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Illinois Administrative Remedies Exhausted When Prison Officials Lost Grievance

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an Illinois prisoner ?took all steps necessary to exhaust? his administrative remedies when prison officials misplaced his timely grievance and did not instruct him to re-file an ?untimely grievance.?

On March 15, 2002, Joseph Dole assaulted an Assistant Warden. Prison guards retaliated by placing him on suicide watch and beating him. A nurse reported the beating to Internal Affairs (IA), which initiated an investigation. The State Police also investigated the incident. Dole cooperated in both investigations.

The case was referred for prosecution but the State?s Attorney declined to prosecute, despite finding the allegation of staff abuse to be credible. Based on the IA investigation the guards were disciplined for excessive force and failure to report violations.

On April 15, 2002, Dole completed a timely grievance concerning the use of excessive force. He placed the grievance in an envelope addressed to the Administrative Review Board (ARB) and gave it to guards for mailing. ?This was the only procedure ? available to him to mail his grievance.?

When Dole did not receive a response, he wrote to the ARB inquiring about the status of his grievance. The ARB stated it had no record of the grievance. Dole was not instructed by the ARB on how he should proceed. The time for filing a timely grievance had passed, but Ill. Admin. Code Title 20, § 504.810(a) allows for the filing of untimely grievances upon a showing of good cause for the untimeliness.

Dole did not attempt to file an untimely grievance before filing a § 1983 action in federal court for the retaliatory beating he endured. The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that Dole had failed to comply with the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Dole argued that no administrative remedies were ?available? to him once his grievance was lost. Alternately, he asserted ?that he had materially complied with the PLRA.? The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants and dismissed the action for non-exhaustion.

The Seventh Circuit noted that it takes ?a strict compliance approach to exhaustion. A prisoner must properly use the prison?s grievance process.
If he ? fails to do so, the prison ? can refuse to hear the case and the prisoner?s claim can be indefinitely unexhausted,? citing Pozo v. McCaughtry, 286 F.3d 1022, 1025 (7th Cir. 2002). The appeals court also explained, however, that ?prison officials may not take unfair advantage of the exhaustion requirement ? and a remedy becomes ?unavailable? if prison employees do not respond to a properly filed grievance or otherwise use affirmative misconduct to prevent a prisoner from exhausting.? See: Lewis v. Washington, 300 F.3d 829, 833 (7th Cir. 2002); Dale v. Lappin, 376 F.3d 652, 656 (7th Cir. 2004).

The appellate court distinguished Dole?s situation from the cases relied upon by the defendants and concluded that ?because Dole properly followed procedure and prison officials were responsible for the mishandling of his grievance, it cannot be said that Dole failed to exhaust his remedies.? The Seventh Circuit suggested that its decision may have been different ?if the ARB had given Dole instructions on how to proceed and Dole had ignored or improperly followed those instructions.? As it were, ?if he had filed an untimely claim, he might have ultimately prejudiced his case.?

The appeals court concluded that its decision was consistent with Pozo and Lewis, as supported by Brengettcy v. Horton, 423 F.3d 674 (7th Cir. 2005). ?By properly mailing his ARB complaint, alerting the ARB that the complaint was mailed and filing suit only after the ARB failed to clarify what he should do next, Dole had done all that was reasonable to exhaust his administrative remedies.? See: Dole v. Chandler, 438 F.3d 804 (7th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Dole v. Chandler