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$7,500 Settlement Reached After Georgia Prisoner’s Retaliation Claim Survives Summary Judgment

Just 10 days after the federal court for the Middle District of Georgia denied them summary judgment on July 31, 2023, officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) settled a prisoner’s retaliation claim for $7,500.

The case dates to September 4, 2018, when prisoners staged a peaceful “sit-in” at Autry State Prison (ASP), refusing to go to work or to lock down. In response, guards deployed tear gas and began rounding up participants for transfer to other DOC prisons. Six days later Assistant DOC Commissioner Timothy Ward and Regional Director Scott Crickmar visited ASP. During their inspection, Christopher L. Jones— a dorm representative who had not taken part in the protest—handed Ward a letter complaining about conditions at the prison.

Ward immediately ordered Jones “placed in handcuffs, removed from the facility, placed in restrictive housing, and interviewed by an investigator,” according to the complaint the prisoner later filed. He was transferred to Macon State Prison (MSP)—one of DOC’s most violent lockups—and put in segregation in its Tier II program. DOC investigator Chris Bish interviewed Jones and claimed in a summary report that he had admitted smuggling contraband. Bish’s report also said Jones had prepared a letter on behalf of the sit-in organizer and further revealed the location of weapons at ASP. Jones denied making such statements.

He then filed his pro se suit, raising retaliation claims against Ward and Crickmar. He also alleged due process violations related to his placement in the Tier II program and said he was denied recreation and held in unsanitary conditions caused when other prisoners flooded the floor with their raw waste. Jones further alleged that prison staff was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs by denying batteries for his TENS unit, a device used to treat back pain.

After the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, a magistrate judge ruled for Defendants only partially. Contrary to their claim, Jones had properly exhausted administrative remedies for all his claims except one related to the denial of physical therapy. Moreover, with respect to the retaliation he alleged, the magistrate found that transferring a prisoner for exercising his First Amendment rights states a valid claim and, taking the facts in the complaint as true, Ward—but not Crickmar—could be found liable for retaliating against Jones. Ward could not rely on Bish’s summary report to justify Jones’ transfer and placement in segregation, the magistrate explained, since it was created only after those events occurred.

All other causes of action in Jones’ complaint, however, were dismissed. The magistrate found no procedural due process violation in placement in MSP’s Tier II program, noting that conditions there did “not rise to the level of an atypical and significant hardship” as required by Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995); Jones had, in any event, received all the process he was due, the magistrate declared.

Conditions of confinement claims related to the Tier II program also failed, the magistrate continued, since exposure to raw sewage overnight before it was cleaned up fell “far short of the extreme conditions found to constitute a constitutional violation.” As for lack of recreation, the magistrate found Jones could exercise in his cell, and denying him batteries for his TENS unit gave rise to no claim because “[n]ot providing a therapeutic device that is prohibited within the prison does not amount” to deliberate indifference.

In addition to summary judgment, Jones had moved for spoliation sanctions because Defendants lost the complaint letter he gave Ward. Also missing in response to his discovery requests were four months’ worth of Tier II log book entries. The motion was denied, though; the magistrate noted that he had “largely made the factual findings” which Jones requested, so should the prisoner seek a spoliation jury instruction, that issue could be raised in a pre-trial filing. Accordingly, it was recommended that only Jones’ First Amendment retaliation claim against Ward be allowed to proceed. See: Jones v. Ward, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132509 (M.D. Ga.).

The Court never got a chance to adopt the magistrate’s report and recommendation. DOC quickly agreed to settle Jones’ claims first, and he dismissed the suit on August 10, 2023— smart move, since he had alleged no physical injury and was thus limited to nominal and punitive damages by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. See: Jones v. Ward, USDC (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 5:20-cv-00336.  

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Related legal case

Jones v. Ward