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Brooks v. Smith

November 5, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Vanaskie


This matter is before the Court following a non-jury trial to determine whether Plaintiff Love Altonio Brooks has established by a preponderance of the evidence that certain prison officers and employees retaliated against him for exercising First Amendment rights. Mr. Brooks brought this civil rights action under the authority of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), alleging that officers and employees at the United States Penitentiary at Lewisburg ("USP-Lewisburg") retaliated against him for filing a lawsuit and administrative grievances.*fn1 Ultimately, a non-jury trial was conducted on two claims:

(1) Defendant Jeffrey Rodgers ("Officer Rodgers") allegedly placed a cardboard sign in Mr. Brooks' prison cell window labeling him a "snitch" in retaliation for previously filing an administrative grievance against Officer Rodgers; and (2) Defendants Troy Levi ("A.W. Levi") and Kenneth Gabrielson ("Lt. Gabrielson") allegedly placed Mr. Brooks in the USP-Lewisburg Special Housing Unit ("SHU") in retaliation for filing a federal civil rights lawsuit and administrative grievances against USP-Lewisburg staff.

After considering the testimony and documents presented at the trial, the Court finds that Mr. Brooks has not proven his retaliation claim against Officer Rodgers. Specifically, Mr. Brooks did not establish a casual link between an administrative grievance filed on April 17, 2003, and the cardboard sign that was posted approximately one year later. The Court concludes, however, that Mr. Brooks has proven his retaliation claim against A.W. Levi and Lt. Gabrielson. Mr. Brooks' placement in the SHU constituted adverse action, and the evidence demonstrated that his lawsuit and administrative grievances were a "substantial or motivating factor" for the decision to place him in that restricted confinement. Because the Prison Litigation Reform Act bars Mr. Brooks' claim for compensatory damages, and the evidence does not support the imposition of punitive damages, he is entitled only to nominal damages of $1.


A. Procedural History

Mr. Brooks commenced this civil rights action on December 13, 2004. (Dkt. Entry 1.) His complaint named as Defendants A.W. Levi, Lt. Gabrielson, Officer Rodgers, Joseph V. Smith ("Warden Smith"), Raymon Hoekman ("Agent Hoekman"), and M. Rios. Mr. Brooks asserted three claims of retaliation. First, he complained that Officer Rodgers placed a cardboard sign in his cell door window labeling him a "snitch" in retaliation for filing an administrative grievance against Officer Rodgers for an alleged inappropriate pat search. Second, Mr. Brooks complained that he was placed in the SHU in retaliation for filing a federal lawsuit and administrative grievances. Mr. Brooks asserted this claim against all Defendants. Third, he claimed that he was transferred to another prison in retaliation for his lawsuit and administrative grievances. This claim was asserted against all Defendants as well. Plaintiff requested "$3,000,000 from the defendant[s]" for their alleged retaliatory acts. (Compl., Dkt. Entry 1, at 3.)

On April 13, 2005, Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. (Dkt. Entry 15.) Magistrate Judge J. Andrew Smyser, to whom this matter was referred for pretrial management, recommended that summary judgment be granted to all Defendants on the retaliatory transfer claim, and that summary judgment be granted in favor of Defendants Smith, Rodgers, Hoekman, and Rios on the claim of retaliatory SHU placement. (Dkt. Entry 29, at 15-16, 19.) Judge Smyser recommended that summary judgment be denied, however, as to A.W. Levi and Lt. Gabrielson on the SHU placement claim.

Defendants objected to this latter recommendation. (Dkt. Entry 32.) The Court overruled Defendants' objection and adopted Judge Smyser's recommendation in its entirety.*fn2 (Dkt. Entry 35.)

