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Kalafi v. Brown

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

June 22, 2018




         On April 5, 2018, this court granted summary judgment to plaintiff G'esa Kalafi, f/n/a Stanley Felton on his claim that defendants retaliated against him in violation of his clearly established First Amendment rights when it punished him for writing an article in which he disparaged defendant Shana Becker and other unnamed members of the psychology staff at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, where Kalafi is an inmate. In the same order, the court granted summary judgment to defendant Craig Tom on Kalafi's claim that Tom, who presided over Kalafi's conduct hearing, was a biased decisionmaker. Dkt. 81.

         Both sides seek reconsideration of that order pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e). See dkts. 84, 88. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiff's motion will be denied and defendants' motion will be granted solely with respect to their contention that I erred in finding defendant Shana Becker liable for damages with respect to Kalafi's retaliation claim.


         I. Standard of Review

         Rule 59(e) allows a party to move the court for reconsideration of a judgment within 28 days following the entry of the judgment. A motion for reconsideration serves a very limited purpose in federal civil litigation; it should be used only “to correct manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered evidence.” Rothwell Cotton Co. v. Rosenthal & Co., 827 F.2d 246, 251 (7th Cir. 1987) (quoting Keene Corp. v. Int'l Fidelity Ins. Co., 561 F.Supp. 656 (N.D. Ill. 1982), aff'd 736 F.2d 388 (7th Cir. 1984)). “A ‘manifest error' is not demonstrated by the disappointment of the losing party. It is the ‘wholesale disregard, misapplication, or failure to recognize controlling precedent.'” Oto v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 224 F.3d 601, 606 (7th Cir. 2000) (quoting Sedrak v. Callahan, 987 F.Supp. 1063, 1069 (N.D. Ill. 1997)). Apart from manifest errors of law, “reconsideration is not for rehashing previously rejected arguments.” Caisse Nationale de Credit Agricole v. CBI Industries, Inc., 90 F.3d 1264, 1270 (7th Cir. 1996). Whether to grant a motion for reconsideration “is left to the discretion of the district court.” Id.

         II. First Amendment/Qualified Immunity Analysis

         Citing the same cases cited in their summary judgment briefs, defendants insist that Kalafi's statements in the article found in his cell were defamatory and as such, enjoy no First Amendment protection. They go on to argue that, even if Kalafi's statements were protected, the law establishing such protection was not clearly established at the time he was disciplined, and defendants consequently are entitled to qualified immunity.

         Neither of defendants' arguments persuades me that it was manifest error to find that, under clearly established law existing in 2012, Kalafi's statements were protected under the First Amendment even if defendants could prove they were defamatory. Regardless whether the Supreme Court was deciding the precise question before this court, the Court spoke plainly when it declared in Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974), that “[p]rison officials may not censor inmate correspondence simply to eliminate unflattering or unwelcome opinions or factually inaccurate statements.” Id. at 413. Indeed, in 1979, the Fifth Circuit found that Martinez not only barred prison officials from suppressing an inmate's outside correspondence “[e]ven if it is libelous, ” but that the case's holding was so clear that qualified immunity was not available to the defendants. McNamara v. Moody, 606 F.2d 621, 624 (5th Cir. 1979). Similarly, in Ross v. Reed, 719 F.2d 689, 695 (4th Cir. 1983), the Fourth Circuit observed that

in late 1979-early 1980, the law was clear that prison authorities could not as a regular practice censor inmate mail, even if the letter unduly complains or magnifies grievances or is defamatory; rather, as was clear, censorship-and other restrictions on inmates' first amendment rights-must be justified by using narrowly drawn means to further substantial governmental interests in security, rehabilitation, and order.

Id. (emphasis added). Four years later, the Third Circuit reached a similar conclusion, finding that prison officials violated an inmate's clearly established rights under Martinez when they punished him for making a false and defamatory statement about a female prison guard in a letter that he had written to the NAACP. Brooks v. Andolina, 826 F.2d 1266, 1268 (3rd Cir. 1987).

         Defendants acknowledge that the facts in Brooks are largely indistinguishable from those in the instant case, and they do not address Moody. As for Ross, they argue that the case actually augurs in favor of qualified immunity because the court questioned whether the inmate's campaign of writing letters containing false or unsupportable statements even was protected by the First Amendment and granted immunity to the defendants. Ross, 719 F.2d at 695.

         The facts of Ross are inapposite. There, the inmate sent a series of letters to a state records custodian, addressed to a congressman and the news media, in which Ross accused the custodian of deliberately falsifying his parole eligibility date because she was racist and had been bribed. Id. at 691-92. At the time, Ross had a lawsuit pending against the custodian in which he alleged that she had violated his constitutional rights by not crediting two years during which he had escaped from prison as time served towards completion of his sentence. Id. at 691. Finding that the facts before it were “different in kind” from the situations encountered in Martinez and Moody, the court agreed with defendants' contention that Ross's letters were not “ordinary correspondence” but were part of “an arguably illegal effort to coerce official action by making allegations known to be false or unsupportable.” Id. at 695-96.

         In this case, by contrast, defendants make no suggestion that they disciplined Kalafi for engaging in a course of conduct aimed “to gain a benefit to which he was not entitled, ” as the defendants successfully argued in Ross. Here, defendants acknowledge that they disciplined Kalafi for making defamatory statements in his article. Under Martinez, Moody and Brooks, that action was plainly unlawful. Indeed, even Ross supports this conclusion, insofar as the court found it to be settled law as of 1980 that ‚Äúprison authorities could ...

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