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Bartlett v. Jones

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

August 8, 2018





         Plaintiff Jake Bartlett (“Plaintiff”) is a former inmate of the Lee County Detention Center. He filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Sheriff Jay Jones (“Defendant”) of the Lee County Detention Center, in Opelika, Alabama, failed to protect him from assault by inmate Timmothy Chambers (“Chambers”) on June 23, 2015. Doc. 1.

         Defendant filed an answer, special report, supplemental special report, and evidentiary materials addressing Plaintiff's claims for relief. Docs. 9, 12, 20. Upon receipt of Defendant's reports, the court directed Plaintiff to file a response to Defendant's argument that Plaintiff's claims are due to be dismissed because he failed to exhaust his available administrative remedies at the Lee County Detention Center before filing suit, as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Doc. 13. The court also advised Plaintiff to support his response to Defendant's report with sworn affidavits and other evidentiary materials, and specifically cautioned Plaintiff that “at some time in the future the court may treat Defendant's report and Plaintiff's response as a dispositive motion and response.” Id. at 2. Plaintiff responded to Defendant's reports and materials. Docs. 11, 16.

         The court now will consider Defendant's report that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as a motion to dismiss, and it will treat the remainder of Defendant's reports as a motion for summary judgment. Doc. 9. Upon consideration of the motions, the responses, and the evidentiary materials filed in support and in opposition to the motions, the court concludes that Defendant's motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust is due to be granted, and, in the event that Plaintiff has exhausted his available administrative remedies, the motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.


         Plaintiff was a prisoner when he filed this lawsuit, and he challenges the conditions of his confinement when he was an inmate at the Lee County Detention Center. Defendant argues that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing suit. Doc. 9 at 6. 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 a jurisdictional or 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).”[1] 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. 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 Supreme Court has reasoned that because proper exhaustion of administrative remedies is necessary, an inmate cannot “satisfy the Prison Litigation Reform Act's exhaustion requirement … by filing an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective administrative grievance or appeal[, ]” or by effectively bypassing the administrative process simply by waiting until the grievance procedure is no longer available to him. Id. at 83-84.

         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).

         It is undisputed that the Lee County Detention Center provides an administrative remedy for inmate complaints in the form of an inmate grievance procedure. Doc. 12-1 at 19. Plaintiff received a copy of the Detention Center's rules on May 1, 2015, before the assault occurred on June 23, 2015. Doc. 9-5 at 2. The grievance procedure allows an inmate to submit grievances to jail personnel with respect to matters occurring during incarceration at the jail. Id. The grievance procedure provides in relevant part:

If you have a grievance, you can report it on an Inmate Request form. Only one signature is allowed on a grievance.
Your grievance will be investigated and answered, in writing, within 72 hours of the time it is received, excluding weekends and holidays. Grievances are first answered by the appropriate staff at the lowest level in the chain of command.
If you are not satisfied with the first answer to your grievance, you may send a grievance to the next higher command level (attach a copy of the first grievance). You may continue to send it through the chain of command, up to the Sheriff, who will make the final decision.
We will not take any negative action against you because you file a grievance.

Id. The Jail Administrator, Corey Welch, testified by affidavit that if the Detention Center runs out of grievance slips, inmates are provided paper on which to write their grievances, and these are treated in the same way as the form grievances. Doc. 20-2 at 3.

         Plaintiff filed two Inmate Request Slips on June 28, 2015, relevant to the assault that is the subject of this § 1983 suit. In one, Plaintiff marked the subject “Other” and wrote in the request portion of the slip: “Hey Ms. Butler I need to know what up about pressing charges about that fight me and Tim Chambers got into on 6-23-15 why is it taking so long can you please let me know something today because I do not want to get a another shift involve in this I do not want yall to get wrote up by the other shift. Please come see me today.” Doc. 9-6 at 2. Butler responded, “the investigators will type up a warrant for you to sign. You have up to a year to sign a warrant.” Id. In the second Inmate Request Slip, Plaintiff marked the subjects “Personal Problem” and “Other, ” and he wrote in the request portion: “Hey Ms. Butler suppose to put a stayaway order for me against Tim Chamber we got a problem and I need to know if she put the stay away order in to books keep us apart can you please let me know if she did or not I need to know for sure. Thanks.” Doc. 9-6 at 3. An officer named Devine responded, “Separation Request a[n]notated in computer. Copy of Request placed in File.” Id. Welch testified by affidavit that Plaintiff filed no “grievance form against Sheriff Jay Jones or any other staff members of the Lee County Detention Center … .” Doc. 9-3 at 5.

         Plaintiff swears that he “did file a grievance to Jones, but was never responded to, or was a copy returned. There is no way for inmates to make a personal copy to keep where the request is sent out (b/c this would prove how frequently request are never responded to or simply thrown out.” Doc. 16 at 6. Plaintiffs states that the forms include no date or time indicating when officers respond to them, so “it is truly impossible for inmates to know what is actually being done about the inmates problem. This is policy per Jay Jones.” Id. at 5. Plaintiff maintains that “when failure occur it ultimately is the responsibility of the policy maker (Jones) & the enforcer (Welch) to fix & handle these issues.” Id. Plaintiff adds that he never was given a warrant to sign regarding the assault. Id. at 6-7. The court ...

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