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Wisconsin Pays $8,000 To State Prisoner After Seventh Circuit Revives Retaliation Claim Against Guard Over Destroyed Legal Documents

by David M. Reutter

On August 5, 2022, a Wisconsin state prisoner signed off on an agreement to accept $8,000 to resolve claims that a guard destroyed his legal documents in retaliation for a lawsuit the prisoner was preparing to file.

The settlement comes on the heels of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on March 7, 2022, reinstating the claim by William Jones, a prisoner at Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI). On the morning of April 4, 2018, when guard Cpt. Jay Van Lanen ordered a search of prisoner Raynard Jackson’s cell, guards uncovered “a large stack of documents containing the names and health information of other inmates,” the Court recalled. The guards seized the documents as contraband.

But some of them belonged to Jones, for whom Jackson was serving as a jailhouse lawyer to help prepare a suit accusing Van Lanen of violating his civil rights. When Jones asked to retrieve his materials, the guard allegedly responded, “you won’t get to use it to sue me with!” He also promised to inform Cpt. Andrew Wickman, the guard presiding over Jackson’s disciplinary hearing, to “make sure he knows it’s contraband.” Wickman subsequently determined the documents were contraband and “ordered the lion’s share of them destroyed.”

Jones filed suit pro se in federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing Van Lanen and Wickman of violating his rights to free speech and access to courts. Defendants moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted, failing to find facts that showed either guard took any action in response to the threat of litigation. It further found Jones failed to demonstrate any harm on his access-to-court claim.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision as to Jones’ access-to-court claim, as well as his retaliation claim against Wickman. However, the Court reversed as to the retaliation claim against Van Lanen.

The Court didn’t buy Jones’ argument that his grievances put the guard on notice of a potential suit, saying “[t]o conclude otherwise would risk countenancing the inference that every prison official on the receiving end of a grievance harbors a retaliatory motive against a complaining inmate.” However, the Court continued, “Jones’s claim against Captain Van Lanen rests on more,” namely a pair of affidavits from fellow prisoners “[b]uried within the thousand pages of submitted evidence” that corroborated what Jones heard Van Lanen say.

“This is enough,” the Court concluded, to adequately plead a motive for Van Lanen to destroy the prisoner’s belongings, since “[i]f a jury credited the testimony of these two inmates, Jones would have enough evidence to permit a verdict in his favor on the retaliation claim.” Thus the district court’s judgment on that claim was reversed and the case remanded.

On appeal, Jones was represented by Jones Day attorneys Amelia A. DeGory and Charlotte Taylor from the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, and Erin M. McGinley, from its office in Chicago. See: Jones v. Van Lanen, 27 F.4th 1280 (7th Cir. 2022).

Armed with the Court’s decision and the testimony it cited from fellow prisoners — corroborating his allegation that Van Lanen confiscated the legal materials because Jones filed grievances against him — Jones returned to the district court. The parties then reached their settlement. See: Jones v. Van Lanen, USDC (E.D. Wis.), Case No. 2:18-cv-01866.

The agreement also resolves Jones’ complaints against prison officials in two other suits he filed pro se. In one, he accused GBCI Chaplain Mike Donovan of stonewalling requests for a copy of the Qur’an while held in segregation and then, after Jones filed a grievance about that, Donovan also allegedly retaliated by denying a Halal meal for Ramadan. See: Jones v. Donovan, USDC (E.D. Wis.), Case No. 2:21-cv-01109.

In the other suit, Jones accused Donavan and GBCI Warden William Pollard, along with Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno, of interfering with his right to marry his long-time fiancée by stranding him in a Catch-22 between prison policy — which prohibits weddings there — and the Clerk’s policy refusing marriage licenses unless applicants make a personal appearance at her office. Because he was by then held at Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel, Jones filed that suit in the Western District of Wisconsin. Defendants objected and requested a transfer to the Eastern District, where GBCI is located. The Court granted that transfer on August 22, 2022, after Jones and prison officials reached their settlement. The case remains open against Juno. See: Jones v. Juno, USDC (E.D. Wis.), Case No. 1:22-cv-00962. 

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Related legal cases

Jones v. Van Lanen

Jones v. Van Lanen

Jones v. Juno

Jones v. Donovan