Section 1983 is a federal statute, which provides private citizens with a way to address violations of federal constitutional and federal statutory rights by persons acting under the color of state law. The Supreme Court has created an implied cause of action – a Bivens claim – when the actors act under the color of federal law. Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). This blog focuses on prisoners’ rights under the First Amendment, specifically in the context of prison officials’ retaliation for a prisoner’s complaints or grievances.
The First Amendment provides as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The Eleventh Circuit has consistently held that “First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances are violated when a prisoner is punished for filing a grievance concerning the conditions of his imprisonment.” Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107, 1112 (11th Cir. 2006). In short, the First Amendment prohibits a prison official from retaliating against a prisoner for filing a grievance.
Notably, a prison official is not required to take an affirmative action to violate the First Amendment. Prison officials may retaliate by failing or refusing to carry out their duties. Hilton v. Sec’y for Dept’t of Corr., 170 F.App’x 600, 603-04 (11th Cir. 2005) (unpublished).
A few examples of viable First Amendment retaliation claims include:
- A prison official’s intentional failure to notify a prisoner that family members had arrived during visiting hours. Hilton v. Sec’y for Dep’t of Corr., 170 F.App’x 600 (11th Cir. 2005) (unpublished);
- In response to a request to be transferred, an officer responded “we have a place for you,” and the prisoner was then placed in disciplinary confinement. Alvarez v. Sec’y Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 646 F. App’x 858, 864-65 (11th Cir. 2016);
- In response to a request to replace a food tray with black mold and mildew, a prisoner was told to “stop filing grievances and [he would] get a clean tray.” Stallworth v. Wilkins, No. 18-12445 (11th Cir. January 17, 2020)
Section 1983 is a powerful weapon that is used to protect constitutional rights from infringement by the states and their actors. People in power do not have a license to do as they please, and Section 1983 provides the vehicle to hold those wrongful actors accountable.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice and does not establish any kind of attorney-client relationship.