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One of the most important tools for any jail is the grievance process provided to inmates in order to file complaints regarding conditions as well as events in the jail where the prisoner believes their rights are violated. By providing prisoners with a proper grievance process, the jail administration can resolve issues within the jail environment before the conditions or events lead to a full-blown lawsuit.
Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) no action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.i Thus, a proper grievance procedure may greatly diminish the number of lawsuits brought by inmates. In fact, the PLRA was enacted to reduce frivolous lawsuits and to enhance the quality of those suits that are brought.
A foundation case on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) provided an interpretation of the statute’s exhaustion requirement.ii
Ngo is a prisoner who was convicted for murder and is serving a life sentence in the California prison system. In October 2000, respondent was placed in administrative segregation for allegedly engaging in “inappropriate activity” in the prison chapel. Two months later, respondent was returned to the general population, but respondent claims that he was prohibited from participating in ‘special programs,’ including a variety of religious activities. Approximately six months after that restriction was imposed, respondent filed a grievance with prison officials challenging that action. That grievance was rejected as untimely because it was not filed within 15 working days of the action being challenged [as required by the grievance procedure].
Ngo filed a lawsuit in federal court. The trial court dismissed the suit based on the fact that Ngo, who had not met the requirements of the grievance system by filing his grievance within fifteen days, had not properly exhausted his remedies under the grievance system, a requirement of the PLRA before a lawsuit can be filed. Ngo then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which concluded that Ngo had exhausted his remedies since his grievance had been rejected and he had no further remedy.
In overturning the Ninth Circuit, the United States Supreme Court interpreted what it means to have exhausted all remedies. The Court concluded that this term does not mean that the prisoner simply no other remedy. Instead it means that the prisoner has properly exhausted his or her remedies through the grievance process. Thus, a prisoner who fails to properly follow the grievance process would be precluded under the PLRA from bringing a lawsuit.
The Court reasoned: “Proper exhaustion reduces the quantity of prisoner suits because some prisoners are successful in the administrative process, and others are persuaded by the proceedings not to file an action in federal court. Finally, proper exhaustion improves the quality of those prisoner suits that are eventually filed because proper exhaustion often results in the creation of an administrative record that is helpful to the court. When a grievance is filed shortly after the event giving rise to the grievance, witnesses can be identified and questioned while memories are still fresh, and evidence can be gathered and preserved.”
In rejecting Ngo’s argument the Court asserted: “While requiring proper exhaustion serves the purposes of the PLRA, respondent’s interpretation of § 1997e(a) would make the PLRA exhaustion scheme wholly ineffective. The benefits of exhaustion can be realized only if the prison grievance system is given a fair opportunity to consider the grievance. The prison grievance system will not have such an opportunity unless the grievant complies with the system’s critical procedural rules. A prisoner who does not want to participate in the prison grievance system will have little incentive to comply with the system’s procedural rules unless noncompliance carries a sanction, and under respondent’s interpretation of the PLRA noncompliance carries no significant sanction. For example, a prisoner wishing to bypass available administrative remedies could simply file a late grievance without providing any reason for failing to file on time.
If the prison then rejects the grievance as untimely, the prisoner could proceed directly to federal court. And acceptance of the late grievance would not thwart the prisoner’s wish to bypass the administrative process; the prisoner could easily achieve this by violating other procedural rules until the prison administration has no alternative but to dismiss the grievance on procedural grounds. We are confident that the PLRA did not create such a toothless scheme.”
In Byers v. Wheeler, the United States District Court for the District of Oregon reviewed an inmate’s attempt to bring a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C §1983. Byers, “an inmate in the custody of the Oregon department of Corrections, filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his constitutional rights while he was a pre-trial detainee at the Lincoln County Jail (LCJ). Specifically, plaintiff alleges “excessive use of force and denial of grievance system, disrespect in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and confinement in segregation in violation of due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.” Complaint (# 2) p. 1. Plaintiff also alleges supplemental state tort claims for assault and battery and negligence. Plaintiff seeks money damages and declaratory and injunctive relief.”
