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Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Publishes New First Amendment Retaliation Case

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held this week that subordinate and superior employees alike can be held liable for First Amendment Retaliation if their actions work to implement the retaliatory adverse action.

In King v. Zamiara, the Court reversed a grant of summary judgment to three Michigan prison officials on a prisoner’s First Amendment Retaliation claim. The plaintiff, King, had sued after he believed that his involvement in a prior class action suit against Michigan prisons had led to him being placed in a higher security classification. He had also helped other prisoners file grievances and complaints about their treatment while incarcerated.

The first two elements of a First Amendment Retaliation claim – conduct protected by the First Amendment, and a subsequent adverse action – were not in dispute on appeal. Instead, the Court evaluated whether the adverse action of placing the plaintiff in a higher security level was motivated by his involvement in prior complaints, and who would be responsible for the retaliatory act. Specifically, the Court held that while none of the three prison officials in question, Zamiara, Wells, and Chaffee, independently made the decision to move King to a higher security classification, all three knew that the change in his classification was motivated by his involvement in helping other prisoners file complaints, and all three directly implemented the action.

“The district court’s use of the word ‘involved,’ however, erroneously focused solely on who made the ultimate decision to increase King’s security, not whether any of the defendants’ actions were the proximate cause of the increase in security. The district court failed to acknowledge that a person who sets in motion an adverse action can be liable for retaliation for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of his actions.”

“Individuals who aid in the implementation of an adverse action at the instructions of a superior will be liable along with their superior if they knew or should have known that the adverse action was unlawful.”

Additionally, the defendants offered no other reason for why the Plaintiff was moved to a facility with a higher security classification. Indeed, the Court pointed to several memos and other documents authored by the defendants that showed the sole reason for changing the plaintff’s classification was his assistance to others in filing complaints, a First Amendment act. The Court remanded the matter to the district court and directed that a judgment be entered against the three defendants.

The experienced constitutional law litigators of Dalton Tomich, PLC bring First Amendment Retaliation and related constitutional claims on behalf of private individuals against municipalities across Michigan and in federal courts throughout the country on behalf of private individuals. For more information, please contact us for a free consultation.

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