Skip to main content

Seventh Circuit Reiterates Exhaustion Requirement Under Prison Litigation Reform Act

The Seventh Circuit recently issued a decision highlighting the nuances of the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s (“PLRA”) requirement that prisoners must exhaust available administrative remedies prior to bringing a lawsuit concerning his or her conditions of confinement under federal law.  The court’s decision in Ingram v. T.J. Watson, et al. underscores why it is important for correctional facilities to implement clear inmate grievance procedures, as doing so can serve as a legal defense and potentially result in early dismissals of prisoner lawsuits.   

The PLRA requires a prisoner—an individual confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility—to exhaust all available administrative remedies prior to bringing a lawsuit concerning the conditions of confinement under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or any other federal law. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).  The administrative remedies that must be exhausted depend on the procedures established by the state in which the prison is located or by the procedures established by the institution.  In general, an inmate must “file complaints and appeals in the place, and at the time, the prison’s administrative rules require,” and he or she must do so precisely in accordance with those rules to satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement. See Pozo v. McCaughtry, 286 F.3d 1022, 1025 (7th Cir. 2002).

The plaintiff in Ingram contended that while he was confined in the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute, he was beaten by guards and was thereafter denied necessary care by the prison’s medical staff.  The plaintiff brought this lawsuit seeking monetary damages from various federal officials, including the prison’s warden and several staff members. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants upon reaching the conclusion that the plaintiff failed to exhaust the prison’s mandatory grievance procedures before commencing his lawsuit, in accordance with the PLRA.

In Ingram, the prison’s grievance procedures were established by regulations issued by the Bureau of Prisons. These regulations require an inmate to first attempt to informally resolve the issue.  If informal means do not satisfy the inmate’s concerns, he or she is required to submit a formal grievance to the Warden.  If the inmate receives either an unsatisfactory response or no response, he or she is required to file a formal appeal to the Regional Director and then a final appeal to the General Counsel.  For each level of appeal, the grieving inmate must attach a copy of the adverse decision he or she is appealing with the appeal. The only exception is if the appeal is of a non-response to the previously filed grievance or appeal, in which case no attachment is required.       

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit found that the plaintiff filed three grievances related to the events giving rise to his lawsuit, but he failed to pursue two of the grievances to conclusion in accordance with the mandatory procedures applicable to the prison. Therefore, it affirmed the district court’s decision as it related to those two grievances.

With respect to the remaining grievance, the Seventh Circuit noted that although the plaintiff did not submit a final appeal to the General Counsel, it was unclear whether the grievance procedures required—or even permitted him—to do more than what he did.  In this regard, the court concluded that the plaintiff properly filed a grievance with the Warden, who rejected the plaintiff’s contentions.  The plaintiff then filed an appeal of the Warden’s decision to the Regional Director. 

The plaintiff asserted in an affidavit that he waited for several weeks without receiving a response from the Regional Director.  According to the plaintiff, he asked a corrections officer why he had not received a response, to which the officer allegedly replied that the prison received the Regional Director’s decision, but it would not provide the plaintiff with a copy of the decision.  The plaintiff did two things in response: (1) he filed a grievance about the operation of the grievance process; and (2) he filed this federal civil rights lawsuit.  The plaintiff received the Regional Director’s decision three days later, but by then, he had already filed his lawsuit. 

On this third grievance, the district court held that the plaintiff should have treated the prison’s failure to hand over the Regional Director’s decision as equivalent to a non-response and should have filed an appeal with the General Counsel.  The Seventh Circuit disagreed, noting that the relevant regulation specifies what an inmate must do if the recipient of the grievance or appeal does not act. According to the plaintiff’s sworn affidavit, the Regional Director did act in response to his appeal.  The Seventh Circuit stated that the applicable regulations contemplated two possibilities: (1) if there is no decision, the inmate must appeal without attaching a decision; and (2) if there is an adverse decision, the inmate must attach a copy of that decision with the appeal.  The mandatory procedures did not, however, specify what an inmate must do if an adverse decision is issued but withheld from the inmate, as the plaintiff contended. 

Emphasizing that the PLRA only requires a plaintiff to exhaust the administrative remedies available to him or her, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that if the plaintiff’s ability to appeal to the General Counsel’s decision was blocked by the need to attach a document that existed but had been withheld from the plaintiff, then that appeal is not “available” to the plaintiff under the PLRA, and he was entitled to turn to the court system.  Because a dispute of fact existed as to whether the prison actually withheld the Regional Director’s decision from the plaintiff, the appropriate vehicle for determining what happened during the prisoner’s effort to exhaust the grievance process is to hold an evidentiary hearing—known as a Pavey hearing after Pavey v. Conley, 544 F.3d 739 (7th Cir. 2008).  Consequently, the court held that the district court erred in not conducting a Pavey hearing on the issue, and it remanded the case for further proceedings to determine whether the plaintiff failed to exhaust the administrative remedies available to him prior to bring his lawsuit.

This site uses cookies to enhance your browsing experience. Find out more in our cookie policy or privacy policy

Back to top