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PLN Contributor’s Retaliation Suit Against Oregon Prison Officials Survives

by Jacob Barrett

On July 7, 2022, the federal court for the District of Oregon denied a motion by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to dismiss a suit filed by longtime PLN writer Mark Wilson, accusing officials of retaliating against him for his work as a “jailhouse lawyer” on behalf of himself and fellow prisoners. The 52-year-old spent 120 days in solitary confinement at Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) in late 2021 as punishment over a toy phone left on his desk in the prison law library, which former DOC Director Colette Peters insisted was not a “small slip[] in behavior” or “child’s play,” but rather “something that’s very serious.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.22.]

Wilson’s second amended complaint in the matter was filed in the Court in April 2022. Like the original suit, it makes four claims against Peters and other officials at DOC and OSCI, accusing them under 42 U.S.C. §1983 of punishing his constitutionally protected conduct as an “inmate legal assistant” and pursuing his own cases in the courts. Peters has since become Director of the federal Bureau of Prisons. [See: PLN, Sep. 2022, p.56.]

DOC officials asked the Court to dismiss Wilson’s claims against OSCI officials, arguing that were he to succeed on them, it would call into question his prison disciplinary conviction and its effect on his release date, thereby violating the standard laid out in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1992). Alternatively, they argued that their conduct did not implicate Wilson’s due process rights. Notably, Defendants did not seek dismissal of Wilson’s claims against Peters and DOC Legislative and Government Relations Manager Maria Garcia.

Defendants relied heavily on an allegation in Wilson’s complaint that “the duration of his confinement will invariably be affected by depriving him of a full reduction in [h]is prison term [because of his disciplinary conviction] and by postponing his scheduled release date of January 9, 2025, when that date arrives.”

The Court rejected that argument, saying: “The moving defendants are mistaken.” Rather, the Court compared Wilson’s claims to those in Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74 (2005), because the relief which Wilson was seeking would not result in his immediate or speedier release.

“[S]uccess for Wilson here means that the appropriate authorities ‘may, in their discretion, decline to shorten his prison term’” and is a matter of state law or regulation. But Wilson, the Court found, “has not … ever argued that he is entitled to an earlier release date.” That is, success for him would at most amount to a change in what DOC officials will consider in assessing his scheduled release date.

Moreover, “One paragraph in a complaint,” the Court wrote, “alleging that there will be some effect on a plaintiff’s scheduled release date, absent some state law or regulation requiring such a result, does not bar a plaintiff’s § 1983 claim under Heck.”

Defendants also argued that Wilson had alleged nothing more than supervisory liability against OSCI officials for failing to correct their underlings. But the Court said this “mischaracterize[d] Wilson’s allegations.” What he said, the Court noted, was “that, at each stage of the disciplinary review process, each named Defendant independently took actions that violated Wilson’s right to due process.”

Moreover, the Court found, Wilson alleged that his disciplinary conviction was unsupported by the evidence and each defendant failed to meet his obligation to review the proceeding to determine whether the disciplinary finding was supported by the evidence.

“Wilson has adequately alleged” the Court wrote, “that his due process rights were violated by [Defendants] when they participated in the disciplinary action and related proceedings against Wilson without ‘some evidence.’”

Thus, the Court denied the partial motion to dismiss. Wilson was represented by attorneys Juan C. Chavez, Franz H. Bruggemeir and Benjamin W. Haile of Oregon Justice Resource Center in Portland. See: Wilson v. Plante, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119666 (D. Or.).

The case is now headed toward a trial later in 2023; PLN will report developments as they are available. See: Wilson v. Plante, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 6:21-cv-01606. 

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