11th Circuit reinstates part of inmate’s retaliation claim

Monday, October 3, 2011

An inmate who alleged that prison officials at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta put him in “the hole” and confiscated his legal-reference materials after he appealed a disciplinary decision has stated a sufficient claim of retaliation, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Sirica Bumpus contended that officials at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta violated several of his constitutional rights, including the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the First Amendment.

Bumpus claimed that prison officials violated his First Amendment rights after he complained that inmates who worked on the landscaping detail were subjected to more prison scrutiny than other inmates. He said he was disciplined for reporting late to work detail after making his complaint concerning the prison’s check-in policy. Bumpus also alleged that prison officials further retaliated against him after he appealed the disciplinary decision by removing him from the landscaping detail, placing him in solitary confinement and confiscating his law resources.

A federal district court had dismissed all of his constitutional claims, including his First Amendment-based retaliation claims.

But on appeal, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated part of his retaliation claims in its Sept. 26 decision in Bumpus v. Watts.

The appeals court did uphold the district court with respect to the retaliation claim related to the initial disciplinary charge of reporting late to work detail. The appeals court noted that Bumpus did in fact report to work late.  It reasoned that “Bumpus would have been disciplined without such comments, as the hearing panel concluded that he committed the charged infraction of being late.”

However, the appeals court said Bumpus’s other retaliation claims had enough merit to survive a motion to dismiss them. It wrote that his “complaint was plausible on its face” because those actions would “deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected conduct.” The court said Bumpus’ also pointed out there was a “short amount of time between his appeal of the disciplinary decision and the alleged retaliatory action.”

The appeals court concluded that the “district court erred by prematurely dismissing this portion of Bumpus’s First Amendment retaliation claim.”

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