“The facts giving rise to plaintiff’s claims are as follows: On November 20, 2007, plaintiff attended an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting in the Lincoln County Jail Library. During the meeting defendant Wheeler observed plaintiff communicating with another inmate, Robert Williston. Defendant Wheeler alleges that after the meeting, while escorting the inmates back to their cells, he informed inmate Robert Williston that he had been very disrespectful during the meeting and that “his actions were pathetic.” Declaration of Mike Wheeler (# 31) p. 2. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Wheeler “called plaintiff ‘pathetic.'” Complaint (# 2) p. 3.
Defendant Wheeler states that after plaintiff requested a “kyte” (standard inmate communication form) plaintiff “yelled obscenities at me all the while threatening me with injury and death.” Declaration of Mike Wheeler (# 31) p. 2. Defendant Wheeler further states that “(p)laintiff became increasingly agitated and refused several more direct orders to cell-in.” Id. Plaintiff eventually entered his cell, but continued to ignore defendant Wheeler’s orders and “continued making threats to injure (defendant Wheeler).” Defendant Wheeler eventually used his “tazer” to subdue plaintiff. Id. p. 3. Plaintiff was then escorted to “booking” by two “cover officers” who are not named as defendants in this action. Declaration of Mike Wheeler (# 31) p. 3. Defendant Wheeler states that he had “no ‘hands on’ contact with plaintiff as he was escorted to the restraint chair in booking by the other officers.” Id.
Plaintiff, describes the incident quite differently. Plaintiff alleges that he “repeatedly asked defendant Wheeler for a grievance (form) for calling him names and disrespect;” that he “went to his cell as directed;” and that “defendant Wheeler came to plaintiff’s cell while yelling at plaintiff with his tazer gun out and aimed at plaintiff threatening and provoking, instigating the situation.” Complaint (# 2) p. 3. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Wheeler entered has closed cell and “tazed (him), without provocation.” Declaration of Plaintiff (# 49) p. 1. Plaintiff further alleges that while being escorted defendant Wheeler “jammed his tazer in my neck and choked me with my shirt collar,” shoved plaintiff in the elevator and “strangled” him by his shirt collar.”
In its review the trial court asserted: “In the Ninth Circuit, inmates are required to exhaust all grievance remedies prior to filing a 1983 action, including appealing the grievance decision to the highest Level within the grievance system. Bennet v. King, 293 F.3d 1096, 1098 (9th Cir. 2002); McKinney v. Carey, 311 F.3d 1198, 1199 (9th cir 2002). Proper exhaustion requires compliance with the institution’s deadlines and other procedural rules. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 126 S. Ct. 2378, 165 L. Ed. 2d 368 (2006).”
The Court outlined the process at the jail as follows:
“The LCJ Inmate Handbook includes a detailed explanation of the institution grievance procedure. See Declaration of Jamie Russell (# 30), p. 2. Ms. Russell states that all inmates are informed of the rules and procedures set forth in the Inmate Handbook and specifically that plaintiff has been an inmate at the jail on various occasions in prior years and that he “was well acquainted with the kyte/grievance procedure.” Declaration of Jamie Russell (# 30), p. 4. At his deposition, plaintiff acknowledged that he was familiar with the “kyte/grievance” procedure. Declaration of Bruce Mowery (# 29) p. 9-10.”
“The Inmate Handbook sets forth the grievance steps as follows:
- Step I: Write a request to the staff person whose actions you are filing the grievance against. If your grievance is not resolved, go to Step II;
- Step II: Write a request form to the shift supervisor stating your grievance. Include the name of the deputy who already answered the grievance. If the grievance is not resolved, go to Step III;
- Step III: Write a request form to the jail manager by following the same procedure you did with the shift supervisor. If the grievance is not resolved, go to Step IV.
- Step IV: Write a request form to the Sheriff by following the same procedure as you did with the jail manager. The Sheriff’s decision will be final.
- Inmates have 24 hours from the time of an incident to file a grievance and 24 hours from each time a grievance is denied to file the next step.”
The court then looked at the manner in which the inmate utilized the grievance process and concluded that he had failed to exhaust his remedy through the grievance process.
Another example is provided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Griffin v. Arpaio.iii Jermaine Griffin is an inmate in the Arizona Department of Corrections system. Defendants are the Sheriff of Maricopa County, a prison doctor, two prison nurses, and two prison officials. In May of 1999, Griffin fell from the top bunk of his jail cell in Maricopa County, Arizona. At the time, Griffin suffered from mental health conditions for which he took prescription drugs. He asserts that these drugs impaired his vision and depth perception, making it difficult for him to access upper bunks. After Griffin’s fall, the prison assigned him to a lower bunk. It later reassigned him to a top bunk.
