Seventh Circuit Revives Indiana Prisoner’s Claim He Was Wrongfully Fired From Prison Commissary for Attending Religious Service
by David M. Reutter
On August 2, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed dismissal of an Indiana prisoner’s claim that he was wrongfully terminated from his job in the prison commissary when he missed work for a religious service he thought he had permission to attend. In its decision, the Court found error in the district court’s decision that Phillip Miles failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, finding instead that there were no steps under prison policy for him to take.
Miles was held at Indiana State Prison, where he was hired by guard Austin Nunn to work in the commissary on July 22, 2019. According to the complaint he later filed, Miles said it was understood that he would miss work on Fridays from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. to attend the prison’s weekly Jumu’ah Muslim prayer service.
But guard Julie Anton, Miles’ commissary supervisor, took issue with his absences. According to a sworn affidavit by Nunn, Anton proclaimed Miles “cannot go every week to Jumu’ah” and announced that if he did, he would be “done” in the commissary: She would fire him under the guise of poor work performance.
Sure enough, on August 2, 2019, Anton terminated Miles, pointing to a work evaluation that accused him of stealing kitchen supplies. Miles tried to resolve the issue with Anton informally, after learning of his firing on August 5, 2019. But he never received a response. Miles also acknowledged that he never filed a formal grievance against Anton.
He did, however, file a grievance disputing the allegation of the theft, as well as the negative work evaluation. He was exonerated of the theft allegation on August 13, 2019. His negative work evaluation was also reversed on August 26, 2019.
Proceeding pro se, Miles filed suit in March 2020 in federal court for the Northern District of Indiana, accusing Anton of violating his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him attend religious services and then retaliating against him when he did so. Anton moved for summary judgment, claiming Miles had failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The district court granted the motion, and Miles appealed.
Taking up the case, the Seventh Circuit found that Indiana’s Prison Grievance Policy does not subject all issues to the administrative procedure. Section IV(A) of the policy lists examples of grievable issues, including the “actions of individual staff.” However, section IV(B) provides that “matters inappropriate to the offender grievance process” include “classification actions or decisions” such as “loss of job.”
The district court had found Miles’ action did not fall within the exception for “classification actions” because he was not objecting to the loss of a job, but rather to his treatment at the hands of an individual staff member. The Court held that reasoning was error.
While Anton’s decision to fire Miles was no doubt an action of an individual staffer, that provision of the grievance policy is narrowed by the more specific Section IV(B). “Because every issue a prisoner might confront will be connected to the ‘actions’ of individual correctional officers, reading the Section IV(A) provision expansively would transform the formal grievance process into a universal requirement,” the Court said. “The policy is therefore best read as barring prisoners from grieving an officer’s hiring or firing decisions.”
Finding no administrative remedy steps that Miles failed to take, the Court therefore reversed the district court’s order. Miles was represented in his appeal by Philadelphia attorney Jim Davy. See: Miles v. Anton, 42 F.4th 777 (7th Cir. 2022).
The case then returned to the district court, where Miles’ request for appointed counsel was denied on November 17, 2022. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Miles v. Anton, USDC (N.D. Ind.), Case No. 3:20-cv-00246.
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