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Adams v. Baker

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

August 15, 2019

CHRISTOPHER ADAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
DAVE BAKER, Defendant.

          Susan K. Lee Magistrate Judge.

          TRIAL OPINION

          TRAVIS R. McDONOUGH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Christopher Adams is an inmate in the custody of Tennessee Department of Corrections (“TDOC”) at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (“BCCX”). BCCX includes several industry buildings where Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction (“TRICOR”), a legislatively created program, provides jobs to inmates. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-22-402(3). Adams worked as a board counter as part of a TRICOR operation that hand-hews wood flooring boards for Shaw Industries Group (“Shaw”). (Doc. 213, at 250, 253, 288.)

         This action arises from Adams's interactions with his supervisor, Dave Baker, who was the TRICOR Operations Manager. Adams alleges that Baker retaliated against him for his informal grievances about unfair workplace procedures in violation of his First Amendment rights.[1] Ultimately, after complaining, Adams spent nine days in segregation and lost his job.

         This matter proceeded to a bench trial on April 1 and 2, 2019. Neither party moved for judgment as a matter of law. In lieu of oral closing arguments, the Court allowed each party to file written submissions with citations to the evidence presented at trial. The following opinion sets forth the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         I. SUMMARY OF TESTIMONY AND EXHIBITS PRESENTED AT TRIAL

         Most of the material facts presented at trial were undisputed, although the parties' interpretations of those facts differ. However, the parties' accounts of their interaction on August 31, 2015-the day Adams was escorted from the TRICOR wood-flooring plant (the “plant”)-contrast sharply.

         A. The Time-Clock and Board-Counting Issues

         During the summer of 2015, Adams was a support worker earning $8.45 per hour, $1.20 more per hour than the lowest wage in the plant. (Doc. 213, at 169.) His assignment as one of the ten board counters was the “least strenuous” and one of the most desirable jobs available to inmates at the plant. (Doc. 212, at 98, 104, 110; Doc. 213, at 226-27.) Adams secured this position in part because of his seniority rank. (Doc. 212, at 105; Doc. 213, at 169.) He had worked his way up from the more strenuous assignment of board scraper and had received good performance evaluations. (Pl. Ex. 5, at 2-6; Pl. Ex. 3; Pl. Ex. 12, at 8.)

         Baker worked for TDOC for about seventeen years in various capacities, including as a disciplinary-board sergeant and a clerical officer in the library at BCCX. (Doc. 213, at 208-09.) In June 2015, Baker resigned from TDOC to become TRICOR Operations Manager at the plant. (Id.)

         Before Baker began working at the plant, workers discovered a time-clock issue that was resulting in inmate employees receiving less pay than they were due. (Doc. 212, at 101, 111- 12.) Joseph Overman, an inmate who also worked at TRICOR, testified that Adams was concerned about all employees' shorted pay, in addition to his own. (Id. at 112.) According to Overman, Adams would speak with inmate workers about the time-clock issue, and then he would speak with plant management about the problem. (Id. at 111, 112.)

         Baker testified that, when he became Operations Manager, he established an “open-door policy” through which he “allowed” inmates to make informal grievances by “repeatedly talking to [him] about things[.]” (Doc. 213, at 226.) Baker and Adams spoke multiple times during July and August 2015 about the time clock. (Id. at 272-77.) Barry Waddell, another inmate employee of TRICOR, testified that he and “a lot of employees” asked Baker about the time clock “several times over the weeks” (Doc. 212, at 145-46); however, Baker testified that Adams was the only inmate he remembered complaining about the issue (Doc. 213, at 276). Baker and some of the inmates believed that Baker fixed the time clock in August (Id. at 272-77; Doc. 212, at 127), but at least one inmate was shorted pay through at least November 2015 (Pl. Ex. 29; Doc. 213, at 115-21).

