Calif. inmate can pursue retaliation claim

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A California inmate’s First Amendment retaliation claim can proceed in a case involving allegations that a guard withheld food to prevent the prisoner from filing a grievance, a federal judge has ruled.

The case arose out a conflict between inmate Lance R. Henslee and an unidentified cellmate at a state prison in Susanville, Calif. According to court documents, Henslee called a guard and told him that his cellmate had threatened him. He then told an unidentified sergeant that his cellmate was “acting bizarre.” Henslee asked that prison officials remove his cellmate because he feared for his safety.

The cellmate was removed from the cell but then an Officer Wilson brought the cellmate back in handcuffs and ordered Henslee to “cuff-up,” which is prison slang for ordering an inmate to turn his back and place hands behind his back for the officer to place handcuffs on him.

Fearing for his safety from the cellmate, Henslee pinned his cellmate to the door to prevent Officer Wilson from removing the handcuffs. Wilson pepper-sprayed Henslee and informed him that he would write him up for battery of an inmate. Wilson removed the cellmate to a holding cage until he could be moved to another cell.

Wilson allegedly returned to Henslee’s cell and threatened other nearby inmates, warning them against being witnesses for Henslee, who apparently said he would file a complaint and eventually did so. Later at dinner, Wilson allegedly removed most of Henslee’s food from his dinner tray, asking him how he liked “the diet tray.” The sergeant then told Henslee that he had made a big mistake and shouldn’t let it happen again.

Henslee filed a lawsuit, alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and the First Amendment, for threatening retaliation against him for filing a complaint. His Eighth Amendment claims were based on an alleged failure to protect him from his dangerous cellmate and on alleged excessive force Wilson used in pepper-spraying him.

U.S. District Judge Irma E. Gonzalez dismissed Henslee’s Eighth Amendment claims, noting that Henslee was not assaulted by the other inmate and that the pepper spraying was “a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.”

However, Gonzalez refused to dismiss Henslee’s First Amendment retaliation claim in her Feb. 5 opinion, Henslee v. Wilson, noting that he had “adequately alleged a retaliation sufficient to chill his access to the administrative process or the courts.” She noted that an inmate alleging retaliation must show that prison officials took adverse action because of the prisoner’s protected conduct and that such action by the officials “would chill or silence a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activities.” In addition, an inmate must show that the prison official’s actions did not reasonably advance a legitimate penological objective.

Gonzalez ruled that Henslee’s First Amendment complaint met this standard in part because “deprivation of food would adequately chill the speech of a person of ordinary firmness.” She also said that food deprivation “had no reasonable correctional goal other than chilling of speech.”

Henslee’s complaint will proceed in the same court.