6th Circuit reinstates inmate’s retaliation claim

Monday, April 4, 2011

A federal appeals court has reinstated a prisoner’s First Amendment claim that Michigan prison officials retaliated against him after he claimed he was receiving inadequate medical care.

Inmate Jerry Vandiver alleged that prison officials at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson denied him health care after he spoke out “concerning prisoners’ health care needs” and sought access to the courts. Later transferred to the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional facility in Muskegon Heights, Vandiver said he received inadequate care there too.

The difficulty for Vandiver, a diabetic who suffers from hepatitis C, was that he had filed previous federal lawsuits that had been dismissed. This litigation history created a problem for him under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law passed in the mid-1990s in part to curtail excessive court filings by inmates.

The three-strikes provision of the act provides:

“In no event shall a prisoner bring a civil action or appeal a judgment in a civil action or proceeding under this section if the prisoner has, on 3 or more occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.”

A federal district court in Michigan dismissed Vandiver’s complaint under this three-strikes rule, finding that he was not under “imminent danger of serious physical injury.”

However, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court in its March 28 opinion in Vandiver v. Vasbinder. Judge Gilbert S. Merritt reasoned that failure to receive proper medical treatment triggers the exception under the reform law.

“Failure to receive adequate treatment for potentially life-threatening illnesses such as those suffered by Vandiver clearly constitutes ‘imminent danger’ under the Act,” he wrote.