         Tennessee Offender Management Information System (“TOMIS” or “eTOMIS”) is a database through which TDOC and TRICOR employees can access information about an inmate's appearance and housing unit location, among other things. (Doc. 212, at 48, 133.) TRICOR employees can add notes to inmates' TOMIS files (see, e.g., id. at 134), including notes about absenteeism, behavioral issues, or job performance at TRICOR. (Id. at 108.) TDOC disciplinary reports are also included in inmates' TOMIS files. (See, e.g., id. at 6.) On August 12, 2015, Baker placed a “program note” in the TOMIS files of Adams and three other board counters-Waddell, Phillip Shupe, and Napoleon White. (Stip. Exs. 2-5; see also Doc. 212, at 149; Doc. 213, at 277-78, 283-84.) Each note states: “OFFENDER WAS ADVISED TO NOT PRE-MARK THE TALLY SHEETS TO REFLECT ANTICIPATED BOARDS TO THEIR COUNTING STATION UNTIL THE BOARDS ACTUALLY ARRIVED AT THE STATION AND THE DELIVERING OFFENDER HAD SIGNED THE TALLY SHEET.” (Stip. Exs. 2- 5.) Board counters were not supposed to pre-mark their tally sheets because it could result in overcounting and overpayment of employees, since board scrapers were paid per board. (Doc. 213, at 289-91.) Adams and Waddell testified that the conversation or conversations Baker described in the TOMIS notes never happened. (Id. at 206; Doc. 212, at 134-35.)

         Another of Adams's coworkers, Joseph Overman, testified that Adams was “adamant” about always doing his job properly and never pre-marked his boards. (Doc. 213, at 98-99.) Adams testified that Baker did not inform him that he had placed a note in his file. (Id. at 206.) Baker testified that, while he was TRICOR Operations Manager, he entered about ten to fifteen program notes per day in TOMIS (id. at 283-84), and there was no requirement for inmates to be told when they are given a program note (id. at 277-78).

         These August 12, 2015 program notes were the first program notes Adams, Shupe, or White received. (See Stip. Ex. 2, 4, 5 (each stating “No More Notes Exist for Offender”).) After receiving the August 12, 2015 program note from Baker, Waddell received a second note for pre-marking boards. (Doc. 212, at 152.) At that time, he was warned that he would receive “disciplinary action” if he received another. (Id. at 136, 151.) Baker, Waddell, and Adams each testified that TRICOR supervisors can request that TDOC terminate an employee after he accumulates three or more program notes for the same infraction. (Id. at 129, 140, 143; Doc. 213, at 195, 206, 278-79.)

         When asked whether a program note can interfere with job changes and promotions, Baker responded that it “depends on what the program note's for.” (Doc. 213, at 279.) When asked whether a program note could cause an inmate to lose sentence-reduction credits, he replied, “I have no idea about sentence reduction credits. I never took anybody's sentence reduction credits.” (Id.) When asked whether he “had the ability to not award an inmate his credits in a particular month, ” Baker stated, “I have no idea, because I've never done it. I always gave all inmates all their sentence reduction credits. I never denied any inmate, even if they were-received multiple program notes.” (Id.)

         Because a program note can lay the groundwork for termination, Adams considered the note a disciplinary action even though he faced no immediate consequences from it. (Id. at 195.) Overman testified that program notes were “mostly” given for “poor performance.” (Id. at 99.) Other inmate witnesses' testimony also characterized notes as generally negative. (Doc. 212, at 133, 147.) In contrast, Baker testified that program notes were not necessarily bad and that their primary function is “to document and just informally correct anything that might be bad or maybe not bad.” (Doc. 213, at 284.) There is evidence of only one positive program note in the record. (Stip. Ex. 6.) No. evidence showed Baker had ever issued a positive program note or that any of the witnesses testifying had ever received a positive program note. (See generally Docs. 212, 213.)

         B. The Events of August 31, 2015

         At the beginning of the morning shift on August 31, 2015, Baker announced to all inmate employees a new policy that board counters would be rotated during their shift. (Doc. 213, at 227.) Adams and Baker agree that they had three or four conversations that morning after Baker made the announcement. (Id. at 204, 240-41.) It is undisputed that Adams told Baker that he had already filed and resolved a grievance against a previous policy involving rotation of the board counters, and Baker told him that, if he disagreed with the new policy, he could file a grievance. (Id. at 130-31, 227, 230.) Adams testified that he could not file a second grievance because of a TDOC policy against filing multiple grievances involving a “same or similar incident” or issue. (Id. at 184.) He explained that his previous grievance against a policy of rotating some, but not all, of the board counters was resolved after he proposed a solution that Shaw management agreed to adopt. (Id. at 131, 179-84.)

