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Alexander v. Meli

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

February 22, 2019

STEPHEN E. ALEXANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
TONI MELI and KEITH IMMERFALL, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JAMES D. PETERSON DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pro se plaintiff Stephen E. Alexander, an inmate incarcerated at Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI), is proceeding on First Amendment retaliation claims and class-of-one equal protection claims against two WCI employees, Security Director Toni Meli and Lieutenant Keith Immerfall. Alexander alleges that Meli and Immerfall violated his rights by terminating him from his food-service job and reclassifying him to “voluntary unassigned” status to punish him for having successfully challenged a conduct report.

         Defendants move for summary judgment. Dkt. 41. I will grant defendants' motion because Alexander fails to present evidence that defendants' actions were motivated by Alexander's protected activity, or that defendants singled him out for adverse treatment without a rational basis.

         UNDISPUTED FACTS

         The following facts are undisputed unless noted otherwise.

         Alexander has been incarcerated at WCI since 2004. At various points over the course of his incarceration, including the period relevant here, Alexander was employed by WCI's food service department. In early 2017, Lieutenant Immerfall learned from WCI security staff that some chocolate chip cream pies had gone missing from the canteen. Immerfall investigated the pies' disappearance. He identified April 18, 2017, as the date of the probable theft, and watched eight hours of surveillance footage from that day in an effort to identify the perpetrators. Based on that footage, Immerfall concluded that three inmates-Alexander, Toni Toston, and Charles Walker-had worked together to steal a box of pies from the WCI loading dock. On May 4, Immerfall issued Alexander, Toston, and Walker conduct reports. Alexander was charged with aiding and abetting (in violation of Wisconsin Administrative Code § DOC 303.06) and theft (in violation of Wisconsin Administrative Code § 303.37). He was found guilty on both charges. As a result of that guilty finding, Immerfall issued an Offender Work/Program/Placement (DOC-1408) form on May 8, terminating Alexander's food-service work assignment.

         Alexander appealed the conduct report, asserting that he was not part of the theft and that the charges were inappropriate. In a decision dated May 24, 2017, the WCI warden ultimately agreed that the conduct report should be dismissed because of “inappropriate charges.” Dkt. 44-4, at 1. The warden noted that the dismissal “does not negate the inmate behaviors.” Id. Defendants say that, notwithstanding the dismissal of the conduct report on a technicality, Alexander was never deemed innocent of the conduct it described. Alexander suggests that the dismissal of the conduct report exonerated him of wrongdoing. See Dkt. 58, ¶ 29.

         Although the conduct report had been dismissed, WCI staff continued to believe that Alexander had been involved in the pie theft. Defendant Meli, WCI's security director, deliberated about whether to allow Alexander to return to his food-service job. As part of those deliberations, Meli contacted a member of WCI's Gang Task Force to inquire whether Alexander was still gang-affiliated. (Alexander admitted to being affiliated with the Gangster Disciples in 2002, but he says that he is no longer gang-involved. See Id. ¶ 2.) The Gang Task Force member told Meli that Alexander was still active in the gang and that he had risen through the ranks to a leadership position.

         Meli ultimately issued Alexander a new DOC-1408 form terminating Alexander's foodservice job assignment on June 5, 2017. The parties dispute his basis for doing so. Defendants say that Meli based his termination decision on three factors: (1) his belief that Alexander was involved in the group theft; (2) his belief that Alexander continued to be gang-affiliated; and (3) his belief that Alexander had committed the misconduct in conjunction with at least one other gang member-in this case, Toni Toston. Id. ¶¶ 34-35. Based on these considerations, Meli believed that Alexander's continued employment in food service posed a security threat. Per Department of Adult Institutions (DAI) policy 309.00.01, an inmate's potential threat to a facility's security can be a basis for removing him from his work placement. See Dkt. 44-5. Alexander disputes that these were Meli's true reasons and contends that Meli was acting out of a desire to retaliate against Alexander for successfully contesting the conduct report. See Dkt. 58, ¶¶ 35-36.

         After Alexander was removed from his food-service job, WCI security staff placed him on voluntary unassigned (or “UNAS”) status. Per WCI rules, any time an inmate refuses, quits, or is “negatively removed” from a work or program assignment, he is placed on UNAS status for 90 days. See Dkt. 44-3, at 22; DAI Policy 309.55.01. Inmates in UNAS status are not paid an institution wage and are not allowed to attend library or structured recreation, or to participate in fine arts, hobby, music, or chapel studies time. They must remain in their cells except for visits, meals, cell hall recreation, and non-leisure-time passes. After an inmate has been in UNAS status for 90 days, he may request that his status be changed to involuntary unassigned status, which is a paid status meant for inmates who are willing to accept any job assignment but who have not been assigned to a job.

         Alexander complained that his placement in UNAS status was inappropriate and contrary to policy given the dismissal of his conduct report. The reviewing WCI official responded with the following explanation:

After looking into your complaint I find that your removal from Food Service was an Administrative removal based on an incident that you were involved with that falls within the parameters of “negative activity.” You are correct, your Conduct Report was dismissed but with the understanding that Conduct Reports can be dismissed for various reasons, the dismissal in your case does not automatically mean that you are innocent or that you were not involved.
The point that you were Administratively removed from your position for negative activity is more of the deciding factor in your placement of UNAS status. In accordance with [DAI Policy] 309.55.01 section IV, “Inmates who refuse or are negatively removed from a work or primary program shall be placed in voluntary unassigned status and shall not be compensated for a minimum of 90 days unless already ...

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