This matter was subsequently listed for trial. A final pre-trial conference was held the morning of July 18, 2007, the day of trial. At the conference, the Court dismissed Mr. Brooks' claim for compensatory damages.*fn3 (Trial Tr., July 18, 2007, Dkt. Entry 78, at 12.) Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), a prisoner may recover compensatory damages for mental or emotional injury only where there is actual physical injury. See 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). Mr. Brooks alleged that he suffered headaches from the stress of his confinement in SHU, but otherwise alleged no actual physical injury. The Court determined that headaches are not compensable in the absence of an actual physical injury. (Trial Tr. 11.) See also Gobert v. Leonard, Civ. A. No. G-06-295, 2006 WL 2062131, at *2 (N.D. Tex. July 10, 2006) (plaintiff's claim for damages related to anxiety, stress, and headaches do not satisfy PLRA's physical injury requirement); Cannon v. Burkybile, No. 99-C-4623, 2000 WL 1409852, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 25, 2000) (same). As such, the Court ruled Mr. Brooks' recovery, if any, will be limited to nominal and punitive damages.*fn4 (Trial Tr. 12.) See also Allah v. Al-Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 251-52 (3d Cir. 2000) (PLRA does not bar recovery of nominal and punitive damages).

At the non-jury trial, the Court heard testimony from Mr. Brooks, A.W. Levi, Lt. Gabrielson, Officer Rodgers, Agent Hoekman, Dr. Jennifer L. Hunter, and John Keim. The Court also received exhibits from both Mr. Brooks and Defendants. This matter is now ripe for disposition.

B. Findings of Fact

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), the Court finds the following facts:

1. At all times relevant to his claims, Mr. Brooks was incarcerated at USP-Lewisburg. Mr. Brooks is a convicted felon serving two terms of life imprisonment plus an additional prison term of fifty years. (Trial Tr. 57.)

2. A.W. Levi was the Associate Warden over the Custody Department at USP-Lewisburg in May, 2004.*fn5 (Id. at 88, 122.) As Associate Warden, A.W. Levi was responsible for evaluating and monitoring inmate routines and staff performance and ensuring that both conformed to the policies of the Bureau of Prisons. (Id. at 122-23.) A.W. Levi was authorized to place inmates in SHU. (Id. at 123.) He worked at USP-Lewisburg for three-and-one-half years. (Id. at 122.)

3. Gabrielson was a lieutenant at USP-Lewisburg in May, 2004. (Id. at 71-72.) Lt. Gabrielson held several supervisory positions at USP-Lewisburg, including Hospital Escort Lieutenant, Activities Lieutenant, Special Housing Unit Lieutenant, Bus Lieutenant, and, as relevant here, Operations Lieutenant. (Id. at 72.) As Operations Lieutenant, Gabrielson was a shift supervisor responsible for maintaining a safe and secure environment for staff and inmates. (Id.) He was authorized to place inmates in the SHU. (Id. at 34.) Lt. Gabrielson worked at USPLewisburg for approximately five years. (Id. at 71.)

4. Officer Rodgers is a senior officer at USP-Lewisburg, a position he has held since at least April 13, 2003. (Id. at 91.) As a senior officer, Rodgers is responsible for ensuring the safe, secure, and orderly operation of USP-Lewisburg by conducting pat searches, cell searches, security checks, and sanitation checks, among other things. (Id.) Officer Rodgers has worked at USP-Lewisburg for approximately eleven-and-one-half years. (Id. at 90-91.)

5. On April 13, 2003, Mr. Brooks was pat searched by Officer Rodgers after passing through a metal detector. (PX-12.)*fn6 Mr. Brooks believed the pat search improper and, on April 17, 2003, filed Request for Administrative Remedy number 296800-F1. (Trial Tr. 50; PX-12.) Mr. Brooks claimed the pat search was sexual in nature because Officer Rodgers "shoved" his hands into Mr. Brooks' crotch area. (PX-12.)

6. The administrative grievance was investigated. Officer Rodgers was interviewed and denied placing his hands into Mr. Brooks' crotch area. (PX-13.) On May 7, 2003, an Administrative Remedy Response was issued denying Mr. Brooks' request for relief because there was no evidence supporting his allegations. (Id.) Mr. Brooks appealed this determination to the Northeast Regional Director of the Bureau of Prisons, and the appeal was denied. (DX-B, at 5-6.)

