‘Jailhouse lawyer’ loses retaliation suit over prison transfer

Thursday, June 16, 2011

An inmate with a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer failed to convince a federal appeals court that his transfer from a medium-security prison in Pennsylvania to a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts constituted retaliation.

Francis Hannon, sentenced to life for murder, served for many years in Pennsylvania prisons. He acquired the reputation as an inmate who would file numerous grievances on behalf of himself and other inmates. Prison officials said he would encourage other inmates to file baseless claims. Despite this reputation, he had no disciplinary actions taken against him between 1987 and 2001, when a Pennsylvania prison transferred him to another state’s penal system under the Interstate Corrections Compact, which allows states to move prisoners to other states for payment.

A letter from a Pennsylvania prison official to a colleague in Massachusetts read in part: “He is more of what you call a nuisance. … He consistently functions as a ‘jailhouse lawyer’ and spends the majority of his time working on personal legal matters and acting as an inmate representative for other inmates at misconduct hearings.”

After he was relocated in Massachusetts, Hannon sued Pennsylvania prison officials in federal court. He contended that officials transferred him in retaliation for his grievances and advocacy on behalf of other inmates. The case has a lengthy procedural history in part because of the jurisdictional issue of whether Hannon could sue in federal court in Massachusetts.

Eventually, a federal district court in Massachusetts rejected the substance of Hannon’s First Amendment claim, finding that he established “no affirmative evidence” of a retaliatory motive.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed June 8 in Hannon v. Beard (followed by minor corrections). The 1st Circuit panel explained that prisoners alleging retaliation must show three things: (1) protected activity; (2) an adverse action; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. The panel noted that Hannon had established the first two points, because filing grievances is First Amendment-protected activity and a transfer from a medium- to a maximum-security prison is an adverse action.

However, the appeals court said Hannon had failed to show a close enough connection between the two. The panel found that the basis for Hannon’s transfer was that he had accumulated numerous “separations” — a prison term used to indicate that an inmate had had a conflict with other inmates or prison staff. For example, if Hannon filed a grievance against a guard, that might create a “separation” — meaning it would be wiser for Hannon not to be located in the same institution with that guard.

The 1st Circuit said the motivation for the transfer was legitimate because it focused on the number of separations Hannon had accumulated.

Hannon had argued that the letter from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts prison officials calling him a “nuisance” and referring to his jailhouse lawyering was evidence of retaliation.

The 1st Circuit rejected this argument. “We add that being called a ‘nuisance’ — a term used in the Letter — is not, in context, proof of retaliation. The plaintiff’s activities in organizing other inmates and manipulating them clearly justified this dysphemism. Furthermore, the plaintiff offers no competent evidence to show that this term referred to his First Amendment protected activities.”

The appeals court concluded that Hannon, who has since been moved again to a prison in New Jersey, “has failed to furnish a factual basis sturdy enough to support a reasonable inference of retaliatory animus.”

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