Inmate May Get Damage Award for Rights Abuses

     (CN) – Prison officials may owe punitive damages to an inmate for intentionally infringing on his First Amendment rights by labeling him “disruptive” and transferring him to a higher security prison, the Sixth Circuit ruled.
     Kevin King, a Michigan inmate, was incarcerated in a Level II prison in 1983 for murder.
     In 2000, the head of the prison unit requested King be transferred because he was “becoming increasingly more powerful in the eyes of the prisoners in Conklin Unit.”
     King participated in a class action lawsuit designed to challenge personal-property policies at Michigan prisons, and known for assisting other prisoners file grievances.
     Prison classification specialist Chuck Zamiara approved the transfer but, after consulting with his superior Nick Ludwick, also increased King’s security classification to Level III.
     King’s file was hand-edited to replace a note that King was “manageable in Level II” with a note scoring him at Level III. Zamiara explained the new classification, saying that King was “perceived as a disruptive prisoner who is manipulating others to create unrest.”
     In a Level III facility, King’s interaction with other prisoners was significantly limited and he was less able to participate in ongoing prison-reform litigation.
     “I was less able to get affidavits, declarations to discover what was going on with the department up there at the time because I was pretty secluded,” the inmate complained.
     After constant objections, King was transferred back to a Level II facility a year later, and he sued Zamiara, Ludwick, and other prison officials for retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment rights.
     The Sixth Circuit found for King in protracted litigation, including three separate appeals that ended each time with reversals of the lower court’s decisions.
     The Cincinnati-based appeals court ruled that the prison officials’ adverse actions against King were connected to his prison-reform activity, that they were not entitled to qualified immunity, and that three officials including Zamiara had knowledge of the retaliatory motive.
     In the latest remand, the trial court granted King $1,475 in compensatory damages – $5 per day for his time spent at the Level III facility – and $2,212 in attorney’s fees, but denied his request for punitive damages.
     The 6th Circuit remanded the case a fourth time on Monday, ruling that the lower court should have considered awarding King punitive damages for the prison officials’ callous indifference to King’s civil rights.
     “By concluding that the defendants did not engage in conduct that ‘meet[s] the standard for awarding punitive damages,’ the district court erred in applying the governing legal standard and abused its discretion,” Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the three-judge panel.
     All defendants were found to have purposefully deprived King of his fundamental constitutional rights by transferring him to a more restrictive prison. A punitive damages award does not require a finding that defendants acted with “evil motive or intent,” the court said.
     In addition, “the deterrent value of punitive damages is particularly important under these circumstances because a prisoner may not seek to deter prison officials from violating his rights through the ordinary mechanism of compensatory damages,” Moore wrote.
     If the trial court awards punitive damages, the appeals court instructed it to apply some percentage of such a judgment to attorney’s fees.

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