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DC Circuit Reverses CCA/TransCor Non-Exhaustion Dismissal

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (DC) Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s lawsuit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies and for conceding summary judgment by failing to respond to the defendants’ summary judgment motion.

The District of Columbia contracted with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to house DC prisoners at CCA fa-cilities in Ohio and Arizona. TransCor, a CCA subsidiary, was responsible for transporting prisoners to and from those facilities.

DC prisoner Ismail Malik was confined at a CCA prison in Youngstown, Ohio until he and other prisoners were trans-ported by TransCor on July 2-4, 2001 on a forty-hour bus ride to CCA’s Arizona facility. According to transport officers, the transfer was punishment for the prisoners’ membership in a class-action lawsuit against CCA and DC officials. [See: PLN, Aug. 1999, p.14]

During the bus ride the prisoners were handcuffed at the waist with a belly chain that was attached to another prisoner’s chain, and they all wore leg shackles. It was impossible for the prisoners to use the restroom due to the restraints, forcing them to urinate and defecate on themselves. The restraints also prevented Malik from using his asthma inhaler, and the prisoners were denied water during the trip.

On July 12, 2001, Malik filed a grievance at the CCA prison in Arizona, “requesting the address and telephone number of the CCA main office in order to pursue a civil action.” CCA staff refused to process his grievance because TransCor, not CCA, had transported him. The grievance response included a name and address at TransCor that Malik could contact to submit a complaint. Malik filed two additional CCA grievances requesting paperwork to file an administrative appeal.

On July 27, 2001, Malik submitted a CCA appeal and also contacted TransCor, requesting that the company process his complaint. TransCor claimed it did not receive his letter.

A CCA warden denied Malik’s administrative appeal on August 14, 2001, again stating that CCA did not transport him and informing him that he needed to file a grievance with TransCor.
On July 11, 2005, Malik sued CCA, TransCor and the District of Columbia, alleging cruel and unusual punishment during the 40-hour bus ride. The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings or, alternatively, for summary judgment, alleging that Malik had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Malik responded to the motion.

While that motion was still pending, on August 1, 2007 the defendants filed a second summary judgment motion chal-lenging Malik’s claims on the merits. Malik moved for an extension of time to respond and on September 5, 2007 the court granted him until September 25 to submit a response.

On September 6, 2007 the district court granted the first summary judgment motion as to CCA and the District of Co-lumbia, concluding that it had taken Malik eight days to file his CCA grievance but CCA’s grievance policy required him to file within seven days. The court denied summary judgment to TransCor, finding there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Malik had sent a timely complaint to TransCor for exhaustion purposes.

On September 20, 2007, Malik sought reconsideration of the September 6 order, mistakenly believing it was an order on the second summary judgment motion that he had been given until September 25, 2007 to respond to.

TransCor filed four responses to Malik’s September 20 pleading, which Malik replied to on October 23, 2007, “again evidencing confusion about the import of the ... September 6 opinion.” On March 10, 2008 the district court granted TransCor’s second summary judgment motion, “treating the motion as conceded because Malik had failed to respond.”

Malik appealed and the DC Circuit reversed. The appellate court first reversed the non-exhaustion holding, because the same CCA policy that imposed a 7-day filing limit also rendered Malik’s complaint ungrievable.

As to the second summary judgment motion, the Court of Appeals found that “Malik’s confusion was not unfounded, given the complicated sequence of motions and orders.” It also noted that the district court had acknowledged failing to provide Malik with the standard pro se summary judgment notice.

The DC Circuit reversed, finding that given “both the objectively confusing procedural history and the subjective con-fusion that Malik plainly manifested, ‘it was incumbent upon the district court ...’” to provide Malik with the required notice.

The Court of Appeals also rejected TransCor’s argument “that Malik’s claim to have mailed the [complaint] letter [to TransCor] was not credible,” noting that credibility determinations cannot be resolved on summary judgment. The district court’s summary judgment orders were therefore reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Malik v. District of Columbia, 574 F.3d 781 (D.C. Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Malik v. District of Columbia