Muslim inmate’s retaliation claim rightly reinstated

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Muslim inmate who alleged that prison officials retaliated against him for complaining about a prison guard’s religious insult against him has fortunately had his First Amendment lawsuit reinstated by a federal appeals court.

Charles Mack, a federal prisoner in Loretto, Pa., worked in the prison commissary. As a Muslim, he received workplace accommodations for five months so he would not have to handle pork. However, in October 2009 Mack alleged that officer Doug Roberts slapped him on the back and said: “You’ll be looking for another job soon.” With the slap Roberts placed a label on Mack’s back reading, “I LOVE BACON!”

Two days later Roberts allegedly told Mack that “there’s no good Muslim, except a dead Muslim.” Mack complained to the commissary supervisor, Jeff Stevens. A week later Mack was fired from his prison job.

Mack sued Roberts, Stevens and other prison officials in federal court. A federal magistrate recommended the dismissal of the lawsuit, characterizing the alleged conduct as little more than a “junior high school level prank.” In November 2010, a federal district court judge adopted the magistrate’s recommendation and dismissed Mack’s suit.

However, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Mack’s claim in its May 6 decision in Mack v. Yost. The appeals court wrote that “Mack’s retaliation claim is sufficient at the very least to allow him to amend his complaint.”

Under Supreme Court rulings, a prisoner alleging retaliation must show three things: (1) constitutionally protected conduct; (2) an adverse action by prison officials that would deter the inmate from exercising his constitutional rights; and (3) a causal connection between the constitutionally protected activity and the adverse action.

According to the appeals court, Mack passed the threshold of stating a cognizable claim that met these requirements. It is constitutionally protected conduct for inmates to file grievances and complain about unfair treatment. Mack met this test when he complained to Stevens, the commissary supervisor.

Second, Mack indeed suffered an adverse action in losing his prisoner job. And he showed enough of a connection for the case to proceed, as he was fired only a week after complaining about Roberts. The closeness in time between Mack’s complaint and the loss of his commissary job raised enough of an issue for the appellate court to reinstate the claim.

Mack ultimately may not prevail on his claim, but he satisfied the basic criteria at this early stage of his lawsuit and the appeals court was correct in reinstating it. Prison officials obviously should not harass inmates because of their religion, and they shouldn’t retaliate against them for filing grievances.