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Eleventh Circuit Unpublished Decision on PLRA Administrative Exhaustion Requirements Trumped by Published Ruling

In an unpublished ruling, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that summary judgment, rather than a motion to dismiss, was the proper procedure to determine whether a prisoner had exhausted administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). However, that ruling was superceded by a published decision from the same appellate court.

In its first ruling the Eleventh Circuit considered the appeal of Georgia prisoner Benjamin R. Singleton, whose civil rights complaint stemmed from a February 19, 2004 incident in which a bus transporting prisoners caught fire. Singleton claimed that he suffered injuries and loss of property as a result of prison officials’ wrongdoing.

Two days after the accident Singleton filed an informal grievance; he then proceeded to a formal grievance, which was denied by the warden on March 30, 2004. Under Georgia Department of Corrections policy, Singleton had four business days to appeal the warden’s response by submitting it to his assigned counselor or the Grievance Coordinator.

The defendants argued that Singleton had filed his grievance appeal one day late, referring to a form signed by prison officials that indicated it was received on April 6, 2004; they filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court treated as an “unenumerated Rule 12(b) motion.” In response, Singleton filed an affidavit that said he gave the appeal to his counselor on April 1, and the counselor assured him he would place it in the chief counselor’s box.

Finding the “best evidence” of when Singleton had submitted his appeal was the “Date Appeal Received” entry on the grievance appeal form, the district court dismissed Singleton’s compliant under the PLRA for failure to exhaust. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement was not jurisdictional, but was an affirmative defense to be raised by the defendants and subject to the usual procedural practice under Supreme Court precedent.

The appellate court noted that affirmative defenses may be clear from the face of the pleadings, and are ordinarily handled on summary judgment motions under Rule 56.
“Furthermore, the burden of establishing an affirmative defense lies on the defendant, not on the plaintiff as the district court seems to suggest.”

The Court of Appeals also reminded the district court that summary judgment is not appropriate where a genuine issue of material fact exists about an affirmative defense. Because the dismissal was based on an erroneous application of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement, the matter was reversed and remanded. See: Singleton v. Department of Correction, 277 Fed.Appx. 921 (11th Cir. 2008) (unpublished).

On remand, the defendants filed another motion to dismiss based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the PLRA. Although the district court noted that the Eleventh Circuit had held the issue of exhaustion was a matter for summary judgment and the burden of proof should not be shifted to the plaintiff, it stated “Courts across the country are divided on both of these questions.”

Further, the district court observed that the subsequent, published Eleventh Circuit decision in Bryant v. Rich, 530 F.3d 1368 (11th Cir. 2008), which “held that it is proper for a judge to resolve factual disputes unconnected to the merits in deciding whether a prisoner has properly exhausted administrative remedies,” was “in direct conflict with the unpublished appellate decision issued in this case.”

Following the ruling in Bryant, the court required the defendants to “bear the burden of proof on all elements of exhaustion.” In finding that prison staff had signed Singleton’s grievance appeal form as being received five business days after the response to his formal grievance – one day past the deadline – the district court held that Singleton had failed to properly exhaust his administrative remedies.

Accordingly, the court again dismissed his suit. See: Singleton v. Johnson, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73923 (S.D. Ga. 2008). The dismissal was upheld on appeal on April 17, 2009, with the Eleventh Circuit approving the district court’s decision to follow Bryant rather than the prior conflicting, unpublished decision in this case.

The Court of Appeals also held that the district court “did not clearly err in making the factual finding that Singleton failed to satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement,” based on the date that his grievance appeal was received as indicated by prison staff, despite Singleton’s affidavit that he had filed his appeal in a timely manner. See: Singleton v. Department of Correction, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 8093 (11th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal cases

Singleton v. Department of Correction

Singleton v. Department of Correction

Singleton v. Johnson