         According to Adams, Adams went up to Baker's office after the announcement, and the two walked outside to the front porch of the plant entrance. (Id. at 130-31, 227.) When Baker told him he could file a grievance, Adams “informed” Baker that he would instead write a letter to Jason Woodall, TDOC's Deputy Commissioner of Operations, who oversees grievance procedures. (Id. at 146-47.) Adams believed it was his only recourse to have his previous grievance upheld. (Id. at 147.) Adams testified that, after he stated he would write a letter, “it was like everything was okay, and [Baker] went back up to his office, and [Adams] went back on the production floor.” (Id.) But “a few minutes later, ” Adams went to Baker's office to ask him about his plans to begin rotating all the board counters, Baker responded he “probably would that day, ” Adams said “that would be fair then, ” and Adams left. (Id.) Adams testified that these conversations with Baker constituted an informal grievance that complied with TDOC Policy 501.01 for Inmate Grievance Procedures. (Id. at 142; Stip. Ex. 1.)

         Adams recounted that he then went to Randy Jones's[2] office to ask if Jones, an inmate who worked as a clerk at the plant, had suggested the new policy to Baker. (Doc. 213, at 147; Doc. 212, at 46.) Adams testified that Jones became “aggravated” at his questioning and asked Adams to go with him to Baker's office. (Doc. 213, at 148.) Adams did not want “to bother with this” and began to return to his work station; however, he changed his mind and headed back toward Baker's office to “make sure” Jones did not tell Baker “something that didn't happen.” (Id.) Adams testified that, at that point, Baker was already coming down the stairs and took Adams outside again, where Baker “got up in [Adams's] face” and “pointed at [Adams's] face” and “said, ‘If you ever even talk to Randy Jones again, I'll fire you.'” (Id.) According to Adams, Baker then told him to “‘[c]lock out and go in,' and he turned around and he went back up to his office.” (Id.) Adams then returned to his work station to get his belongings and was heading to the time clock when Corporal Brian Lovitt approached to escort him from the plant. (Id. at 149.) Adams asked Lovitt to escort him to Baker's office to ask if he was being fired and because he wanted to ensure Baker would not claim he had done anything he had not done, and Lovitt agreed. (Id.) Adams testified that when he asked Baker, in front of Lovitt, if he was fired, Baker responded, “Yes, for creating a disturbance.” (Id. at 213.) Lovitt then escorted Adams from the industry building, and Adams went back to his housing unit. (Id. at 149, 248.)

         In contrast with Adams's version of events, Baker testified that Adams “got progressively angrier” during their conversations, as he realized Baker was not going to revise the new policy of rotating the board counters. (Doc. 213, at 240-41.) According to Baker, Adams then threatened to “stomp” Randy Jones, an inmate who worked as a clerk at the plant. (Doc. 212, at 46.) When asked what the “deal” was with Adams and Jones, Baker speculated that Adams “somehow got it in [his] mind” that Jones “was involved” in the decision to rotate the board counters. (Doc. 213, at 220.) Baker maintained that Adams said he would “call Jason [Woodall], ” not write him a letter, as Adams testified. (Id. at 146-47, 156-57.)[3]

         Baker later documented his version of the incident in a handwritten report:

On 8-31-15 at 7:15 a.m., Offender Christopher Adams did approach me unhappy with a management decision. During the course of this discussion, Inmate Adams #328180 did state to me that [Adams] was planning to “stomp” Randy Jones, (another offender). Inmate Adams then became loud and shouted at me at the top of his lungs, that he would “have my job” and that he was planning on calling Mr. Jason Woodall about me. Inmate Adams then followed me into the office and continued to argue with me. Inmate Adams was issued a disciplinary for creating a disturbance and he was removed from the industry building.
Based on Inmate Adams [sic] direct threat to me on inmate Randy Jones, I explained this to Lieutenant Lowell Wood, [4] who placed inmate Adams on pending investigation. I was concerned that Inmate Adams would follow through on his threat to harm another offender.

