $101,820.03 on top of that for the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

While being held at Colorado’s Fremont Correctional Facility, the prisoner, Waldo Mackey, filed a pro se lawsuit alleging that a guard, Sgt. Bridgett Watson, violated his First Amendment right by performing harassing searches of his cell, confiscating his prescription eyeglasses and clothing, directing other staff to terminate him from his job as an Offender Care Aid, and filing a false disciplinary report.

He also claimed that a prison hearing officer, Susan Prieto, denied his due process rights by excluding witnesses and informing him that video of the incident with Watson was taped over and that he should have asked for it within three days of the incident.

After Mackey’s case was presented in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, a jury found in his favor on September 19, 2019, awarding $1 in nominal damages and $60,000 in punitive damages against Watson and $1 in nominal damages and $120,000 in punitive damages against Prieto.

The defendants then moved for remittitur of the punitive damages. But in analyzing that motion, the Court said precedent holds that the degree of reprehensibility is “perhaps the most important indicium of the reasonableness of a punitive damages award.” Agreeing with the jury, the Court found “that the Defendants’ misconduct was reprehensible.’”

Specifically, the court found that when Watson confiscated Mackey’s eyeglasses, it caused him pain in the form of debilitating migraines. Moreover, Watson’s retaliation was a First Amendment violation that constitutes irreparable injury. The Court agreed with Mackey that Prieto’s “harm was to [his] rights themselves, and any future interest he may have that depends on his disciplinary record.” The injury “was ostensibly emotional or psychological,” which may be more reprehensible than strictly economic harm, the court noted.

Adding to that harm, Mackey also lost his prison job due to Defendants’ actions. Their misconduct would be illegal in all states because it violated the U.S. Constitution, the Court said, noting that their conduct was intentional, and as a prisoner Mackey presented a “vulnerable target” to Defendants.

In their motion for remittitur, Defendants focused on the proportionality of the punitive damages award to the nominal damages award. The Court noted that large punitive damages awards have been upheld in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions where the plaintiff obtained nominal damages and could not obtain compensatory damages because there was no showing of physical injury.

“It is manifest from the record and the Motion that the punitive damages awarded in this case are a reasonably necessary deterrent against future constitutional violations,” the Court wrote.

Noting that Watson had been a guard for 12 years and Prieto for 19 years, with both still working at the prison and neither disciplined for her misconduct in this case, the court concluded “importantly” that “the same lack of remorse Defendants demonstrated on the witness stand is echoed in the instant Motion” for remittitur of the jury’s award.

After denying remittitur, the Court granted Mackey’s motion for an award of attorney fees in the amount of $101,820.03. Mackey was also ordered to pay 25% of his judgment, or $45,000.50, towards that award. See: Mackey v. Watson, USDC, D.Colo., Case No. 17-cv-01341 (2020). The defendants have appealed and the case remains pending as we go to press. 

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Related legal case

Mackey v. Watson