United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
OPINION & ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION
FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 20)
A. GOLDSMITH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Munin Kathawa is a Michigan prisoner incarcerated at the G.
Robert Cotton Correctional Facility (“JCF”).
Kathawa worked as a tutor in non-party Laura Bendele's
classroom until concerns about Kathawa and Bendele were
brought to Defendant Principal Brian Friedman's
attention. Friedman reassigned Kathawa to Defendant Spencer
Kinney's classroom. Shortly thereafter, Kathawa
complained to Friedman about the learning environment in
Kinney's classroom and made allegations to others that
Kinney was helping students cheat on the GED exams. Friedman
convinced Defendant Stacey Purdy, the Classification
Director, to terminate Kathawa from his tutoring position
because of safety concerns related to Bendele. When Kathawa
filed grievances with Defendant Mindy Hill,  the Special Acts
Director, Hill recommended Kathawa be disciplined for his
unfounded allegations of staff misconduct, and Kathawa was
later transferred out of JCF.
filed this action alleging that Defendants retaliated against
him in violation of his First Amendment rights. Defendants
have moved for summary judgment. The matter is fully briefed.
For the reasons discussed below, the motion is denied.
is a prisoner at JCF, where he worked as a tutor in the GED
program. Defendants' Statement of Material Facts
(“DSMF”) ¶¶ 1, 4, 8 (Dkt. 20). From
July 2016 to September 2017, he worked as a tutor in
Bendele's classroom. Id. ¶ 8. Many of
Bendele's students have learning disabilities and
struggle to pass the GED exams. See Kathawa Letter,
Ex. J to Defs. Mot. for Summ. J. (Dkt. 20-11). Kathawa was
passionate about tutoring students, Kathawa Dep., Ex. 1 to
Resp., at 30 (Dkt. 21-1); Friedman Dep., Ex. A to Defs. Mot.,
at 91 (Dkt. 20-2), and he would often spend his free time
tutoring students in the housing units, see Kathawa
Letter. By all accounts, Kathawa was an excellent tutor. DSMF
September 2017, after receiving a report on concerns
regarding Kathawa and Bendele, Friedman reassigned all of the
tutors to different classrooms. Id. ¶ 9.
Kathawa was reassigned to work in Defendant Kinney's
classroom. Id. ¶ 4. After Kathawa's
transfer to Kinney's classroom, Friedman began receiving
notes from other prisoners, colloquially referred to as
“kites, ” requesting that Kathawa be transferred
back to Bendele's classroom. DSMF ¶ 11; see
also Friedman Dep. at 40-41.
after the transfer to Kinney's classroom, Kathawa was
asked to tutor a prisoner who was scheduled to go home in
late November. Kathawa Dep. at 132. Kathawa helped prepare
the student for the GED exam, and Kathawa believed that the
student could pass the exam with the minimum passing score of
145 or perhaps with a score as high as 149. Id. To
Kathawa's surprise, the prisoner passed the exam with a
score of 169. Id. Kathawa asked the prisoner about
the exam, and based on the conversation, Kathawa soon
realized that his student could not have fairly passed the
exam with such a high score. Id. After further
inquiry, the prisoner revealed that Kinney, among others,
provided him with the exam answers. Id. at 96.
Kathawa documented eight other instances of cheating and he
suspected that the number was likely higher and growing.
See Jan. 2018 Letters, Ex. 12 to Resp. (Dkt. 21-12).
made three verbal complaints to Friedman regarding the
shortcomings of JCF's GED program in December 2017 and
January 2018. Kathawa Dep. at 19-20. Kathawa complained that
the GED program was geared more toward testing than teaching.
Id. at 27. He told Friedman that the classes were
regularly dismissed early, students were playing video games
in Kinney's classroom, and that the environment was not
conducive to learning. Id. at 27, 30. It is not
clear from the record whether Kathawa raised the issue of
cheating with Friedman. Id. at 96; see also
January 2018 Letters. However, Kathawa did raise the cheating
issue in letters that he sent to his nephew, Father Anthony
Kathawa, and his Congressman, Klint Kesto. Id. at
96; January 2018 Letters.
to Defendants, during a school staff meeting held in February
2018, the topic of “overfamiliarity” between
Kathawa and Bendele was discussed. DSMF ¶ 10. Based on
this discussion at the school meeting, and the kites from
other prisoners seeking Kathawa's return to Bendele's
classroom, Friedman informed the school officers that Kathawa
should have no contact with Bendele. Id. ¶ 12.
Kathawa subsequently received a misconduct report for being
outside of Bendele's door without a supervisor's
permission. Misconduct Report, Ex. K to Defs. Mot. (Dkt.
