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Bennett v. Meisner

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

February 17, 2017

GARY LEE BENNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL MEISNER, TERRY SAWALL, MICHELLE SMITH, MICHAEL REIGH, ASHLEY FREITAG, DAISY CHASE, ED WALL, and JON LITSCHER, Defendants.

          ORDER

          J.P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge

         1. INTRODUCTION

         The plaintiff Gary Lee Bennett (“Bennett”), a prisoner at Redgranite Correctional Institution (“Redgranite”), brings this lawsuit for the defendants' alleged retaliation against him for filing prison grievances, in violation of the First Amendment. (Docket #16 and #33). This matter was reassigned to this branch of the Court on August 2, 2016. On November 4, 2016, Bennett filed a motion for summary judgment. (Docket #83). On November 7, 2016, the defendants filed their own motions for summary judgment. (Docket #74 and #86).[1] Responses were filed between November 25 and December 5, 2016. (Docket #91, #94, #99, and #102). Replies were submitted between December 8 and December 16, 2016. (Docket #107, #109, and #110). For the reasons explained below, the defendants' motions must be granted and Bennett's motion must be denied.

         2. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides the mechanism for seeking summary judgment. Rule 56 states that the “court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Boss v. Castro, 816 F.3d 910, 916 (7th Cir. 2016). A “genuine” dispute of material fact is created when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court construes all facts and reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the non-movant. Bridge v. New Holland Logansport, Inc., 815 F.3d 356, 360 (7th Cir. 2016). Even under this standard, however, the Court “will not draw inferences that are ‘supported by only speculation or conjecture.'” Williams v. Brooks, 809 F.3d 936, 944 (7th Cir. 2016).

         3. RELEVANT FACTS

         Because the Court will grant the defendants' motions, it presents the facts in a light most favorable to Bennett. The dispositive issues are quite limited, so the Court has constrained its recitation to only the relevant facts where possible. The Court begins with a discussion of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections' (“DOC”) prisoner grievance procedures, and then presents a timeline of relevant events.

         3.1 The Inmate Complaint Review System

         The DOC's Inmate Complaint Review System (“ICRS”) is an inmate's primary vehicle for submitting grievances about the conditions of their confinement. Wis. Admin. Code DOC § 310.04. It requires that inmates submit formal complaints to the appropriate Inmate Complaint Examiner (“ICE”), not to other prison personnel. Id. §§ 310.07(1) and 310.09(6). The ICE reviews all complaints received for compliance with the procedural requirements of the ICRS. If the complaint appears to be non-compliant, it is returned to the inmate. If the complaint is procedurally valid, the ICE investigates and recommends rejection, acceptance, or other action to the reviewing authority at the prison, which at Redgranite is the warden. Id. §§ 310.07(2) and 310.11. The warden, the final decisionmaker within Redgranite, may accept or reject the ICE's recommendation. Id. § 310.07(3). The inmate then has a right of appeal to DOC authorities outside of Redgranite, up to the Secretary of the DOC. Id. §§ 310.07(6), 310.13, and 310.14.

         Bennett and the defendants vigorously dispute one of the procedural requirements applied to Bennett in this case. The Redgranite inmate handbook (the “Handbook”) describes a “chain-of-command” (“COC”) process, whereby inmates are expected to address complaints with successive tiers of prison personnel prior to filing a formal ICRS complaint. Id. If the COC process is not fruitful, the inmate may proceed with the ICRS process. Id. Bennett claims that the COC and ICRS processes are inconsistent and that the retaliation in this case stemmed from his attempts to comply with both. See, e.g., (Docket #94 at 3). The defendants maintain that Bennett failed to submit complaints in accordance with either procedure and so his repeated grievances were properly rejected. See, e.g., (Docket #75 at 25-27). The Court need not resolve this dispute, as Bennett's claims fail on other grounds.

         3.2 Timeline

         Bennett is an inmate at Redgranite. Daisy Chase (“Chase”) was a “Unit Manager” at Redgranite during the relevant time period.[2] The other defendants besides Ed Wall (“Wall”) and Jon Litscher (“Litscher”) were security personnel or staff who facilitated the inmate complaint process at Redgranite. Litscher is the current Secretary for the DOC, while Wall is the former secretary.

         On March 26, 2015, Chase received an Interview/Information Request from Bennett, also known as a “kite” (and referred to as such hereinafter), written in part on the standard form for such requests and in part on looseleaf. See (Docket #77-1 at 13-17, 19). The form itself stated that “I figured I'd provide a rough draft of my ICE to better inform you of where I'm coming from. I'll wait a couple days to submit.” Id. at 19. The three-and-a-half pages of looseleaf text included with the form detailed Bennett's problems with a Sergeant Murphy, Unit Manager Mueske (“Mueske”), Chase herself, and Bennett's difficulties in utilizing the ICRS and COC systems.

         The parties dispute much about the kite. They disagree as to whether the kite contained a threat to file a formal ICRS complaint or an informal COC complaint, or whether the kite was itself a COC complaint. They further dispute the merits of Bennett's complaints mentioned therein. The Court mentions these disputes only to note that in the end, none of them are material.

         Upon receiving the kite, Chase began investigating the claims made therein. She spoke with Mueske and found no evidence to support Bennett's allegations against her. Chase further determined that Bennett had not presented evidence of her own misconduct. Chase thus concluded that Bennett's kite contained false statements about staff.

         While Chase's investigation was ongoing, Bennett was placed in “temporary lockup” (“TLU”), which is a housing area separate from the general population. Bennett does not dispute the reasons for this. Inmate lies about staff can damage staff credibility, thereby threatening their ability to enforce rules and maintain security, as well as subjecting that staff member to unwarranted discipline. Complaints based on false statements distract attention from legitimate issues and waste prison resources. Thus, lying about staff is considered a major offense. Inmates suspected of major offenses, like Bennett, are routinely placed in TLU so that prison officials may investigate the issue free from that inmate's attempts to disrupt them, sway witness recollections, destroy evidence, or retaliate against the subject(s) of their offense.

         The TLU placement form states that the placement order was issued by a Lieutenant Eichstedt at 12:45 p.m on March 26. (Docket #78-1). This was done, in accordance with the above policies, to ensure that Chase could conduct her investigation without interference from Bennett. Reigh approved Bennett's TLU placement sometime later that day on the ground that he had been accused of a major offense. See (Docket #78 at 2-3). Bennett contends that Chase did not read the kite or begin her investigation prior to his TLU placement. Because these issues form the chief basis for his opposition to summary judgment with respect to Chase, the Court addresses them more fully below.

         Chase's investigation ended the next day, March 27. At that time, she issued Bennett a conduct report (the “Conduct Report”) for lying about prison employees, which is specifically prohibited by the DOC administrative code. Wis. Adm. Code DOC § 303.32. After issuing the Conduct Report, Chase recommended that Bennett be placed in a different housing unit upon release from TL U.She did so to avoid the appearance of retaliation and to “give [Bennett] a fresh start with staff with whom he had not had prior negative interactions.” (Docket #111 at ¶ 62).

         The remainder of the parties' proffered facts are voluminous but largely irrelevant. The Court nevertheless addresses them briefly to lay a foundation for its analysis. On April 6, 2015, a hearing was held on the Conduct Report. Terry Sawall (“Sawall”), a captain at Redgranite, was the hearing officer. Based on the evidence presented, Sawall determined that Bennett was guilty of lying about an employee as alleged in the Conduct Report. He sentenced Bennett to ninety days of disciplinary ...


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