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Administrative Exhaustion Required in Alabama HIV/AIDS Class Action Suit

The plaintiffs sued on behalf of themselves and all present and future HIV-positive prisoners in the state prison system, complaining both of their segregation from the general prison population and their exclusion from most programming, and of inadequate medical care.

Res judicata based on the earlier litigation in Onishea v. Hopper applies to the plaintiffs' Americans with Disabilities Act claim but not their Eighth Amendment claim. There is identity of parties because the classes defined in the two cases are identical, and so are the defendants (the private medical provider being in privity with the former provider). The present ADA claim is essentially the same as the former Rehabilitation Act claim. However, the present Eighth Amendment medical care claim is not the same as the prior Eighth Amendment claim, because the applicable standard of HIV care has changed in the decade since the prior claim was dismissed. At 1250: "... [N]ew information about the kinds, costs, and availability of new treatments for HIV patients, bears directly on what levels of care are currently reasonable, and thus on what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment."

Eleventh Amendment immunity applies to all claims against the state, but not to equitable claims brought against individuals in their official capacities.

The defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because there is no clearly defined standard of care that defendants should have known they violated, especially in view of the dismissal of the prior case.

The private medical care provider should be treated as a municipality for 1983 purposes, i.e. the requirement of showing a corporate policy, and the unavailability of qualified immunity. Plaintiffs sufficiently alleged policies of denial of certain medications, failure to respond to medical emergencies, and denial of care to inmates near death.

The plaintiffs' failure to pursue administrative remedies is not excused by their claim that they never received any notice that there was a grievance procedure or how to use it. The medical provider has such remedies and prisoners are routinely given notice of it through a memo containing detailed instructions. In addition, the DOC inmate orientation manual (given to prisoners during orientation and kept in the law library) describes its own inmate complaint procedure, which is available for all kinds of complaints. The court is not impressed by plaintiffs' assertions of their personal lack of knowledge; absent evidence that the procedures were not in place system-wide, they were "available" for PLRA purposes. At 1256: "... [T]he court does not reach the question of whether administrative remedies would be 'available' within the meaning of the PLRA in a case where the plaintiffs did provide evidence that the responsible correctional entity had failed on a system2Dwide basis, or otherwise in some substantial measure or significant way, to inform inmates about its grievance procedures"

Plaintiffs' assertion that the remedies are ineffective or inadequate, and the absence of evidence that inmate grievances are "appropriately addressed and resolved," do not bear on whether the procedures are "available." (1256) See: Edwards v. Alabama Dept. of Corrections, 81 F.Supp.2d 1242 (M.D.Ala. 2000).

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Related legal case

Edwards v. Alabama Dept. of Corrections