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Seventh Circuit: No Right to Jury Trial in Exhaustion Dispute

By Mark Wilson

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner is not entitled to a jury trial to resolve factual disputes about his exhaustion of administrative remedies.

Indiana prisoner Christopher Pavey sued several guards in federal court, alleging that they subjected him to excessive force when they broke his arm during a cell extraction. In their answer, Defendants asserted that Pavey “failed to exhaust his administrative remedies” by failing to file a timely grievance. Pavey asserted in an affidavit that he could not exhaust because “he is left-handed and it was his left arm that was broken,” preventing him from preparing the grievance himself. He also claimed that “he was transferred to another prison before a promised investigation” was conducted, preventing “him from obtaining the facts that he needed … to press a grievance effectively.”

The district court held that Pavey was entitled under “the Seventh Amendment to a jury trial on any debatable factual issues relating to the defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies.” Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal and the Seventh Circuit reversed.

Observing “that juries do not decide what forum a dispute is to be resolved in,” the court explained “juries decide cases, not issues of traffic control.” Additionally, requiring a jury trial for exhaustion issues would thwart “the statutory goal of sparing federal courts the burden of prisoner litigation until and unless the prison has exhausted his administrative remedies.”

The court directed that when exhaustion is contested: “(1) The district judge conducts a hearing on exhaustion and permits whatever discovery relating to exhaustion (and only exhaustion) he deems appropriate. (2) If the judge determines that the prisoner did not exhaust his administrative remedies, he will then determine whether (a) the Plaintiff has unexhausted remedies, and so he must go back and exhaust; (b) or, although he has no unexhausted remedies, the failure to exhaust was innocent (as where prison officials prevent a prisoner from exhausting his remedies), in which event he will be allowed to go back and exhaust; or (c) the failure to exhaust was the prisoner’s fault, in which event the case is over. (3) If and when the judge determines that the prisoner has properly exhausted … the case will proceed to pretrial discovery, and if necessary a trial on the merits; and if there is a jury trial, the jury will make all necessary findings of fact without being bound by (or even informed of) any of the findings made by the district judge in determining that the prisoner had exhausted his administrative remedies.” Additionally, “discovery with respect to the merits must not begin until the issue of exhaustion is resolved,” the court instructed.

See: Pavey v. Conley, 544 F3d 739 (7th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Pavey v. Conley