Federal appeals court panel reinstates inmate’s retaliation claim

Thursday, August 17, 2000

A federal appeals court panel has reinstated the First Amendment lawsuit of an Illinois inmate who alleged he was retaliated against after filing a grievance against a prison guard.

Anthony DeWalt, an inmate at Dixon Correctional Center, filed a grievance against a prison guard in August 1997 after the guard made a series of sexually and racially derogatory comments to him regarding certain female teachers at the prison school. The guard is identified in court papers only by his last name, Young.

After DeWalt filed his grievance, Young went to prison administrator Carol Biester and told her that DeWalt was trying to initiate an intimate relationship with one of the prison school teachers. Biester then removed DeWalt from his prison job of cleaning the school.

DeWalt also contended that he received several groundless disciplinary reports from other prison staff members upset that he had filed the grievance.

In February 1998, DeWalt sued in federal court, alleging violations of several constitutional rights. Among those claims, DeWalt said his First Amendment free-speech rights had been violated.

In May 1998, U.S. District Judge Philip G. Reinhard dismissed DeWalt's lawsuit, ruling that he had failed to state a claim in his complaint. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week unanimously reinstated part of DeWalt's lawsuit in DeWalt v. Carter.

The appeals court panel made its ruling without oral argument by the parties and without legal papers filed by the state defendants.

“An act taken in retaliation for the exercise of a constitutionally protected right violates the Constitution,” the panel wrote in its Aug. 11 opinion. “A prison official may not retaliate against a prisoner because that prisoner filed a grievance.”

The panel said that DeWalt's retaliation claim could proceed even if his original grievance against Officer Young did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

“The allegations made in Mr. DeWalt's complaint certainly present a chronology from which retaliation can be inferred,” the panel wrote. “To begin with, the alleged retaliatory actions began almost immediately after Mr. DeWalt filed the grievance against Officer Young, suggesting a causal relationship.”

DeWalt represented himself in the case. The defendants did not file a response to DeWalt's motion before the 7th Circuit.

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