In early December 1999, Griffin fell again while trying to access an upper bunk. He filed an Inmate Grievance Form stating that he had injured himself trying to reach the top bunk, mentioning his mental health conditions and medication, and requesting a ladder or ‘some sort of permanent step.’ While his grievance was pending, Griffin obtained an order for a lower bunk assignment from a prison nurse. A prison officer, the shift supervisor, and the Bureau Hearing Officer replied to Griffin’s grievance, stating that the nurse’s order resolved his problem. Griffin asserts that prison staff disregarded the nurse’s order.
Griffin appealed his grievance in compliance with Maricopa County procedures, first to the Jail Operations Commander on December 9, 1999, and then to an external referee on December 17, 1999. Griffin’s appeals did not mention the alleged disregard of his lower bunk assignment, instead continuing to demand better means of access to the top bunk. The Commander replied that the lower bunk assignment addressed Griffin’s problem and obviated further action. The external referee’s response was similar, adding “That ends it!” He informed Griffin that, having completed the prison’s grievance procedures, Griffin could file in district court.”
At the outset the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit noted: “The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that a prisoner exhaust available administrative remedies before bringing a federal action concerning prison conditions.
Exhaustion must be ‘proper.’ This means that a grievant must use all steps the prison holds out, enabling the prison to reach the merits of the issue. Prisoners need comply only with the prison’s own grievance procedures to properly exhaust under the PLRA… The Supreme Court held in Jones v. Bock that a prison’s own grievance process, not the PLRA, determines how detailed a grievance must be to satisfy the PLRA exhaustion requirement.”
In reviewing Maricopa County’s grievance process, the court observed: “The Maricopa County jail’s procedures, however, provide little guidance as to what facts a grievance must include. The jail’s Inmate Grievance Form merely instructs the grievant to “[b]riefly describe [the] complaint and a proposed resolution.”
While examining the case, the Ninth Circuit noted that they had “not yet articulated the standard of factual specificity required when a prison’s grievance procedures do not specify the requisite level of detail. Defendants propose that we adopt the standard propounded by the Eleventh Circuit in Brown v. Sikes, 212 F.3d 1205, 1207-08 (11th Cir. 2000). The Brown standard requires the grievant to include all relevant information about his claims that he can reasonably obtain. Id. The district court applied this standard in dismissing Griffin’s complaint. Griffin argues that the Seventh Circuit articulated the proper standard in Strong v. David, 297 F.3d 646, 650 (7th Cir. 2002). Strong held that, when a prison’s grievance procedures are silent or incomplete as to factual specificity, “a grievance suffices if it alerts the prison to the nature of the wrong for which redress is sought…We adopt Strong as the appropriate standard.”
Applying the standard to the facts of this case the Ninth Circuit asserted: “Under the Strong standard, Griffin’s failure to grieve deliberate indifference does not invalidate his exhaustion attempt. A grievance need not include legal terminology or legal theories unless they are in some way needed to provide notice of the harm being grieved. A grievance also need not contain every fact necessary to prove each element of an eventual legal claim. The primary purpose of a grievance is to alert the prison to a problem and facilitate its resolution, not to lay groundwork for litigation… Griffin’s problem concerned his unsatisfactory bunking situation. Notifying the prison of that problem did not require him to allege that the problem resulted from deliberate indifference… Nonetheless, Griffin failed to exhaust properly. He did not provide notice of the prison staff’s alleged disregard of his lower bunk assignments. The officials responding to his grievance reasonably concluded that the nurse’s order for a lower bunk assignment solved Griffin’s problem. Rather than clarifying the situation, Griffin repeatedly demanded a ladder. His grievance did not “provide enough information . . . to allow prison officials to take appropriate responsive measures…We reject the district court’s reliance on Brown in its dismissal of Griffin’s complaint, but we may affirm for any reason supported by the record. Griffin failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). He did not alert the prison to the nature of his problem.”
i 42 U.S.C. §1997 (e) (a).
ii Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006).
iii Griffin v. Arpaio, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 4818 (9th Cir. 2009).