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No Time Limit for Defendants to Raise a PLRA Defense

by David M. Reutter

On May 17, 2010, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to prison officials on the eve of trial, holding it was an abuse of discretion to grant the oral motion for summary judgment so late in the proceedings. The appellate court also held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) does not impose a strict timing requirement on prison officials to raise the affirmative defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Before the Third Circuit was the appeal of Pennsylvania prisoner Jeffrey Allen Drippe. His civil rights complaint alleged an Eighth Amendment violation for denial of prompt medical treatment by guard Ralph Gototewski. Drippe was forced on August 1, 2004 to shower in a dirty shower without footwear. By August 4 he had become extremely sick with flu-like symptoms and a swollen leg.

Gototewski came to Drippe’s cell and stated, “that looks really bad.” He told Drippe that he would inform the Unit Sergeant, but Drippe was not taken to medical until August 7. He was diagnosed with cellulitis.

In answering Drippe’s complaint, Gototewski raised several defenses, with failure to exhaust administrative remedies being the last. A scheduling order was issued, requiring dispositive motions to be submitted by March 3, 2008. Gototewski filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied, in October 2007.

He filed another motion during the pre-trial conference, arguing that none of Drippe’s administrative remedies had reached final review. That motion was denied when Drippe showed he had in fact pursued two grievances to the final level of review. On the eve of trial, Gototewski made an oral motion for summary judgment. In granting the motion, the district court held that Drippe’s grievances did not give prison officials notice of the staff member accused of wrongdoing or of the unconstitutional conduct.

On appeal, Drippe made two arguments. The first was based on Pavey v. Conley, 544 F.3d 737 (7th Cir. 2008). There, the Court of Appeals had held the “district court must first hold a hearing to address exhaustion, then order exhaustion-related discovery, and finally, the district court must resolve the question of exhaustion before commencing merits-based pre-trial discovery.”

The Third Circuit agreed with this procedure to meet “the statutory goal of sparing federal courts the burden of prisoner litigation until and unless the prisoner has exhausted his administrative remedies.” Nonetheless, the appellate court rejected Drippe’s position that Pavey held there is written into the “PLRA a timing requirement for which the PLRA provides no textual support.”

However, Drippe’s second argument, that the district court had violated Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(b), was well-taken. In that regard, Gototewski’s third summary judgment motion came seven months after the court’s scheduling order. Pursuant to Rule 6, “any post deadline extension must be ‘upon motion made,’ and is permissible only where the failure to meet the deadline ‘was the result of excusable neglect.’”

The oral summary judgment motion made just before trial failed to meet the Rule’s required “high degree of formality and precision, putting the opposing party on notice that a motion is at issue and that he therefore ought to respond.” Moreover, the district court failed to find that excusable neglect existed, which requires consideration of “all relevant circumstances surrounding the party’s omission. These include ... the danger of prejudice ..., the length of the delay and its potential impact on judicial proceedings, the reason for the delay, including whether it was within the reasonable control of the movant, and whether the movant acted in good faith.”

The Third Circuit therefore reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded for the district court to let Gototewski file a motion for an extension of time in which to file another dispositive motion. See: Drippe v. Tobelinski, 604 F.3d 778 (3rd Cir. 2010).

The case proceeded to trial following remand, though the district court held that “[t]he issue of Plaintiff’s exhaustion of administrative remedies raised as an affirmative defense and as a question of law will be tried by the Court without a jury prior to any trial on the remaining issues in the case.”

On November 10, 2010, just before trial, the district court again dismissed the case, “on the basis that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.” Drippe has appealed the dismissal to the Third Circuit, and his appeal remains pending. See: Drippe v. Tobelinski, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:06-cv-01096-ARC.

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Drippe v. Tobelinski

Drippe v. Tobelinski