American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - LaFountain v. Harry -- Sixth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
August 8, 2013
  LaFountain v. Harry -- Sixth Circuit
Wayne Earl LaFountain v. Shirlee Harry, Warden, Muskegon Correctional Facility, et al. - Sixth Circuit

Headline: The Sixth Circuit determines that under FRCP 15(a), a district court can allow a plaintiff to amend his complaint even when the complaint is subject to dismissal under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, overruling McGore v. Wrigglesworth.

Area of Law: Prison Litigation Reform Act, Retaliation, FRCP 15(a)

Issue(s) Presented: (1) Did the district court err in dismissing the prisoner's retaliation claims for failure to state a claim? (2) Were the claims based on the prisoner's misconduct hearings barred because success on those claims would demonstrate the invalidity of the duration of his sentence? (3) Did the district court err in dismissing the prisoner's equal-protection claim for failure to state a claim? (4) Should McGore be overruled, allowing a prisoner leave to amend the complaint?

Brief Summary: A prisoner agreed to dismiss two claims in exchange for transfer from the Muskegon Correctional Facility to a facility in Lakeland. After transfer, he filed a retaliation claim against Muskegon correctional officers, causing him to be sent back to Muskegon. During transfer, his typewriter was broken while in the possession of correctional officers. In addition, the officers assigned him to a cell with a mentally ill prisoner who, among other behavior, threatened to kill him. After refusing to remain in his cell, he was cited for major misconduct resulting in a forfeit of 770 days of his good-time credit.

The prisoner filed a complaint, which the district court dismissed for not sufficiently alleging retaliation or discrimination. In addition, the district court held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that a claim implying the invalidity of a conviction or sentence must be dismissed. Lastly, the district court held that McGore v. Wrigglesworth bars a plaintiff from amending his complaint if the Prison Litigation Reform Act required dismissal.

The prisoner appealed, arguing that dismissal of his claims was improper and that McGore should be overruled to allow for leave to amend. The Sixth Circuit (1) dismissed the prisoner's equal-protection claim for failure to state a claim, (2) found that the prisoner sufficiently stated a claim for retaliation, (3) dismissed the retaliation claim according to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and (4) reversed the district court's finding that McGore bars the prisoner from amending his complaint.

Significance: The Sixth Circuit, conforming to the decisions of other circuits, determined that a district court can allow a plaintiff to amend the complaint even when the complaint is subject to dismissal under the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

Extended Summary: A prisoner at the Muskegon Correctional Facility agreed to dismiss two complaints in exchange for transfer to a Lakeland facility. The Lakeland facility was closer to his family and would help him avoid further retaliation by Muskegon officials.

After transfer to Lakeland, the prisoner filed complaints against three Muskegon prison officials, claiming that they were enforcing housing-unit rules based on race. The prisoner was then immediately transferred back to Muskegon. During transfer, his typewriter was damaged, requiring repairs of $280. At Muskegon, the prison officials assigned him to a cell with a mentally ill prisoner. After repeatedly being denied cell reassignment, the prisoner refused to stay in his cell and was repeatedly cited for major misconduct, which resulted in a loss of 770 days of his good-time credit.

The prisoner then sued the prison officials alleging that they retaliated against him in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Before serving the complaint on the defendants, however, the district court dismissed it with prejudice for failure to state a claim. In response, the prisoner filed this appeal, claiming that the district court erred in dismissing the claim with prejudice and denying leave to amend. The Sixth Circuit reviewed the dismissal de novo.

The first issue was whether the prisoner sufficiently alleged retaliation. The court said that in order to state a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must allege that "(1) [he] engaged in protected conduct; (2) an adverse action was taken against [him] . . . ; and (3) there is a causal connection between elements one and two - that is, the adverse action was motivated at least in part by [his] protected conduct."

The court said that filing a complaint or grievance was protected conduct. The court then considered whether any of the officials took adverse actions against the prisoner, and whether those actions were causally connected to protected conduct. An adverse action is one that would deter a person from the exercise of a right. And even though prisoners' rights are more restricted than others', the "act need not be egregious to be adverse."

The court held that the prisoner sufficiently alleged all three adverse actions. The prisoner's transfer from Lakeland back to Muskegon was adverse because, while a transfer is not usually adverse, it could be in this case because of the allegation that the transfer would deprive the prisoner of the benefit of his settlement agreement with prison officials. The typewriter damage claim could be sustained only against one official who allegedly had control of the typewriter. And the assignment to a cell with a mentally ill person could be adverse because of the extraordinary circumstances posed by the mentally ill cellmate's threats against the prisoner. So the court held that the three adverse actions were sufficiently pled and causally connected to protected activity, and reversed the district court's dismissal for failure to state a claim for retaliation.

On the second issue, the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court that a series of Supreme Court decisions barred the prisoner's claim based on the misconduct charges. Those charges resulted in forfeiture of good-time credits, which affect the length of the sentence. The Supreme Court had held that such challenges cannot be brought if they "necessarily imply the invalidity of [the] conviction or sentence," and that holding was later extended to suits challenging prison disciplinary measures that affect the length of the sentence. In this case, the challenge to the discipline was based on entrapment and on alleged falsified evidence in the misconduct proceedings. Those claims, therefore, challenged the validity of the misconduct findings, and were properly barred.

The third issue was whether the district court erred in dismissing the equal-protection claim. The prisoner, who was white, alleged that the prison officials treated a similarly situated prisoner who was black differently than they treated him. The complaint named a specific black prisoner who was not charged with misconduct for actions similar to those that the prisoner was charged with. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court and dismissed the equal-protection claim for failure to allege that the prison officials named in the suit knew about the other prisoner's misconduct or were involved in the decision whether to charge him.

The fourth issue was whether a district court can allow a prisoner to amend the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P 15(a), even when the complaint is subject to dismissal under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The district court dismissed the complaint without leave to amend, following the Sixth Circuit's decision in McGore v. Wrigglesworth, which held that when the Act requires dismissal, a district court cannot grant leave to amend. The Sixth Circuit noted that every other circuit that had decided the question disagreed with McGore, and ultimately, the Supreme Court in Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199 (2007) held that the Act's screening requirement does not require deviating from the procedural requirements for dismissing a complaint under Rule 15(a).The court overruled McGore and held that "under Rule 15(a), a district court can allow a plaintiff to amend his complaint even when the complaint is subject to dismissal under the [Act]."

Reversed in part and vacated in part, with remand for further proceedings.

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...s.pdf/13a0143p-06.pdf

Panel: Moore, Gibbons, and Kethledge

Argument: March 6, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: April 1, 2013

Docket Number: No. 11-1496

Decided: Reversed in part and vacated in part.

Case Alert Author: Sandra Reizen

Counsel: ARGUED: Alistair E. Newbern, Seamus E. Kelly, VANDERBILT APPELLATE LITIGATION CLINIC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. Clifton B. Schneider, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Alistair E. Newbern, VANDERBILT APPELLATE LITIGATION CLINIC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. A. Peter Govorchin, Michael R. Dean, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Kethledge

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Eileen Kavanagh

Edited: 08/08/2013 at 11:51 AM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 08/08/2013 10:55 AM     6th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top