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Williams v. Hallworth

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 6, 2018

HAROLD WILLIAMS, #241897 Plaintiff,
RICH HALLWORTH, et al., Defendants.




         Plaintiff Harold Williams (“Plaintiff”) is a former[1] inmate of the Staton Correctional Facility (“Staton”) in Elmore, Alabama. He filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging medical officials were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. Doc. 1. Plaintiff names as defendants Corizon Medical Services, Inc. (“Corizon”), Rich Hallworth (“Hallworth”), Woodrow Myers (“Myers”), Bobby Crocker (“Crocker”), Michele Sagers-Copeland (“Sagers-Copeland”), Darryl Ellis (“Ellis”), and Domineek Guice (“Guice”) (collectively “Defendants”). Id.; Doc. 14. Plaintiff sues defendants in their official and individual capacities. Doc. 1 at 3. Plaintiff requests injunctive and monetary relief. Id. at 3-8.

         Defendants filed answers, special reports, supplemental special reports, and evidentiary materials addressing Plaintiff's claims for relief. Docs. 13, 14, 18, 29. Upon receipt of Defendants' reports, the court directed Plaintiff to file a response, including sworn affidavits and other evidentiary materials, and specifically cautioning Plaintiff that “at some time in the future the court may treat the defendants' reports and the plaintiff's response as a dispositive motion and response.” Doc. 19 at 2. Plaintiff responded to Defendants' reports and materials. Docs. 22, 23, 30.

         The court now will treat the Defendants' argument that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing suit as a motion to dismiss, and it will treat the remainder of their reports as a motion for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the motions, the responses, and the evidentiary materials filed in support and in opposition to the motion, the court concludes the motion to dismiss is due to be granted, and, in the alternative, the motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.


         A. Exhaustion

         Plaintiff was a prisoner when he filed this lawsuit, and he challenges the conditions of his confinement when he was an inmate at Staton. Defendants argue Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing suit. Doc. 14 at 19; Doc. 18 at 5. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), “[n]o 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.” “[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, 1374-75 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). Consequently, the court treats Defendant's exhaustion defense as a motion to dismiss.

         “Congress has provided in § 1997e(a) that an inmate must exhaust irrespective of the forms of relief sought and offered through administrative remedies.” Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 n.6 (2001). “[T]he word ‘exhausted' has a decidedly procedural emphasis. . . one ‘exhausts' processes, not forms of relief, and the statute provides that one must.” Id. at 739. “[T]he PLRA's exhaustion requirement applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong.” Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002). The exhaustion requirement is an affirmative defense; it is not jurisdictional or a pleading requirement. See Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007); Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 101 (2006) (“the PLRA exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional”); Bryant, 530 F.3d 1374-75 & n.10. “[T]he 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).”[2] Myles v. Miami-Dade County Correctional and Rehabilitation Dept., 476 Fed.Appx. 364, 366 (11th Cir. 2012).

         Moreover, “the PLRA exhaustion requirement requires proper exhaustion.” Woodford, 548 U.S. at 93. “Proper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules [as a precondition to filing suit in federal court] because no adjudicative system can function effectively without imposing some orderly structure on the courts of its proceedings. . . . Construing § 1997e(a) to require proper exhaustion . . . fits with the general scheme of the PLRA, whereas [a contrary] interpretation [allowing an inmate to bring suit in federal court once administrative remedies are no longer available] would turn that provision into a largely useless appendage.” Id. at 90-91, 93. The only exception to the exhaustion requirement is embedded in the text of § 1997e(a), that is, the remedy must be “available.” In other words, the grievance procedure must be “'capable of use' to obtain ‘some relief for the action complained of.'” Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850, 1859 (2016). The Supreme Court has held that a grievance procedure is unavailable when “it operates as a simple dead end.” Id. Or “it might be so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use.” Id. Or it is unavailable because “prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of a grievance process through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.” Id. at 1860.

         The court conducts a two-step inquiry in applying § 1997e(a). See Turner v. Burnside, 541 F.3d 1077 (11th Cir. 2008). First, the court considers the parties' versions of the facts, and if they conflict, takes the plaintiff's version as true. Id. at 1082. If, based on the plaintiff's version, the claim is unexhausted, the court must dismiss the claim. See Id. Second, if the case cannot be dismissed based on plaintiff's version and there are factual disputes, “the court then proceeds to make specific findings in order to resolve the disputed factual issues related to exhaustion. The defendants bear the burden of proving that the plaintiff has failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies.” Id. (citations omitted).

         B. Facts Related to the Grievance Process

         Sagers-Copeland avers she is a registered nurse in the State of Alabama and is employed as the Health Services Administrator at Staton. Doc. 14-2 at 1. Sagers-Copeland avers that upon arriving at any facility in the Alabama Department of Corrections, inmates are notified of the procedures and processes for obtaining medical care. Id. at 2. The grievance process begins when an inmate submits a Medical Grievance form to Sagers-Copeland through the institutional mail system. Sagers-Copeland responds in writing in about ten days, and the response includes written notification that the inmate may appeal by requesting a Grievance Appeal from the Health Services Administrator and returning it to the Health Services Administrator by placing the form in the sick call request box or giving it to the nurse on rounds. Id. at 2-3. If an inmate appeals, “the inmate may be brought in for one-on-one communication with the on-site physician, medical staff, me and/or the Director of Nursing.” Id. at 3. Sagers-Copeland states she tries to review grievances daily and respond within ten days. Id. Sagers-Copeland avers that she “conducted an exhaustive service of all of the grievance documentation, including the grievance tracking documentation maintained at Staton, and did not locate a single grievance document submitted by Mr. Williams during the period from January of 2012 through the present.” Id. Sagers-Copeland's affidavit is dated October 23, 2015. Id. at 7.

