United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE
CHARLES S. COODY, Magistrate Judge.
In this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, Anthony Eaton-Bey ("Eaton-Bey"), a state inmate and member of the Moorish Science Temple of America, asserts violations of the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause stemming from alleged actions undertaken by Chaplain Steven Smith which the plaintiff believes have hindered his ability to practice and facilitate the growth of his religion. Complaint - Doc. No. 2 at 3-4. Eaton-Bey seeks declaratory and injunctive relief for the alleged violations of his constitutional rights.
The defendant filed a special report and supporting evidentiary materials addressing Eaton-Bey's claims for relief. In these documents, the defendant adamantly denies acting in violation of the plaintiff's constitutional rights. In addition, the defendant asserts that the complaint is due to be dismissed because prior to filing this cause of action Eaton-Bey failed to properly exhaust an administrative remedy available to him with respect to the claims presented in the complaint. Defendant's Special Report - Doc. No. 15 at 16-17. The defendant bases his exhaustion defense on the plaintiff's failure to file a request for religious assistance from the Religious Activities Review Committee as permitted by Administrative Regulation No. 313. Id. at 16.
On January 12, 2015, the court provided Eaton-Bey an opportunity to file a response to the defendant's report in which he was advised to "specifically address the defendant's assertion that... [h]is claims are due to be dismissed because he failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)" prior to filing this federal civil action. Doc. No. 16 at 1 (footnote omitted). Eaton-Bey has filed no response to this order within the time allowed by the court.
"[A]n exhaustion defense... is not ordinarily the proper subject for a summary judgment [motion]; instead, it should be raised in a motion to dismiss, or be treated as such if raised in a motion for summary judgment." Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368, 1374-1375 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted); Trias v. Florida Dept. of Corrections, 587 Fed.Appx. 531, 534 (11th Cir. 2014) (District court properly construed defendant's "motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies...."). In light of the foregoing and in accordance with the directives of the order entered on January 12, 2015 (Doc. No. 16), the court will treat the defendant's report as a motion to dismiss.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In addressing the requirements of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e with respect to exhaustion, the Eleventh Circuit has
recognized that [t]he plain language of th[is] statute makes exhaustion a precondition to filing an action in federal court." Higginbottom v. Carter, 223 F.3d 1259, 1261 (11th Cir. 2000) (per curiam) (quoting Freeman v. Francis, 196 F.3d 641, 643-44 (6th Cir. 1999)). This means that "until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted, " a prisoner is precluded from filing suit in federal court. See id. (affirming dismissal of prisoner's civil rights suit for failure to satisfy the mandatory exhaustion requirements of the PLRA); Harris v. Garner, 190 F.3d 1279, 1286 (11th Cir. 1999) ("reaffirm[ing] that section 1997e(a) imposes a mandatory requirement on prisoners seeking judicial relief to exhaust their administrative remedies" before filing suit in federal court), modified on other grounds, 216 F.3d 970 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc); Miller v. Tanner, 196 F.3d 1190, 1193 (11th Cir. 1999) (holding that under the PLRA's amendments to § 1997e(a), "[a]n inmate incarcerated in a state prison... must first comply with the grievance procedures established by the state department of corrections before filing a federal lawsuit under section 1983"); Harper v. Jenkin, 179 F.3d 1311, 1312 (11th Cir. 1999) (per curiam) (affirming dismissal of prisoner's civil suit for failure to satisfy the mandatory exhaustion requirements of § 1997e(a)); Alexander v. Hawk, 159 F.3d 1321, 1328 (11th Cir. 1998) (affirming dismissal of prisoner's Bivens action under § 1997e(a) for failure to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit in federal court).
Leal v. Georgia Dept. of Corrections, 254 F.3d 1276, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001). The Court has therefore determined that "the question of exhaustion under the PLRA [is] a threshold matter' that [federal courts must] address before considering the merits of the case. Chandler v. Crosby, 379 F.3d 1278, 1286 (11th Cir. 2004). Because exhaustion is mandated by the statute, [a court has] no discretion to waive this requirement. Alexander v. Hawk, 159 F.3d 1321, 1325-26 (11th Cir. 1998)." Myles v. Miami-Dade County Correctional and Rehabilitation Dept., 476 Fed.Appx. 364, 366 (11th Cir. 2012). Based on the foregoing, the court will "resolve this issue first." Id.
"When deciding whether a prisoner has exhausted his remedies, the court should first consider the plaintiff's and the defendant[s] versions of the facts, and if they conflict, take the plaintiff's version of the facts as true. If in that light, the defendant is entitled to have the complaint dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, it must be dismissed.' Turner v. Burnside, 541 F.3d 1077, 1082 (11th Cir.2008) (citing Bryant, 530 F.3d at 1373-74). If the complaint is not subject to dismissal at this step, then the court should make specific findings in order to resolve the disputed factual issues related to exhaustion.' Id. (citing Bryant, 530 F.3d at 1373-74, 1376)." Myles, 476 Fed.Appx. at 366. Consequently, a district court "may resolve disputed factual issues where necessary to the disposition of a motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust [without a hearing]. See [ Turner, 541 F.3d at 1082]. The judge properly may consider facts outside of the pleadings to resolve a factual dispute as to exhaustion where doing so does not decide the merits, and the parties have a sufficient opportunity to develop the record. Bryant, 530 F.3d at 1376." Trias, 587 Fed. Appx at 535. Based on the foregoing, the Eleventh Circuit specifically rejected the argument that "disputed facts as to exhaustion should be decided by a jury." Id.
Upon review of the complaint, the defendant's special report and the evidentiary materials filed in support thereof by the defendant, the court concludes that the defendant's motion to dismiss is due to be granted.
Eaton-Bey challenges actions undertaken by the defendant which he believes have violated his religious rights as protected by the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The defendant denies Eaton-Bey's allegations and further maintains that this case is subject to dismissal because Eaton-Bey failed to exhaust the administrative remedy provided in the state prison ...