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Cheatham v. Benson

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

November 7, 2017

DEXTER A. CHEATHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
UNKNOWN BENSON, et al., Defendants. Misconduct Date Defendant Charge Result

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court has granted Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Plaintiff presently is incarcerated at the Oaks Correctional Facility (ECF) in Manistee County. The events arising out of this lawsuit, however, occurred while Plaintiff was incarcerated at the Chippewa Correctional Facility (URF) in Chippewa County. Between February 2015 and May 2016, Plaintiff filed grievances on a nearly continuous basis. He did so, he says, because of the systemic misconduct at the prison and the retaliation he received for exercising his First Amendment rights. As described by Plaintiff, the prison's employees become increasingly hostile to Plaintiff, and the situation boiled over in May 2016, when prison officials rammed Plaintiff head first into a door, causing injury.

         Plaintiff brings this action based on claimed violations of his First and Eighth Amendment rights. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), the Court is required to dismiss any prisoner action brought under federal law if the complaint is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The Court must read Plaintiff's pro se complaint indulgently, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), and accept Plaintiff's allegations as true, unless they are clearly irrational or wholly incredible. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992). Applying these standards, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim against Defendants Benson, King, Payment, Goings, Bernard, Wilkens, Seams, Isard, McLean, Clark, Lacrosse, “Jane” Belanger, “John” Belanger, Woods, Brown, Hubbard, and Russell. The Court will serve the complaint against Defendant Gallagher.

         FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

         I. Introduction

         Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures requires a “short and plain” statement of the claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Plaintiff's Complaint is anything but that. Rather, it amounts to forty-five pages reciting in excruciating detail encounters with eighteen separate defendants (and some additional non-defendants) over the course of fifteen months. There is little, if anything, to connect the factual vignettes together, other than that they all involve interactions between Plaintiff and a prison employee at Chippewa. Based largely on that simple fact, Plaintiff alleges that almost every interaction with each of the separate prison employees involved a retaliatory action to punish Plaintiff for exercising his First Amendment rights in an earlier cycle of interaction and grievance. Most of the interaction and grievance cycles also involved misconduct t ickets and guilty findings against Plaintiff. The cycle Plaintiff describes repeats ad nauseam for forty-five pages.

         II. The Initial Encounter

         Everything started with a shakedown in February 2015. Plaintiff filed a grievance claiming that Defendant King groped him in a sexual manner during the shakedown. Defendant Hubbard later met with Plaintiff to discuss the grievance, and explained that officers are taught to search inmates' “crotch areas” during searches. This explanation did not satisfy Plaintiff, and Plaintiff refused to withdraw the grievance. During this meeting, Plaintiff also told Defendant Hubbard that Defendant Benson had begun to call Plaintiff a “snitch grievance writer, ” and conducted shakedowns on Plaintiff purely to harass him and to destroy his property. There is, however, no reported history of interactions or grievances before this one.

         If this were the only issue, it would not be difficult to sort things out. A simple crotch grab-even assuming it occurred as Plaintiff says-would be insufficient to establish an Eighth Amendment violation. And even Plaintiff does not claim that Defendant King retaliated against him for pursuing a grievance. Instead, Plaintiff asserts that other named defendants-but not King-started retaliating against him, beginning the forty-five page cycle of interactions and grievances. That cycle does take some sorting and analysis to ensure that only Twombly plausible claims proceed.

         III. The Retaliation Cycle

         A. Defendant Benson

         When Plaintiff refused to withdraw his initial crotch-grab grievance against King, Plaintiff claims Defendant Benson retaliated against Plaintiff on several occasions, apparently on behalf of King. First, on April 11, 2015, Plaintiff claims Defendant Benson wrote a false misconduct ticket against Plaintiff for substance abuse. When Plaintiff asked Defendant Benson why he had written the misconduct ticket, Defendant Benson stated, “You lied on Officer King. Up here we stick together. [I]f you file a grievance on one of us, you file it on all of us and this is the treatment that you're going to get unless you sign off of the grievance.” Plaintiff was found guilty of the ticket.

         After Plaintiff was found guilty of the misconduct, Defendant Benson allegedly taunted Plaintiff and stated, “By the time I'm done with you, you'll be on the Eastside or in Round unit doing sanctions for the whole summer.” Then, on April 28, 2015, Plaintiff says Defendant Benson searched Plaintiff's living area, tore up several of Plaintiff's family photos, and threw all of Plaintiff's clothes on the floor. Next, on May 6 and May 13, Defendant Benson allegedly falsified two more misconduct tickets against Plaintiff, the first for being out of place and for lying to an employee, and the second ticket for insolence. Plaintiff filed grievances following each of these encounters. Plaintiff admits he was ultimately found guilty on the three misconduct tickets and was sentenced to several days of top lock and loss of privileges for each ticket. He contends at least some of these guilty findings were the result of unfair hearing procedures, which included a failure to conduct proper investigations. Plaintiff does not expressly link this set of conduct to retaliatory intent, but the Court will liberally construe the complaint to assume Plaintiff meant to do so.[1]

         B. Claims of Retaliation by Others

         1.Bernard

         Meanwhile, Plaintiff claims he was retaliated against by other prison officials. Specifically, while he was on top lock for the April 11, 2015 misconduct report, Plaintiff claims that Defendant Bernard denied Plaintiff bathroom access, causing Plaintiff to urinate and soil himself. Defendant Bernard then falsified a misconduct ticket on Plaintiff for “insolence” to cover his tracks, though here too Plaintiff admits he was found guilty on the misconduct ticket.