(Stip. Ex. 8.) Baker also entered a Program Note that day for Adams, which stated:

OFFENDER WAS CITED FOR CREATING A DISTURBANCE WHEN HE TOLD MYSELF THAT HE WAS GOING TO “STOMP” ANOTHER OFFENDER. HE SHOUTED AT ME AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS AND STATED THAT HE WOULD ‘HAVE MY JOB' AND THAT HE WAS CALLING MR. JASON WOODALL. OFFENDER WAS REMOVED FROM THE BUILDING. JOB DROP IS REQUESTED.

(Stip. Ex. 9.)

         Lovitt testified that he was assigned that day to the TRICOR industry building, where his responsibilities included “[a]ccounting for all offenders that were there” and “making sure it was a safe environment.” (Doc. 212, at 12.) If an inmate became violent, Lovitt's duties would include “immediately restrain[ing]” and “remov[ing]” him from the TRICOR building. (Id. at 15, 30.) Lovitt testified that he did not hear anyone shouting from where he was sitting about 100 to 150 feet away from the front porch, although he expected he would have heard such shouting because the door likely would have been open at that time of the morning. (Id. at 16- 18.) Lovitt also testified that TRICOR employees have radios that they can use to call for TDOC security assistance. (Id. at 15.) Threatening or yelling at a staff member would warrant the use of the radio to call for assistance, but Lovitt received no radio calls. (Id. at 16.) Baker testified that he did not recall having his radio with him when Adams shouted and threatened Jones. (Doc. 213, at 248.) Baker testified that he asked Lovitt to escort Adams out of the building (id. at 249) but did not remember whether he told him Adams had yelled or threatened another inmate (id. at 221).

         Baker testified that, after advising Adams that he was terminated and watching Lovitt escort him from the plant, he

handwrote [a statement] fairly quickly after it happened, where it would be fresh in my mind, because I'd been used to documenting. So at some point in a-real quickly I wrote the note, I went to TDOC part of-the portion of the compound, which was approximately 500 feet away, and there was a yard officer there, I think his name was Kirby. He was there, and I think Lieutenant Wood might have been there, and I explained to them what happened with Mr. Adams, why he'd been sent back to his unit, and I said, ‘Here's what happened, this, this, this. Lovitt was there. I sent him back. I'm going back to the plant.' And that was my-the end of my involvement with anything to do with TDOC documentation.

(Id. at 292-93.) According to this testimony, Baker wrote his statement before he spoke with Wood. (Id.) However, according to Baker's handwritten statement, supra, he had already spoken with Wood before he wrote the statement. (Stip. Ex. 8.) Ultimately, on cross-examination, Baker testified that he did not “remember the exact time line.” (Doc. 213, at 305.)

         C. Segregation for Charge of Creating a Disturbance

         Adams testified that he was in his housing unit for about an hour and a half after he left the industry building on August 31, 2015. (Id. at 149.) Two TDOC officers then brought him to administrative segregation at 8:45 a.m. (Id. at 48, 149; Stip. Ex. 10.) A Contact Note entered for Adams at that date and time states: “INMATE WAS PLACED IN UNIT 1 FOR STATEMENTS HE MADE ABOUT INMATE RANDY JONES AND THREATS HE HAD SPOKEN TO DAVID BAKER TRICOR MANAGER AGAINST INMATE JONES.” (Stip. Ex. 10.)

