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Maben v. Thelan

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

March 1, 2017

JAMES MABEN, Plaintiff,
TROY THELEN, Defendant.



         Plaintiff James Maben brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Corrections Officer Troy Thelen in both his individual and official capacities. Maben alleges that Thelen retaliated against him for filing a grievance with the Michigan Department of Corrections ("MDOC"). Compl. 3, ECF No. 1. Before the Court is Thelen's motion for summary judgment and three other motions filed by Maben. The Court will deny Maben's motions, grant Thelen's motion, and dismiss the case.


         On October 19, 2015, Maben was incarcerated at the Central Michigan Correctional Facility. According to Maben, while he was being served lunch, he noticed that he was served less than a full serving of food. Compl. ¶ 4, ECF No. 1. He asked the food service workers why he was given a small portion. Id. at ¶ 6. Thelen then said to Maben, "shut the f--k up if you want to eat." Id. at ¶ 7. Thelen continued, "you acting like a little b--h is not going to change anything." Id. at ¶ 9. Thelen then asked Maben for his identification and told him that "if you're going to complain then you're going to get a misconduct for it." Id. at ¶ 10.

         Thelen wrote Maben a misconduct ticket later that day for "creating a disturbance." Misconduct Report, ECF No 13-2. A hearing was held three days later, on October 22, 2015, and Maben was found guilty of misconduct. Misconduct Hr'g Report, ECF No. 13-2. As a sanction, Maben was denied privileges for seven days. Id.

         Maben characterizes his inquiry about the food as a "grievance" under the MDOC's policies; Thelen's reaction constituted retaliation for filing the grievance. Maben says he was "embarassed, demeaned, and humiliated" by his encounter with Thelen and has subsequently received short portions at meals because he fears retaliation from Thelen. Compl. ¶ 11-12, ECF No. 1. Consequently, he claims that the encounter has left him feeling that he can no longer comply with the prison's grievance procedure. Id. ¶ 11.


         Summary judgment is warranted "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). A fact is "material" for purposes of summary judgment if proof of that fact would establish or refute an essential element of the cause of action or defense. Kendall v. Hoover Co., 751 F.2d 171, 174 (6th Cir. 1984). A dispute over material facts is "genuine" "if 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).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. 60 Ivy St. Corp. v. Alexander, 822 F.2d 1432, 1435 (6th Cir. 1987). The Court must take care, in evaluating the motion, not to make judgments on the quality of the evidence, because the purpose of summary judgment is to determine whether a triable claim exists. Doe v. Metro.Nashville Pub. Schs., 133 F.3d 384, 387 (6th Cir. 1998) ("[W]eigh[ing] the evidence . . . is never appropriate at the summary judgment stage.").


         I. Thelen's Motion

         Thelen raises three arguments in his motion for summary judgment. First, he is immune from suit in his official capacity pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment. Second, he is entitled to qualified immunity in his personal capacity. And third, even in the absence of any immunity, summary judgment is appropriate because Maben has failed to establish a First Amendment retaliation claim. The Court need only address the third argument.

         In general, "[a] retaliation claim essentially entails three elements: (1) the plaintiff engaged in protected conduct; (2) an adverse action was taken against the plaintiff that would deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that conduct; and (3) there is a causal connection between elements one and two-that is, the adverse action was motivated at least in part by the plaintiff's protected conduct." Thaddeus-X v. Blatter, 175 F.3d 378, 394 (6th Cir. 1999). But "First Amendment rights, like many other rights, are circumscribed in the prison setting, " and "prison regulations are allowed to infringe on prisoners' rights as long as they are rationally related to a legitimate penological concern." Id. at 390, 395. "Therefore, if a prisoner violates a legitimate prison regulation, he is not engaged in 'protected conduct, ' and cannot proceed beyond step one." Id. at 395.

         Even when viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Maben, he cannot proceed beyond step one. In Maben's telling, he politely asked why he was not given more food. Resp. 12, ECF No. 14. According to Maben, Thelen then erupted and caused a disturbance in the chow hall, but blamed the disruption on Maben and wrote him a misconduct ticket. Id. Thelen says Maben caused the disturbance. Thelen Aff., ECF No. 13-2. But the dispute as to what really occurred was already adjudicated by the MDOC in the course of its grievance process. See Misconduct Hr'g Report, ECF No. 13-2. The Hearing Officer determined that Maben was in fact disruptive and therefore upheld the misconduct report ...

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