New opinion — error to dismiss inmate’s claim that prison retaliated against him for doing his job as legal assistant

Wisniewski v. Fisher — prisoner civil rights — reversal — Vanaskie

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s dismissal of an inmate’s civil-rights suit.

The prisoner, Thomas Wisniewski, worked as an inmate legal aide in SCI Smithfield’s law library. In the course of helping a mentally ill inmate prepare a grievance — doing his job — Wisniewski obtained a similar grievance from another inmate to use as a model. The prison treated this as circulating a petition, which is insane. (For starters, the prison’s own guidelines defined petitions as containing 3 or more signatures.) So the prison put poor Wisniewski in restricted housing for almost 90 days for misconduct, and Wisniewski alleged that they retaliated in several other ways including firing him from his law-library job. The district court dismissed, ruling that Wisniewski failed to allege a First Amendment retaliation claim and his other claims were time-barred.

Today the Third Circuit crisply reversed, holding that the prisoner’s allegations stated a valid First Amendment claim and that the district court erred in failing to consider whether tolling during administrative exhaustion rendered his other claims timely.

Joining Vanaskie were Ambro and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Hardiman clerk (famously so) Richard Heppner Jr. of Reed Smith for the prisoner and Debra Rand of the PA DOC for the prison defendants. The opinion expressed sincere appreciation to Heppner and his Reed Smith co-counsel Patrick Yingling, a Fisher clerk, for their “excellent representation,” noting they “performed admirably” and were “of immense assistance to the Court.”

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