Former inmate’s petition claim gets go-ahead from federal appeals court

Tuesday, April 11, 2000

A federal appeals court has reinstated the civil rights lawsuit of a former inmate who alleged that New York state officials revoked his work release after he exercised his First Amendment petition rights by applying for public benefits.

In 1994, Walter Friedl, then an inmate at the state-run Queensboro Correctional Facility, applied to the New York City Human Resources Administration for public assistance, food stamps and Medicaid. At that time, Friedl, a Holocaust survivor, who is now 80 years old, was allowed to spend five nights a week at his home.

Friedl was convicted in 1982 for using a stolen credit card, but was not incarcerated until 1993 because state and county officials misplaced his conviction papers.

After the HRA denied his claim for benefits, Friedl appealed to the New York State Department of Social Services. In August 1994, an administrative law judge ruled in Friedl’s favor and instructed the Human Resources Administration to process his application.

Despite the favorable ruling from the administrative judge, the HRA once again denied Friedl’s application for benefits because he was “incarcerated and in a work release program.”

Friedl claims that an HRA supervisor then contacted his parole officer to say that he had attempted to commit welfare fraud. The Queensboro Temporary Release Committee subsequently revoked Friedl’s work release.

In July 1997, Friedl sued the city of New York, the HRA and members of the Queensboro Temporary Release Committee, claiming that they had violated his civil rights. Among his claims, Friedl alleged that the city and state defendants had violated his First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

In January 1999, U.S. District Judge John S. Martin Jr. dismissed Friedl’s lawsuit, including the petition claim, saying that Friedl had failed to establish that the speech in his petition was a matter of public concern.

After Friedl appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he settled his claim with the city defendants for $20,000.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit reversed the lower court. “Plaintiff has a First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances — here, to appeal the denial of public benefits,” the appeals panel wrote in its April 4 decision in Friedl v. City of New York.

The appeals panel cited a 1988 2nd Circuit decision, Franco v. Kelly.

“The right to petition the government for redress of grievances is among the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights. Moreover, the right of petition applies with equal force to a person’s right to seek redress from all branches of government. In the prison context, … inmates must be permitted free and uninhibited access to both administrative and judicial forums for the purpose of seeking redress of grievances against state officers.”

The appeals court rejected the government officials’ argument that Friedl’s First Amendment petition claim must fail because the speech in his petition pertained to a private matter rather than an issue of public concern.

“The ‘public concern’ requirement, developed in the context of public employee speech has no place in the context of prisoner petitions for redress of grievances, which typically address matters of personal concern,” the appeals panel wrote.

The case now goes back to the district court for further proceedings.

William Rold, Friedl’s attorney, said: “The right to ask your government to do something should not depend on whether the public cares about it. This freedom deals with the personal right of all citizens to petition their government.

“The First Amendment protects all speech and all petitions, not just speech and petitions that deal with matters of public concern.” he said.

Marc Violette, spokesman for the New York State Attorney General’s Office, said a decision had not been made whether to appeal the ruling. The attorney general’s office has 30 days from the date of the decision to appeal.