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Fifth Circuit Clarifies Procedure for PLRA Failure-to-Exhaust Dismissals

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that summary judgment may be granted when a defendant alleges failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), but, in this particular case, the record was not sufficiently developed to support summary judgment.

Keith Mark Dillon was a prisoner at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005. Two days later, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) evacuated Dillon to a temporary facility in Jena, Louisiana. Dillon was allegedly beaten and mistreated at Jena about a month after his arrival. A short time following the beating, Dillon was transferred to Allen Correctional Center (ACC) in Kinder, Louisiana, and the Jena facility was closed.

Dillon filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court alleging the beating he received at Jena violated his civil rights. The defendants moved to dismiss the action pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 12(b), alleging failure to exhaust administrative remedies required by the PLRA, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). The district court converted the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment pursuant to FRCP Rule 12(d), as both parties had relied on other evidence in addition to the pleadings. Summary judgment was granted to the defendants and Dillon appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that, a circuit split notwithstanding, summary judgment was an appropriate vehicle to determine whether a prisoner has exhausted administrative remedies when it cannot be readily determined from the pleadings that the prisoner has not exhausted administrative remedies. Such a determination should be made prior to a ruling on the merits.

Dillon alleged that when he asked Jena officials about filing a grievance, he was forced to kneel on the ground for an hour and told to forget about grievances. He also alleged ACC officials told him he could not file a grievance at ACC for incidents that occurred at Jena.
Nonetheless, Dillon filed grievances at ACC complaining of lack of medical treatment for the injuries he received from the beatings at Jena and asking if he could grieve the beatings. He further gave a visiting attorney a hand-written grievance that he thought would be delivered to the DPSC, but was not.

The Administrative Remedies Procedure (ARP) in Louisiana is a two-step process requiring that a prisoner’s initial grievance be filed where the incident occurred. La.Admin.Code Tit. 22 § 325(A). That grievance is processed locally, but the reply or failure to receive a reply may be appealed to the Assistant Secretary of Adult Services. A prisoner who believes that a grievance is sensitive or that he or she would be adversely affected by filing it locally may file the first grievance directly with the Assistant Secretary.

Because Dillon was a parish jail prisoner at Jena and not a DPSC prisoner, he may not have been familiar with the ARP. Because no discovery had been conducted, the record was unclear as to whether Dillon had sufficient information from independent sources, such as a prisoner orientation handbook or briefing, to overcome the misinformation he received from prison officials or whether the misinformation made the ARP procedures “unavailable” to him, eliminating the requirement of exhaustion.

Therefore, the summary judgment order was vacated and the case returned to the district court with instructions to allow Dillon to conduct discovery on the issue of exhaustion of administrative remedies. See: Dillon v. Rogers, 596 F.3d 260 (5th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Dillon v. Rogers