5th Circuit brings Texas inmate’s case out of the cold

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An inmate in Beeville, Texas, who claimed prison guards retaliated against him for filing grievances by turning on a fan that made his cell freezing cold, can claim retaliation, a federal appeals court ruled recently.

Inmate Juarez Miguel Bibbs filed grievances against two prison officers in fall 2004, alleging that they had improperly entered his cell. He contended that the two officers “failed to conduct proper ingress and regress [sic] as outlined” in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice manual. About a month later Bibbs contended that the officers turned on a “purge fan” for four straight nights. This fan blew cold air into Bibbs’ cell, reducing the temperature to below freezing.

Bibbs filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that the officers violated several of his constitutional rights, including his First Amendment rights because they retaliated against him for filing grievances. He alleged that one of the officers told him: “You mother-f—–s gone [sic] stop writing grievances.”

The First Amendment generally prohibits government officials from retaliating against individuals for the exercise of their free-expression rights. But prison officials focused their defense on the fact that any alleged retaliation was too minimal to establish a constitutional violation. A reviewing federal magistrate issued a report recommending the dismissal of Bibbs’ claims. The magistrate wrote that “the claimed injury is de minimis for purposes of First Amendment analysis” and that “plaintiff … was not deterred from exercising his First Amendment right to file subsequent grievances.”

A federal judge adopted the magistrate’s report and recommended and dismissed Bibbs’ constitutional claims, including his First Amendment claim. Bibbs then appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit unanimously reversed in Bibbs v. Early and reinstated Bibbs’ First Amendment claims.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham noted in the Aug. 12 ruling that although prisoners were not “entitled to the comforts of everyday life,” Bibbs’ allegations went beyond the denial of basic comforts. “We are persuaded that Bibbs has raised a cognizable claim of retaliation by alleging and providing supporting evidence that he exercised his First Amendment rights and was then subjected to below-freezing temperatures for more than four hours during each of four consecutive nights — a measure of retaliation.”

Higginbotham reasoned that subjecting a person to below-freezing temperatures might well dissuade him from filing future grievances.

The prison officials had also argued that Bibbs failed to show a causal connection between the grievances and the reduced temperatures. Again Higginbotham and his fellow jurists disagreed with the prison officials, noting that “the lapse of a month between the filing of his last grievance and the alleged retaliation does not foreclose a finding of a genuine issue of material fact on the causation question, particularly given the comments of the guards directly referring to inmates’ filing of grievances when inmates complained of the purge fan.”

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