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Stewart v. Berkebile

United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division

September 23, 2019



          Brian Morris, United States District Court Judge.


         Plaintiff Laurence Stewart (“Stewart”) is currently serving a life sentence in the Montana prison system for several counts of attempted deliberate homicide. (Doc. 83 at 2.) The Montana Department of Corrections (“DOC”) transferred Stewart from Montana State Prison (“MSP”) to Crossroads Correctional Center (“CCC”) on June 9, 2015. (Id. at 3.) Stewart filed an Informal Resolution Form at CCC on July 2, 2015. (Doc. 77-1 at 5.) The Informal Resolution Form provided as follows:

I found a very interesting case: Brodheim v. Cry 584 F.3d 1262 (9th Cir. 2009). Please read this case. It states that an I/M cannot be punished for hostile, abusive, threatening or sexual language in a grievance. This is the law. All of those grievances not processed and my “restriction” was all illegal. Now I know I can say that the warden is a little bitch who is too afraid to come to the high side and confront me like a man. He knows if he came to the high side, someone would probably punch him in that stupid fucking mouth of his. Anyone who follows the warden’s illegal instructions is a cunt. A dirty diseased cunt, to be more accurate. To the warden, the grievance dept and Jovanovich, God finger fuck your assholes. I am only glad that I am not black or you racist sheep fucking hicks would really be giving me the shaft. Start doing your job and stop looking for reasons not to process grievances based solely on the fact that I called you mean names. Grow up.

(Id.) Stewart wrote the following in the “Action Requested” section of the Informal Resolution Form: “Please learn the fucking law and follow it. Stop being childish uneducated hicks and investigate issues even if they are presented to you in less than robotic way. Cunt Cunt Cunt Cunt.” (Id.)

         CCC Grievance Coordinator Arnold issued a Disciplinary Infraction Report/Notice of Hearing (“Disciplinary Infraction Report”) to Stewart on July 2, 2015. (Id. at 9.) The Disciplinary Infraction Report charged Stewart with violating Rule No. 4235. (Id.) Rule 4235 provides as follows: “Threatening any other person to include staff, volunteers, visitors, vendors, members of the public, etc. with bodily harm. Verbal or written statements or engaging in physical conduct causing fear in another person.” (Id.) Arnold asserted that Stewart violated Rule 4235 when he submitted the Informal Resolution Form containing “obscene” language about MSP staff members. (Id.)

         Defendant Weber conducted Stewart’s disciplinary hearing on July 7, 2015. (Doc. 104 at 7.) Stewart defended his statements in the Informal Resolution Form at the hearing. (Id. at 7.) Stewart asserted that the statements did not constitute threats and that the First Amendment protects these statements in the Informal Resolution Form. (Doc. 77-1 at 12.) Weaver determined that Stewart had violated Rule 4235. (Id.) Weaver imposed a twenty-day disciplinary detention with time served. (Id.) Stewart filed a disciplinary appeal on July 7, 2015. (Id. at 14.) CCC affirmed Weaver’s decision. (Id.)

         CCC placed Stewart on a grievance restriction on July 10, 2015. (Doc. 104 at 8.) The notice of grievance restriction provides as follows:

You were under a grievance restriction while at MSP. According to MSP Policy 3.3.3 when an inmate is transferred while on a grievance restriction, the new facility at which they arrive can decide to continue or discontinue that restriction. We have decided to continue that grievance restriction. This means that: You are on a grievance restriction until further notice; all grievances that you file will not be processed due to the restriction.

(Doc. 77-1 at 28.) CCC subsequently returned several unprocessed informal resolution forms to Stewart. (Doc. 104 at 8.) Stewart’s Rule 4235 infraction increased his custody level to maximum. (Id.) DOC transferred Stewart back to MSP on August 25, 2015. (Id.)

         Stewart filed his Complaint in this case on October 6, 2015. (Doc. 2.) Stewart ultimately alleges that CCA Defendants violated his right to free speech and right to access the courts when they punished him pursuant to Rule 4235 and placed him on a grievance restriction. (Id. at 8.) Defendants Ambrose, Batista, and Wodnick (“State Defendants”) filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on January 10, 2018. (Doc. 70.) Stewart filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on January 16, 2018. (Doc. 76.) Defendants Berkebile, Arnold, Spiegle, and Weaver (“CCA Defendants”) filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on January 29, 2018. (Doc. 80.)

         United States Magistrate Judge John Johnston issued Findings and Recommendations regarding the parties’ motions on August 30, 2018. (Doc. 104.) Judge Johnston reasoned that the language found in Stewart’s Informal Resolution Form constituted a criminal threat and, as such, was not protected by the First Amendment. (Id. at 11.) Judge Johnston further determined that State Defendants and CCA Defendants proved entitled to qualified immunity even if they violated Stewart’s First Amendment rights. (Id. at 23.)

         CCA Defendants filed an objection to the qualified immunity portion of Judge Johnston’s Findings and Recommendations. (Doc. 105 at 2.) CCA Defendants observed well-settled Supreme Court precedent holding that they, as private prison guards, may not invoke qualified immunity in the same manner as afforded to government prison guards. (Id.) (citing Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U.S. 399, 412 (1997)). CCA Defendants noted that the Supreme Court left open in Richardson the possibility that private prison employees may, however, rely on a “good-faith” defense. (Id. at 3) (citing Richardson, 521 U.S. at 413). CCA Defendants broadly asserted that they met all requirements of a good-faith defense. (Id. at 3.) CCA Defendants argued, therefore, that they were still entitled to summary judgment based on the undisputed facts of this case. (Id.)

         The Court issued an order that adopted, in part, and overruled, in part, Judge Johnston’s Findings and Recommendations on February 22, 2019. (Doc. 114.) The Court determined that no reasonable person could interpret the language in Stewart’s Informal Resolution Form as a criminal threat and concluded that the First Amendment protected Stewart’s statements. (Id. at 12-13.) The Court granted State Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 70); denied Stewart’s Motion for Summary ...

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