         2. Payment and Lacrosse

         Plaintiff alleges that he was subsequently moved to the prison's eastside, which was more restrictive and had fewer privileges, because of his grievance writing. After he was transferred, Plaintiff contends Defendant Payment told him that Defendant Benson warned Defendant Payment about Plaintiff, and had instructed him to continue retaliating against Plaintiff. On May 17, 2015, Plaintiff wrote a grievance asserting staff corruption and retaliation. On May 21, 2015, Defendant Lacrosse attempted to hold a hearing on one of Defendant Benson's misconduct tickets. Defendant Lacrosse wished to do so via phone and when Plaintiff objected and insisted on being present, Defendant Lacrosse became angry and told Plaintiff it did not matter if Plaintiff was present. Defendant Lacrosse then came to the unit and asked Plaintiff if he had anything to add. Plaintiff thus claims he never received a hearing, but was nevertheless found guilty for being “out of place” and was sentenced to five days top lock and twenty days loss of privileges. Plaintiff was also found guilty on the insolence misconduct ticket and was sentenced to five days top lock and thirty days loss of privileges. Plaintiff appealed both of the guilty findings.

         3. More Misconduct Tickets and Guilty Findings

         Plaintiff kited Defendant Woods on May 24, 2015, to complain about staff falsifying misconduct tickets. Plaintiff kited Defendant Woods again on June 10, 2015, complaining that Defendant Benson had told other officers to harass Plaintiff for filing grievances. Plaintiff also kited Defendant Isard on July 5, 2015, this time about the appeals. Plaintiff was thereafter told by other prison officials to refile his appeal. He did so, but claims he did not receive an answer and that Defendant Isard improperly denied Plaintiff's attempts to appeal his misconduct convictions.

         On August 2, 2015, Defendant “John” Belanger falsified a misconduct report on Plaintiff for the theft of a box of “orange juice from concentrate base.” On the same date, Defendant Goings falsified a misconduct ticket against Plaintiff for substance abuse. Plaintiff's cell mate explained that the juice was his and was in his area of control. Plaintiff gave Defendant Goings the empty box of orange juice and explained that his cell mate Aaron had juice that was not fermented, but was only juice. Defendant Goings said that was not what the ticket was going to say. On August 3, 2015, Defendant Seams denied Plaintiff access to the law library, stating that Plaintiff would not be “gathering policies and law materials to file lawsuits” on her watch. Defendant Goings filed another misconduct on Plaintiff for threatening behavior. Plaintiff was found guilty of one of the misconduct tickets on August 10, 2015, and was given 10 days detention.

         4. Reclassification

         On August 12, 2015, Plaintiff met with the prison's security classification committee. Defendant Isard was one of the members of the committee. At the meeting, Plaintiff was told by Resident Unit Manager LaLonde[2] that he had too many class I and II misconduct tickets and that Plaintiff had done “something to make them pay attention” to him. Plaintiff explained that the tickets were written against him in retaliation for the grievances he filed, and Defendant Isard told Plaintiff that if he stopped writing grievances, the tickets would stop.

         After this meeting, Plaintiff claims the misconduct continued. Defendant Wilkens falsified a hearing report by stating that Plaintiff had been present for the hearing during a time when Plaintiff was segregated from the population. Plaintiff received five days top lock and twenty days loss of privileges. Plaintiff asked for a review of camera footage to prove that he was not released from his cell for the hearing, but his request and subsequent appeal of the misconduct were both denied.

         On August 26, 2015, Plaintiff was reclassified to administrative segregation. Plaintiff filed a grievance. Defendant Payment also falsified three misconduct reports for loitering against Plaintiff on August 30, 2015, and told Plaintiff that Defendant Benson was sending his regards. Plaintiff was found guilty and received five days top lock for each misconduct ticket.

         5. More Misconduct, Complaints, and Grievances

         On September 4, 2015, Plaintiff kited Defendant Isard to complain about staff corruption and retaliation. On September 10, 2015, Defendant Goings falsified a misconduct ticket on Plaintiff for loitering. Plaintiff was found guilty and received five days top lock. On September 13, 2015, Plaintiff says Defendant Gallagher falsified two misconduct tickets on Plaintiff for theft, and for being in the shower for an hour. Plaintiff was found guilty on both tickets. Plaintiff received five days top lock and ten days loss of privileges for the theft ticket and five days top lock for the ticket regarding the shower.

