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Media Alerts - Sixth Circuit: Inmate may skip administrative remedies if agency strays from its own procedures.
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April 19, 2016
  Sixth Circuit: Inmate may skip administrative remedies if agency strays from its own procedures.
Headline: Sixth Circuit holds that an inmate may file civil-rights suit without exhausting administrative remedies when agency strays from its own procedures.

Case: Troche v. Crabtree

Area of law: Civil Rights, Administrative Law, Prison Litigation Reform Act

Issue: Must an inmate exhaust all steps in the administrative grievance process before suing if the agency fails to respond at each step?

Brief summary: An inmate appealed the district court's dismissal of his § 1983 civil suit against a corrections officer. The district court had found that the inmate failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by Ohio law, before filing suit. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed, concluding that the agency's failure to respond during grievance proceedings excused the inmate's supposed failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Extended summary: An inmate alleged that he was severely beaten, without provocation, by a corrections offer. The inmate further alleged that after he was treated for his injuries, he was placed in isolation and deprived of food for two weeks.

In Ohio, prisoners must follow a three-step grievance procedure to complain about alleged misconduct. First, within 14 days, inmates must file an informal complaint to the staff member's direct supervisor or the responsible department. If the inmate gets no written response within a reasonable time, the inmate should contact an institutional inspector in writing or in person. If the inmate gets no response in four days, "the informal complaint step is automatically waived." Second, if the inmate has gotten no response or is dissatisfied with the response, he or she may file a notification of grievance within 14 days. The inspector must respond in writing within 14 days or get an extension. Third, if the inmate is dissatisfied with the outcome, he or she may appeal to the office of the chief inspector within 14 days.

Here, the inmate argued that on the same day as the assault, he submitted an informal complaint to the corrections officer's supervisor, which initiated the first step of the grievance process. The inmate never got a response. Thus, he moved to the second step and submitted a notification-of-grievance form to the inspector of institutional services. The inmate again got no response, so he sent, via internal prison mail, correspondence to prison personnel asking about the status of his grievance. After receiving no response for the third time, he filed a § 1983 civil suit alleging violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The corrections officer moved for summary judgment, arguing that the inmate failed to satisfy the Prison Litigation Reform Act's requirement that he exhaust his available administrative remedies before suing in federal court. The officer supported his motion with declarations from the inspector stating that the inmate had not filed proper informal complaints or grievance forms, but rather improperly submitted two complaints to the wrong department and not to the officer's immediate supervisor. Further, the inspector claimed to have no record of receiving a request from the inmate asking for a status update. Finally, the inspector claimed to have investigated the incident and determined that the inmate's complaints were without merit.

The magistrate judge recommended that the district court grant the officer's motion for summary judgment, finding that the inmate failed to file an appeal under step three of the administrative process and thus had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The district court adopted the recommendation and granted summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed.

To comply with the Act's exhaustion requirement, an inmate must "tak[e] advantage of each step the prison holds out for resolving the claim internally" and follow "the 'critical procedural rules' of the prison's grievance procedure to permit prison officials to review and, if necessary, correct the grievance 'on the merits.'" Here, both the Sixth Circuit and district court agreed that the inmate's declaration was sufficient to create a factual dispute on whether he satisfied the first two steps of the grievance procedure. But the Sixth Circuit disagreed with the district court's determination that he was required to file an appeal with the office of the chief inspector.

The Sixth Circuit noted that under the Ohio Administrative Code, "an inmate is statutorily authorized to proceed to step two of Ohio's grievance procedure if he does not receive a response to his informal complaint within a 'reasonable time.' However, such authorization is not granted to inmates who fail to receive a response to a notification of grievance form at step two of the grievance procedure." Although step two requires officials to "provide a written response to the grievance within fourteen calendar days of receipt," it does not authorize the inmate to proceed to step three if he does not receive a response. Because step one instructs inmates to proceed to step two after a "reasonable time," but step two does not, the inmate had no authority to move to step three, and in fact had nothing to appeal.

Since the inmate did not receive a response to his appeal, he did not have the required paperwork to file an appeal. Thus, absent language allowing the inmate to proceed, the court could not find that he was required to file a step-three appeal to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing his § 1983 suit. The Sixth Circuit added that "[w]hen pro se inmates are required to follow agency procedures to the letter in order to preserve their federal claims, we see no reason to exempt the agency from similar compliance with its own rules."

Panel: Circuit Judges Bernice B. Donald, Alice A. Batchelder, and Gilbert S. Merritt Jr.

Date of issued opinion: February 25, 2016

Docket number: 15-3258

Decided: Reversed and Remanded.

Counsel: ON BRIEF: Neal Shah, Steven T. McDevitt, FROST BROWN TODD LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant. Caitlyn A. Nestleroth, OFFICE OF THE OHIO ATTORNEY GENERAL, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellee.

Author of opinion: Circuit Judge Bernice B. Donald.

Case alert author: Luciana Viramontes, Western Michigan University Cooley Law School

Case alert circuit supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Link to the case:

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 04/19/2016 01:12 PM     6th Circuit  

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