Federal appeals court rejects inmate’s First Amendment retaliation claim

Wednesday, November 10, 1999

A federal appeals court recently dismissed the First Amendment claim of a Michigan inmate who argued that he was retaliated against for filing grievances against various prison officials.

In May 1996 inmate William Bell-Bey got into a shouting match with corrections officer Jeffery Mackenzie after Mackenzie ordered the prisoner to put away some papers. Bell-Bey then wrote to prison officials complaining about Mackenzie's conduct and asking for protection.

Bell-Bey contends that Mackenzie then called him a sissy and a coward. Bell-Bey alleges that, as a result of his letter, Mackenzie and various other prison officials retaliated against him by planting evidence in his cell and by manipulating his disciplinary hearings so that he could not present certain evidence on his own behalf.

Bell-Bey alleged that defendants violated several of his constitutional rights, including engaging in a pattern of retaliation once he began his First Amendment-protected conduct of filing grievances.

A district court eventually dismissed all of Bell-Bey's claims. On appeal, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court, writing that “the petty exchanges of insults between Bell-Bey and guard Mackenzie do not amount to constitutional torts.”

The lower court had dismissed Bell-Bey's retaliation claim based on a standard articulated by the 6th Circuit in two earlier decisions. In those decisions, the court held that a prisoner must show that defendants' retaliatory acts “shock the conscience” — an extremely high standard.

The 6th Circuit noted that earlier this year in the case Thaddeus-X v. Blatter, it had made clear that a prisoner need not show that defendant's retaliatory acts “shock the conscience.” Rather, the 6th Circuit in the Thaddeus-X case said that in order to prove a First Amendment retaliation claim a prisoner must show:

  • He or she was engaged in protected conduct.
  • An adverse action was taken against the prisoner that would prevent him or her from continuing to engage in the protected conduct.
  • A causal connection existed between the prisoner's protected conduct and the defendants' adverse action.

In its Nov. 3 opinion in Bell-Bey v. Mayer, the 6th Circuit concluded that Bell-Bey simply could not meet this standard. The court quoted the district court that Bell-Bey “failed to show” he was disciplined “because he filed a grievance in the past.”

Officials with the Michigan Department of Corrections said that they do not comment on litigation.