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PLRA Exhaustion Requirement Has

PLRA Exhaustion Requirement Has Procedural Default Component

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the administrative exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) includes a procedural default component. The court also held that the determination whether a prisoner has properly' exhausted a claim (for procedural default purposes) is made by evaluating the prisoner's compliance with the prison's administrative regulations governing inmate grievances, and the waiver, if any, of such regulations by prison officials.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoner Robert Spruill suffered from a chronic and debilitating lower back disorder, spondylotic spinal stenosis with recurrent compression of L3 and/or L4 nerve root on right" which caused him excruciating pain and which caused him to fall and injure himself on two occasions.

Despite numerous requests to receive a physical examination and treatment, prison medical staff ignored the requests, accusing him of faking his injuries, and playing games." Twelve days after Spruill's initial complaints in his filing of the separate grievances, Dr. [Shawn] McGlaughlin had Spruill brought into the medical examination room, where Dr. McGlaughlin deliberately bent and twisted Spruill's legs as if he was trying to shape a pretzel.'" He did not examine Spruill's face or thumb for injuries sustained" from a fall ten days earlier.

Spruill's grievances were consolidated and denied upon Initial Review and Spruill filed administrative appeals. The first appeal was denied, and Spruill filed a final appeal, which was also denied[,]" because Spruill was deemed to be receiving appropriate medical care.

Spruill then brought suit alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. Because Spruill had failed to seek money damages in his grievances, the District Court concluded that he failed to meet the exhaustion requirement of [42 U.S.C.] § 1997(e)(a), and therefore dismissed Spruill's suit in its entirety. The District Court also held in the alternative that Spruill's failure to name [prison physician's assistant (PA) Brian] Brown in his grievances constituted a failure to exhaust his claims against Brown." Finally, the district court held, on the merits that Spruill failed to state a claim because he received adequate medical treatment.

The Third Circuit noted on appeal that there is an emerging split among the circuits on whether the PLRA includes a procedural default component[.]" with the Seventh and Tenth Circuits favoring it and the Sixth Circuit rejecting it. Compare Pozo v. McCaughtry, 286 F.3d 1022 (7th Cir.) cert. den 537 U.S. 949 (2002) and Ross v. County of Bernalillo, 365 F.3d 1181 (10th Cir. 2004) with Thomas v. Woolum, 337 F.3d 720 (6th Cir. 2003). The court then noted the value of a procedural default rule and concluded that Congress's policy objectives are served by a procedural default rule because such a rule prevents an end-run around the exhaustion requirement, and thereby creates an overwhelming incentive for a prisoner to pursue his claims to the fullest within the administrative grievance system.
The court then followed the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit in Strong v. David, 297 F.3d 646 (7th Cir. 2002), concluding that prison grievance procedure supply the yardstick for measuring procedural default... This result is more in harmony with Congressional policy than crating ad hoc federal common law, and it is also fairer to inmates.

The court then examined the relevant prison grievance rules, noting that the rule detailed three categories of what shall," should," and may" be included in grievances. A request for money damages falls into the [may] category. Since an optional procedural provision cannot give rise to a procedural default, the court held Spruill was not precluded from seeking monetary relief, and reversed the district court's dismissal for failure to exhaust.

The court also reversed the dismissal of Spruill's claim against PA Brown, concluding that the prison grievance officer's recognition that Brown was involved in the event that Spruill complained of excused any procedural defects in Spruill's initial grievance.

Finally, turning to the merits, the court concluded that Spruill has connected his factual allegations to the alleged mental states of Dr. McGlauhglin and Brown. That he believes that their actions were not only deliberately indifferent, but malicious and sadistic, reinforces the sufficiency of his complaint." Thus, the court reversed the dismissal of Spruill's suit against McGlaughlin and Brown. See: Spruill v. Gills, 372 F.3d 218 (3rd Cir. 2004).

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