7. Officer Rodgers never conducted a pat search of Mr. Brooks after the April 13, 2003, incident. (Trial Tr. 60.)

8. In or about the week preceding April 23, 2004, Mr. Brooks returned to his prison cell and found a cardboard sign in his cell door window. (Id. at 50, 65.)

9. The cardboard sign contained writing on its front and back sides. (Id. at 50.) On one side was written "Hanging This Cardboard in the Window means I'm a snitch"; on the other side, "Only Snitches Hang This in the Window." (PX-6.)

10. A "snitch" is an inmate who cooperates with prison authorities. (Trial Tr. 28.) An inmate known as a "snitch" is subject to adverse treatment by other inmates, and, at the very least, will be humiliated and his reputation tarnished. (Id.)

11. Mr. Brooks was not regarded as a "snitch" by other inmates at USP-Lewisburg. (Id. at 58.)

12. No other inmates observed or commented to Mr. Brooks about the cardboard. (Id.)

13. Mr. Brooks did not see who posted the cardboard in his cell door window. (Id. at 65.) Mr. Brooks was advised by fellow inmate McKnight that Officer Rodgers was in Mr. Brooks' cell around the time the cardboard sign was posted. (Id. at 52, 57-58.)

14. Mr. Brooks suspected Officer Rodgers was responsible for the cardboard because of Mr. McKnight's statement and because the cardboard identified Mr. Brooks as a "snitch," and he previously filed an administrative grievance against Officer Rodgers. (Id. at 51.) Furthermore, Officer Rodgers routinely entered inmates' cells and left messages. (Id. at 52, 58.)

15. Mr. Brooks filed an administrative grievance in connection with the cardboard sign. He initially filed a grievance with the Northeast Regional Office of the Bureau of Prisons contending the issue was sensitive. (Id. at 52; PX-7.) The Northeast Regional Office rejected Mr. Brooks' grievance in a notice dated April 29, 2004, and mailed April 30, 2004, because the issue raised was not sensitive, the request was submitted to the wrong level, and the request must be filed first through USP-Lewisburg. (PX-7.)

16. Mr. Brooks heeded the rejection notice and filed Request for Administrative Remedy number 332596-F1, dated May 5, 2004, and submitted May 7, 2004, complaining about the cardboard sign. (Trial Tr. 52; PX-5.)

17. An investigation was undertaken by Special Investigative Agent Raymon Hoekman, who concluded there was insufficient evidence to substantiate Mr. Brooks' claim that Officer Rodgers posted the cardboard sign in his cell door window. (Trial Tr. 23-24, 99.)

18. The cardboard sign was posted in Mr. Brooks' cell door window approximately one year after he filed the administrative grievance against Officer Rodgers. (Id. at 65.) There was no hostility between Mr. Brooks and Officer Rodgers over the intervening year, and Mr. Brooks was surprised that Officer Rodgers would post the cardboard given the absence of hostility. (Id. at 51.)

19. On April 12, 2004, Mr. Brooks filed a complaint in this Court against numerous officials at USP-Lewisburg. See Brooks v. Newton, No. 3:04-CV-792 (M.D. Pa.). Mr. Brooks alleged that the defendants violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by denying medical treatment for tonsillitis. (Trial Tr. 53.) None of the Defendants named in this action were named defendants in that action. (See DX-F (docket sheet listing the Defendants in No. 3:04-CV-792).)

20. Also on April 12, 2004, Mr. Brooks filed an informal resolution attempt against John Keim, a senior officer specialist at USP-Lewisburg. (DX-D, at 1; Trial Tr. 104) Officer Keim was assigned to "I-Block" unit, where Mr. Brooks was housed, and he was responsible for making rounds and conducting pat searches to maintain a secure unit. (Trial Tr. 104-05.)

21. Mr. Brooks complained that Officer Keim failed to conduct adequate rounds on April 10, 2004. (DX-D, at 1.) An officer is to make rounds every fifteen minutes, and Mr. Brooks alleged that Officer Keim made rounds no more than once per hour. (Id.) Mr. Brooks complained that Officer Keim's "lack of duty is a danger to every inmate in the I-Block unit." (Id.) Officer Keim was apparently ...

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