         On September 18, 2015, Plaintiff wrote letters to Attorney General Bill Schuette, MDOC Director, and Michigan State Police to complain about staff misconduct. Plaintiff also filed a grievance. Plaintiff was subsequently called to the prison's control center to meet with Defendants Isard and Hubbard. At the meeting, Defendant Isard told Plaintiff that he would have a misconduct written on Plaintiff. Defendant Hubbard also told Plaintiff that “in 5 years you'll wish you didn't do this grievance.” When Plaintiff responded that he would call his family for help, Defendant Isard told Defendant Hubbard to revoke Plaintiff's phone privilege, purportedly for unknown violations on May 28, and May 29, 2015. Plaintiff also states he was placed in a telephone booth for over ninety minutes and was told to sign off on his grievances and to stop writing them. A hearing regarding Plaintiff's phone privileges was later held, and the hearing officer concluded Plaintiff had already been punished for the violations and restored Plaintiff's phone privileges. On September 20, 2015, Plaintiff filed a grievance against Defendants Isard and Hubbard.

         On October 6, 2015, Plaintiff wrote a kite to Defendant McLean asking why he had not received a grievance response for either of the grievances he had written on Defendants Hubbard and Isard. Plaintiff sent a second kite to Defendant McLean on October 8, 2015. When the kites went unanswered, Plaintiff wrote a grievance on Defendant McLean for refusing to process Plaintiff's grievances. On October 19, 2015, Plaintiff was informed that he was being placed on modified access to the grievance procedure. On October 19, 2015, Defendant McLean informed Plaintiff that he had received a grievance from Plaintiff against Defendant Hubbard, but not one against Defendant Isard. On November 4, 2015, and November 9, 2015, Plaintiff again kited Defendant McLean seeking responses to the grievances he had filed on Defendants Hubbard and Isard, so that he could file step II appeals.

         On November 16, 2015, Defendant Brown met with Plaintiff to discuss the grievances that he had filed against Defendants Woods and McLean for placing him on modified access to the grievance procedure. During the interview, Defendant Brown told Plaintiff that he really “done it, ” and that he had not learned his lesson about writing grievances. On November 18, 2015, Defendant Brown reclassified Plaintiff to a security level 4 and placed him on the list for a transfer. Defendants Isard and Lacrosse approved the transfer to the increased security level.

         On November 29, 2015, Plaintiff kited Defendant McLean regarding the grievances he filed on Defendants Hubbard and Isard. On December 2, 2015, Plaintiff was transferred to the level 4 unit. On December 13, 2015, Plaintiff wrote a grievance on Defendant Brown regarding the transfer. On December 20, 2015, Defendant Seams supposedly made Plaintiff stand outside in the rain before he sat in a violence prevention program (VPP) class for an hour while soaking wet.[3] On January 3, 2016, Plaintiff re-filed the grievances on Defendants Hubbard and Isard.

         6. The New Year Continues the Pattern

         On January 28, 2016, Defendant Seams told Plaintiff that she would write a misconduct report, which would “stick.” As of January 28, 2016, it seems that every prior misconduct ticket on Plaintiff had resulted in a guilty finding, so it's not clear what Plaintiff believes this meant. Defendant Seams also told Plaintiff that she would make sure he did not finish the VPP class, which Plaintiff was required to complete in order to be eligible for parole. On February 17, 2016, Defendant Clark told Plaintiff that he would not investigate any of the grievances Plaintiff wrote and would write “redundant” responses to Plaintiff's grievances. Defendant Clark explained that being placed in level 4, which has substandard law library access, was part of Plaintiff's punishment for filing grievances on staff. Defendant Clark threatened to have Plaintiff placed on modified access and stated, “I promise you that I'll teach you a lesson about writing grievances, since you obviously haven't learned your lesson asshole.” Plaintiff filed a grievance. Plaintiff was also denied his yard break, which he was supposed to get every 7 days.

         On March 6, 2016, Defendant Benson told Plaintiff, “I told you we'd get you back in level 4, how long have you been on sanctions, it's about a year now I've been keeping tabs on you to make sure the officers stay on your ass and get you back for writing that grievance on King and me. I told you we stick together up here all for one and one for all, Payment and Goings says hi.” Plaintiff filed a grievance.

         On March 21, 2016, Defendant Woods falsified the step II response to a grievance that Plaintiff had written on “R. Benson.” Plaintiff states that Defendant Woods construed the grievance as being written on “J. Benson” and stated that Plaintiff had falsified the grievance. Defendant Woods made a notation on the response directing “Inspectors, please write misconduct.” Defendant “Jane” Belanger wrote a misconduct on Plaintiff. On March 31, 2016, Hearing Officer Durant sent questionnaires to Defendant “Jane” Belanger and Sergeant Davidson, asking them about the facts surrounding the misconduct.[4] Defendant “Jane” Belanger indicated that she relied on Sergeant Davidson's grievance response. Sergeant Davidson stated that J. Benson was not even in the prison on the date of the alleged incident, and that Plaintiff must have been referring to R. Benson. On April 5, 2016, the ...


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