20-12). Friedman does not recall whether Kathawa was ever
informed that he was to refrain from interacting with
Bendele, Friedman Dep. at 40, and it was not unusual for
students to wander around the school building, Kinney Dep.,
Ex. 3 to Resp., at 28-29 (Dkt. 21-3). The misconduct report
was later dismissed because the review of the misconduct
report was not handled properly. Misconduct Mem., Ex. L to
Defs. Mot. (Dkt. 20-13).
sent a letter to Friedman requesting a transfer from
Kinney's classroom back to Bendele's classroom. Feb.
2018 Letter, Ex. J. to Defs. Mot. (Dkt. 20-11). In the
letter, Kathawa noted that other prisoners had sent reports
to Friedman expressing how much they benefitted from
Kathawa's tutoring. Id. Friedman wrote on the
letter that there had been seven to ten requests by other
students, and that he spoke with a deputy officer about the
requests. Id. Friedman denied Kathawa's request
to transfer. Id.
testified that he had grown concerned by Kathawa's
letter, and the possibility that he was manipulating other
prisoners to write letters on his behalf. DSMF ¶ 15;
Friedman Dep. at 89. On March 1, 2018, Friedman brought his
concerns to Deputy Warden Douglas Smith, who concluded that
the situation was not “normal . . . prisoner
behavior.” DSMF ¶ 15. Friedman testified that he
had lost sleep over the matter. Friedman Dep. at 90-91. After
his conversation with Smith, Friedman immediately sent an
email to Defendant Purdy requesting that Kathawa be removed
from his position as a tutor because of the safety and
security concerns related to Bendele. DSMF ¶ 16. On
March 13, 2018, two Prisoner Program and Work Assignment
Evaluation (also known as “Classification
Reports” or “363's”) were drafted by
Purdy, and perhaps Kinney. The nearly identical
Classification Reports state the following:
KATHAWA . . . was a tutor in the 300 bldg. for rm. 223 Mr.
Kinney. KATHAWA was written an OOP ticket because he left rm.
223 and went to rm. 214 Ms. Bendele's class which he did
every time he got a chance. The ticket was thrown out for a
clerical error. Ms. Bendele has expressed a feeling for her
safety when he comes to her room. As Classification Director
of JCF I will NOT let KATHAWA return to the tutor position he
held. KATHAWA is being terminated for the safety and/or
security of the facility. . . .
If the prisoner is not found guilty at the initial hearing,
he shall be paid for any time he was removed from the
assignment pending the hearing. The prisoner may be returned
to the same assignment or considered for reclassification in
accordance with [prison policy], as determined by the
Classification Director. THE PRISONER SHALL NOT BE RETURNED
TO THE SAME ASSIGNMENT IF THE CD DETERMINES IT TO BE A THREAT
TO THE SAFETY OR SECURITY OF THE FACILITY.
Reports, Ex. 9 to Resp. (Dkt. 21-17). Friedman, Kinney, and
Purdy all signed the Classification Reports. Id.
Kathawa was removed from his tutor position that same day.
DSMF ¶ 19.
immediately filed a grievance complaining that he had been
removed from his tutoring position arbitrarily. 3/14/2018
Grievance, Ex. H to Defs. Mot. (Dkt. 20-9). He argued that
because he had been exonerated of any wrongdoing related to
the misconduct report, under prison policy, he should have
been returned to his tutoring assignment and received
backpay. Id. Kathawa also expressed his belief that
he was being subjected to retaliation, and he requested that
JCF staff monitor for other potential retaliatory actions,
such as transfer out of JCF. Id.
March 21, Hill met with both Kathawa and Bendele. 3/28/2018
Grievance, Ex. I to Defs. Mot. (Dkt. 20-10); Hill Dep. at 44.
Hill says that Kathawa took issue with the Classification
Reports and asked for written proof that Bendele had
expressed concerns for her safety. See 3/14/2018
Grievance. According to Hill, Bendele told Hill that she felt
threatened around Kathawa. Hill Dep. at 44. On that same day,
Hill resolved Kathawa's grievance partially in his favor,
and directed him to be paid for the time he was laid off
pending the misconduct hearing, but Hill denied Kathawa's
request to return to his tutor position because Bendele had
expressed “bad feelings” around Kathawa.
filed a second grievance on March 28. 3/28/2018 Grievance,
Ex. I to Defs. Mot. (Dkt. 20-10). Kathawa accused Purdy,
Smith, Kinney, and Friedman of falsifying the Classification
Reports and conspiring to retaliate against him. Id.
Kathawa was transferred out of JCF that same day. Transfer
Order, Ex. O to Defs. Mot. (Dkt. 20-16). He was later
returned to JCF because he was in a college program ...