Federal appeals panel reinstates inmate’s First Amendment claims

Friday, October 6, 2000

A federal appeals panel unanimously reinstated the civil rights
lawsuit of a Pennsylvania inmate who alleged he was placed in administrative
segregation in retaliation for suing prison officials.

Michael Malik Allah, a Muslim inmate, had filed at least two civil
rights lawsuits against prison officials for violating both his free-exercise
of religion and free-speech rights.

After his suits were filed, Allah was transferred to another prison
and placed in administrative segregation, or what inmates refer to as “the

Allah sued in federal court, contending that the prison officials’
actions denied him meaningful access to the courts and constituted unlawful
retaliation. Both the access-to-the-court and retaliation claims assert that
Allah’s First Amendment rights were violated.

After a federal district court dismissed his suit in 1997, Allah
appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The district court dismissed his claims based on its reading of the
Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in Sandlin v.
. In Sandlin,
the high court ruled that prison officials did not violate the due-process
rights of an inmate when they sentenced him to disciplinary segregation.

The district court interpreted the Sandlin ruling as invalidating any claim that
resulted from placing an inmate in administrative segregation.

On Sept. 28, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit unanimously
reinstated Allah’s claims in Allah v.
. The appeals court noted that the Supreme Court in
Sandlin made clear that its decision
only impacted due-process claims. The appeals court cited the following
language from Sandlin:

“Prisoners … , of course, retain other protection from arbitrary
state action even within the expected conditions of confinement. They may
invoke the First and Eighth Amendments and the Equal Protection Clause of the
Fourteenth Amendment where appropriate and may draw upon internal prison
grievance procedures and state judicial review where available.”

The 3rd Circuit panel concluded that “Allah’s claim alleging denial of
his constitutional right to meaningful access to the courts is not foreclosed
by Sandlin.”

The appeals court panel also determined that Allah’s retaliation claim
was not invalidated by the Sandlin
decision. “Retaliation may be actionable, however, even when the retaliatory
action does not involve a liberty interest,” the panel wrote.

Joseph T. Lukens, Allah’s attorney, said the decision was significant
“because it stands for the broad constitutional principle that prison officials
cannot punish prisoners for accessing the courts to protect their civil

Calls to the attorney for the prison officials were not returned.

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