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Virginia Prisoner Awarded $5,000 in Suit Alleging Retaliation for Reporting Abuse by Guard, But So Far Unable to Collect

by Douglas Ankney

On November 4, 2020, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe of the Western District of Virginia recommended an award of $5,000 plus costs to prisoner Plaintiff Erin D. Proctor in his claiming former Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) guard Robert Jefferson abused him and then retaliated against him for reporting it.

Proctor was a model prisoner housed in the “honor pod” at Green Rock Correctional Center (GRCC) before a January 2017 transfer to Dillwyn Correctional Center (DCC), which is a lower-level facility. Proctor kept his distance from prisoners who could get him in trouble—such as with gambling, drugs, alcohol and engaging in violence.

But DCC guard Jefferson began mistreating him, calling Proctor “a bitch.” On April 6, 2017, when Proctor showed Jefferson his ID so he could go to commissary, the guard smacked it away and said, “Wait, bitch.” Proctor went to the control booth and requested a sergeant. At that point Jefferson got angry, balling up his fists and backing Proctor toward a table, demanding “What you wanna do?” Guard Sgt. Jackson then arrived and separated the two.

Proctor was immediately taken to segregation and told he would be there for 15 days. But Jefferson gave a false statement, resulting in a charge for Proctor of attempting to commit aggravated assault on a non-offender. While that was addressed, Proctor remained in segregation 70 days from April 6 until June 16, 2017. Jefferson testified falsely at the disciplinary hearing, and Proctor was found guilty. He was transferred to Sussex 1 State Prison, which at Security Level 5 is three levels higher than DCC.

He remained there over eight months while he appealed the disciplinary charge. That appeal was granted in part, and he was transferred to Keen Mountain Correctional Center, a Security Level 4 institution, on February 28, 2020.

Proctor then filed suit pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing DCC Warden Larry T. Edmonds, along with Jefferson and other prison employees, of violating his First Amendment free speech rights by retaliating against him for reporting the dishonest guard. On June 27, 2019, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants except Jefferson, against whom default judgement was then granted on Proctor’s First Amendment retaliation claim on August 14, 2020.

By that point Jefferson was no longer employed by DOC, so Magistrate Judge Hoppe held a hearing on damages against the guard. He found Proctor a “very credible witness” in his testimony that conditions in segregation at DCC were “terrible,” with prisoners yelling all night and all day and some even urinating on guards. He was unable to attend GED classes. He went to outside recreation in an enclosed area like a “dog pen” by himself.

Then at Sussex 1, Proctor described frequent lockdowns resulting from significant violence, including the murder of the man in the cell next to him, who was fatally stabbed in the neck by another prisoner. There were even stabbings of K-9 unit dogs, Proctor said.

The magistrate judge observed that the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, does not permit recovery of damages for emotional distress or harm absent a physical injury. But a prisoner who has experienced no physical injury may yet be entitled to compensatory damages for “injury to [his] protected first amendment interest,” the judge said, citing Wilcox v. Brown, 877 F.3d. 161 (4th Cir. 2017).

Comparing Proctor’s case to numerous similar cases, Judge Hoppe then determined that appropriate compensation was $20 for each day Proctor was in segregation and $5 for each day he was held at Sussex 1, resulting in a calculated damages award of $6,375. But Proctor could recover no more than the amount requested in his complaint, $5,000 in compensatory damages plus costs, because the award to the prevailing party in the Fourth Circuit cannot exceed the amount demanded in the complaint, per Compton v. Alton Steamship Co., 608 F.2d 96 (4th Cir. 1979). Proctor also didn’t request punitive damages, so none were warranted per Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(c).

Thus Hoppe recommended judgement in favor of Proctor for $5,000, which the Court adopted on November 20, 2020. See: Proctor v. Edmonds, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 218898; and 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 217911, (W.D. Va.).

The Court then taxed costs of $547.30 against Jefferson on January 15, 2021. But Proctor had no luck collecting from the guard, so the Court issued a Corrected Writ of Execution containing both the damages and costs on October 26, 2021. That was returned undeliverable with no forwarding address on November 6, 2021. In a letter filed with the Court on November 29, 2021, Proctor pleaded with Judge Hoppe for help with service for the writ. See: Proctor v. Edmonds, USDC (W.D. Va.), Case No. 7:18-cv-00087.

As of June 29, 2022, the docket reflects no further activity. The state employee directory lists no one named Robert Jefferson. It is unclear whether Proctor has attempted to recover his judgment from the state or its insurer.

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Related legal case

Proctor v. Edmonds