         Ellis avers he is a registered nurse in the State of Alabama and is employed as the Director of Nursing at Staton. Doc. 14-3. Ellis is “responsible for the day-to-day managerial oversight of the nursing staff employed by Corizon at the facilities.” Id. at 1. Ellis avers that he may draft responses to grievances when Sagers-Copeland is unavailable or out of the office. Id. at 2. Ellis also looked for but could find a single grievance from Plaintiff, and he could not recall Plaintiff filing a grievance or requesting medical treatment. Id.

         Plaintiff does not dispute that he was notified about the medical grievance process and the way to complete it. Plaintiff stated in his verified complaint that in about 2012, he filed a “complaint form seeking medical assistance” with reversal of his colostomy. Doc. 1 at 4. After Crocker told Plaintiff “there was nothing that he could do to reverse the procedure, ” Plaintiff “filed another complaint to the Directors of the healthcare company . . . .” Id. Plaintiff stated that he “filed a medical grievance to both Mrs. Copeland and Mr. Ellis complaining of his inadequate and depriving treatment” from Defendant Guice Id. at 4-5. After an appointment in March 2014, “Plaintiff filed another medical grievance form to readdress his issue to Mrs. Copeland and Mr. Ellis, and again the Plaintiff's issue was not addressed with treatment and again no treatment was rendered to the Plaintiff and they did nothing but establish a pattern of denials.” Id. at 5. In his response to Defendants' exhaustion argument, Plaintiff stated:

he filed at least three grievances and received no answer to either complaint. See (Plaintiff's Attachment D). I complained about not receiving answer to my complaints, to include why there was no tracking system, or numbers on the grievances to ensure accountability. (Plaintiff's Attachment A). Those requests also went unanswered.

Doc. 22 at 1. Plaintiff's filing does not include the attachments identified in his response. In a later statement, Plaintiff asserted:

I filed approximately three (3) grievances on or about December, 2012, March, 2013, and June, 2014. I did not receive a reply to either. I complained about not receiving answer to my complaints, to include why there was no tracking system, or numbers on the grievances to ensure accountability. (Plaintiff's Attachment A). Those requests also went unanswered.

Doc. 23-1 at 2.[3] Despite Plaintiff's reference to an attachment, none was filed. Plaintiff states he then complained to Alabama Department of Corrections officials, but no one would intervene except Lt. Sowell, who said he could not require Plaintiff be treated but sent Plaintiff to health care officials for treatment. Id. Plaintiff submits no statement from Lt. Sowell.

         C. Discussion--Exhaustion

         It is undisputed that Corizon provides an administrative remedy for inmate complaints regarding medical treatment in the form of an inmate grievance procedure, but Plaintiff did not complete it. Plaintiff offers no support for his bare assertions that he filed grievances but received no response. He also does not state he submitted any grievance appeal. He states he complained to Department of Corrections officials, but he does not submit copies of his complaints. The court determines Plaintiff therefore fails to overcome Defendant's evidence that a grievance system was available to Plaintiff, but he failed to use it. See Woodford, 548 U.S. at 90-91 (to exhaust administrative remedies, an inmate must comply with all steps prescribed by the grievance system); Turner, 541 F.3d at 1082 (court “make[s] specific findings in order to resolve the disputed factual issues related to exhaustion”); see also Maclary v. Carroll, 142 Fed.Appx. 618, 620 (3rd Cir. 2005) (inmate's unsupported conclusory allegations that he filed grievances which went unanswered and unprocessed were insufficient to overcome defendants' evidence that he failed to exhaust available administrate remedies); Brewington v. Daniels, 2:11-CV-793-TMH-CSC, 2012 WL 6005780 at *5 (M.D. Ala. 2012) (inmate's conclusory assertion that he complied with grievance procedures but medical staff failed to timely respond to his initial medical grievance insufficient to overcome defendants' evidence showing that a grievance system was available for plaintiff's claims).

         The record before the court demonstrates that an administrative remedy was available to Plaintiff during his confinement at Staton. These materials further establish that Plaintiff failed to properly exhaust the remedy prior to filing this federal civil action. It is likewise clear that Plaintiff is no longer at Staton, and his access to the grievance procedure there has ceased; thus, the administrative remedy provided by Defendants is no longer available to Plaintiff. Under these circumstances, dismissal with prejudice is appropriate. Bryant, 530 F.3d at 1375 n.1; Johnson v. Meadows, 418 F.3d 1152, 1157 (11th Cir. 2005); Marsh v. Jones, 53 F.3d 707, 710 (5th Cir. 1995) (“Without the prospect of a dismissal with prejudice, a prisoner could evade the exhaustion requirement by filing no administrative grievance or by intentionally filing an untimely one, thereby foreclosing administrative remedies and gaining access to a federal forum without exhausting administrative remedies.”); Berry v. Kerik, 366 F.3d 85, 88 (2d Cir. 2004) (footnotes omitted) (inmate's “federal lawsuits . . . properly dismissed with prejudice” where previously available administrative remedies had become unavailable). Even assuming Plaintiff satisfies the requirements of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), Defendants are entitled to judgment in their favor based on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.

         III. MOTION FOR ...

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