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Ninth Circuit Rules Prisoners Not Required to Include Legal Theories in Grievances

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a prisoner need not use legal terminology nor present legal theories when exhausting administrative remedies before filing a civil rights suit.

Jermaine Donte Griffin, an Arizona state prisoner housed at the Madison Street Jail in Maricopa County, Arizona, filed a civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and various jail employees alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.

Griffin claimed he was taking medication that “impaired his vision and depth perception, making it difficult for him to access upper bunks.” As a result, he fell from the upper bunk. He “obtained an order for a lower bunk assignment from a prison nurse,” but jail employees ignored the order and again assigned him to an upper bunk.

Griffin grieved the upper bunk assignment. Jail officials denied the grievance, noting the nurse’s order had resolved the problem. Griffin appealed the denial but failed to mention that the nurse’s order was being ignored. He lost the appeal and then filed a civil rights lawsuit.

The district court dismissed the suit, stating that Griffin had failed to exhaust administrative remedies because he had not alleged deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs – the legal basis of his claims – in his grievance. Griffin appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the jail’s grievance forms do not require a prisoner to state a legal basis for a grievance; instead, the forms instruct prisoners to give a brief description of the complaint and proposed resolution. In dismissing Griffin’s suit, the district court used an Eleventh Circuit standard requiring the inclusion in a grievance of all relevant information about a prisoner’s claims.

However, the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Circuits all use the standard set forth in Strong v. David, 297 F.3d 646 (7th Cir. 2002) [PLN, Oct. 2003, p.19]. Strong held that “when a prison’s grievance procedures are silent or incomplete as to factual specificity, ‘a grievance suffices if it alerts the prison to the nature of the wrong for which redress is sought.’” This aligns with the Supreme Court’s holding “that a prison’s own procedures define the contours of proper exhaustion.”

The Ninth Circuit adopted the Strong standard, holding that a “grievance need not contain every fact necessary to prove each element of an eventual legal claim. The primary purpose of a grievance is to alert the prison to a problem and facilitate its resolution, not to lay groundwork for litigation.”

Thus, the district court’s reliance on the Eleventh Circuit standard was in error. However, because Griffin failed to provide notice of the jail employees’ disregard of the nurse’s order, he failed to exhaust administrative remedies because he did not provide enough information to alert jail officials to the nature of his problem. The Ninth Circuit thus affirmed the dismissal of his lawsuit on that alternative basis. See: Griffin v. Arpaio, 557 F.3d 1117 (9th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Griffin v. Arpaio