         When asked if it was “plausible” that an inmate created a disturbance but was nonetheless allowed “to walk away and remain at liberty for one hour and a half before being segregated[, ]” Lovitt answered, “Normally, no.” (Doc. 212, at 35-36.) Robert Wayne Stith, TDOC Institutional Investigator, also affirmed that “it is the habit and routine practice at the BCCX for the sake of the security of the institution and the safety of those therein that when inmates become loud, aggressive, threaten violence against others, become unruly and belligerent, that they're always immediately handcuffed and taken to segregation[.]” (Doc. 213, at 54, 90-91.) He testified the “inmate would not be allowed to remain at liberty for an hour and a half.” (Id.) In contrast, Baker initially testified that, during his employment with the TDOC, “inmates that became loud, belligerent, and made threatening comments about intake staff” were “not necessarily” immediately taken to segregation. (Id. at 216-17.) However, Adams effectively impeached Baker with his prior admission that states, “During [Baker]'s employment with the TDOC in situations which [Baker] was directly involved in, inmates that became loud, belligerent, made threatening comments about intake staff . . . were immediately taken to segregation.” (Id. at 216-17; Pl. Ex. 1.1.)

         TDOC employee Matthew Kirby prepared and entered a disciplinary report in TOMIS at 9:26 a.m. (Stip. Ex. 12.) Sergeant Wade Slatton served it on Adams in segregation that afternoon. (Doc. 213, at 150.) That report contains Baker's first-person description of Adams's alleged threats and shouting. (Stip. Ex. 12.) Adams testified that this was the first time he knew what Baker had reported about him: “When I got to reading the allegations that he made in that, I couldn't believe what it said, because I hadn't done what it-what the allegations said that I had.” (Doc. 213, at 150.)

         Adams then testified about the conditions of segregation and the privileges he lost while there:

So during this time I'm stuck in about a 68-foot square building-or room with- just freezing to death. I can't see outside the window. There's nobody to talk to. I've lost all the privileges that are associated with living in the general population. I only got to have recreation three times a week, could use the phone once a day for 30 minutes to call my family, and I was only allowed to take three showers [a week]. . . .
And even in the middle of all that you've got people in there that are constantly banging and yelling, so you can't get any sleep. So it's just a really stressed-out environment. And up until this point I've never been convicted of a disciplinary infraction as long as I've been locked up. And so now I'm sitting there in the hole wondering, “Well, how am I going to get vindicated from this and not be found guilty of a charge when I've got a state official that's making up allegations that I've not done?”

(Id. at 150-51.)

         On September 6, 2015, Adams submitted to the segregation unit officer a formal grievance against Baker for his allegedly false reports against Adams. (Id. at 175; Pl. Ex. 25, at 15). While Adams was still in administrative segregation, TDOC Internal Affairs Investigator Sean Smith investigated the charge against Adams. (Doc. 213, at 6-7.) Smith testified that TDOC, not TRICOR, decides whether to send inmates to segregation and that “initially” inmates will be put in “segregation for incidents like this, ” such as creating a disturbance. (Id. at 33; see also Id. at 96 (Stith testifying similarly).)

         Smith testified that he was “sure” he reviewed video surveillance in the course of his investigation of the incident, although he did not “actually remember viewing it.” (Id.) The disciplinary board dismissed the charge against Adams because Smith's investigation yielded “no findings . . . that show[ed] [Adams] creating a disturbance.” (Id. at 7, 17-19.) Adams was released from segregation on September 8, 2015, at about noon. (Id. at 157.)

         D. Charge of Attempt to Intimidate Employee

         Later that day, TDOC charged Adams with attempt to intimidate an employee based on the August 31, 2015 incident between Adams and Baker. (Id. at 158; Stip. Ex. 13.) Smith testified that he filed the charge based solely on statements from Adams and Baker, including those from Smith's interview with Baker. (Doc. 213, at 19-21; Pl. Ex. 1, at 9, 11, 21.) Smith further testified that an inmate would not be charged with attempt to intimidate an employee for saying he would contact the deputy commissioner of operations, as long as he was not “causing a scene” and spoke “regularly.” (Doc. 213, at 20-21.)

         The TOMIS disciplinary report associated with the September 8, 2015 charge contains no reference to Jones or threats against another inmate. (See Stip. Ex. 13.) The description of Adam's alleged misconduct states that he “BECAME ANGRY AND WAS MAKING THREATS TOWARDS TRICOR OPERATIONS MANAGER DAVE ...


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