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$20,000 Paid to Florida Prisoner After Eleventh Circuit Finds PLRA Inapplicable to Claims DOC Removed to Federal Court

by David M. Reutter

On May 17, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997 e, does not apply to an action filed in state court and removed to federal court by the defendants. The Court had previously reached this conclusion regarding the “three strikes” provision of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g), as amended by PLRA, which PLN has previously reported. [See: PLN, Dec. 2022, p.24.]

The Court’s opinion affirmed a jury verdict that a supervisory guard was not liable in a Florida prisoner’s retaliation claim, but it reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment to two other guards, with instructions to allow the prisoner to amend his complaint. That got the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to the settlement table, where it agreed to pay $20,000 to the prisoner, Wendall Hall.

While imprisoned at Columbia Correctional Institution on January 31, 2014, Hall, who is Black, was confronted at his cell door by two white guards. Sgt. Charles Watson and a fellow guard named Wright allegedly used a racial slur and told Hall they were going to “gas” him because he had “many past disciplinary reports for masturbation” and had filed lawsuits and grievances against guards.

“True to their word,” as the Eleventh Circuit later recalled, the guards returned and sprayed chemical agents through the food flap, hitting Hall in the face and chest. The guards then wrote a disciplinary report to support their use of force, charging Hall with tampering with his cell fire sprinkler. Hall also alleged that Lt. Peter Merola ordered the guards not to feed him for two days from February 7 to 9, 2014, “to teach [Hall] a lesson about filing so many grievances.”

Hall sued all three guards pro se in state court. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. §1983, he alleged First and Eighth Amendment violations against “Watson and Wright for deploying chemical agents against him because he filed grievances and gave testimony in a case against another prison guard, in addition to accusing Merola of violating his rights by instructing guards not to feed him in retaliation for grievances.

Invoking federal question jurisdiction, Defendants removed the action to the federal Court for the Middle District of Florida. That court ordered Hall to file an Amended Complaint on its standard prisoner civil-rights complaint form. It then dismissed the claims against Watson and Wright, finding that any other ruling would necessarily implicate the validity of the disciplinary report, in violation of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). But Hall was allowed to proceed with his claims against Merola, with appointed counsel from attorney Jesse B. Wilkison of Sheppard, White, Kachergus & DeMaggio, P.A. in Jacksonville.

Hall moved to file an amended complaint to show more facts against Merola and to replead his claims against Watson and Wright and include a denial of medical care claim. But the district court denied the motion. The case proceeded to trial in October 2020, and the jury found in favor of Merola. Hall appealed.

Prior to trial, the district court had dismissed Hall’s claims for compensatory and punitive damages, noting that he pleaded no physical injury, while PLRA imposes a “limitation on recovery” for mental or emotional injury “without a prior showing of physical injury or the commission of a sexual act.” Hall argued that PLRA did not apply to his action because it was filed in statecourt and removed to federal court.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that “[t]he district court erred in dismissing Hall’s claims for compensatory and punitive damages.” It also affirmed the jury’s verdict for Merola. But the Court reversed dismissal of Hall’s claims against Watson and Wright. It found that Hall preserved the claim that the tampering charge was incidental to his claims of excessive force. So he could prevail on an Eighth Amendment claim if a jury found the force used to stop him from his alleged tampering with the fire sprinkler was excessive.

Turning to the First Amendment claim against Watson and Wright, the Court found that Hall could properly rely on the use of force to satisfy the “adverse action” requirement of such a claim. The Court then considered denial of the motion to amend. It found first that Hall’s operative complaint was amended only after the magistrate judge struck the initial complaint because it was not on the Court’s approved form—so any ‘shortcoming’ once on the form was not attributable to Hall. Next, there was no delay in Hall’s motion to amend, which was filed one week after the magistrate’s order to dismiss Watson and Wright. Third, the Court was skeptical that Hall acted in bad faith because he wanted to add allegations that the guards instructed a nurse not to treat him. Finally, the Court rejected the rationale that the desire to amend was financially motivated, since “the majority of litigation has at least some financial motivation.”

Thus the district court’s judgment was affirmed except as to dismissal of claims against Watson and Wright; that was reversed with instructions for the district court to allow Hall leave to replead. Hall was represented at the Court by attorney Patrick C. Velencia of Hogan Lovells LLP in Washington, D.C. See: Hall v. Merola, 67 F.4th 1282 (11th Cir. 2023).

Back at the district court, the parties reached a settlement agreement on September 27, 2023, paying $20,000 to Hall to resolve his claims, inclusive of costs and fees for his attorney, Wilkison. See: Hall v. Merola, USDC (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:15-cv-01054. 

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Hall v. Merola

Hall v. Merola