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Sixth Circuit Rules on Whether Prisoner Must Name Defendants in Grievance

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) internal grievance policy rule that prisoners name all defendants did not invalidate a prisoner’s grievance for purposes of exhaustion of administrative remedies when prison officials denied the grievance on the merits.

Mark Anthony Reed-Bly, a DOC prisoner, seriously dislocated his shoulder during a prison basketball game. He was treated at an emergency room and told that he would be seen by an orthopedic specialist within five days. 79 days later, he saw the specialist who told him that he would continue to have shoulder pain and accompanying headaches, some of which lasted up to three days, until he received surgery to repair the shoulder.

An X-ray showed that the shoulder separation was worsening and four times Reed-Bly requested follow-up care. Nonetheless, he did not receive the surgery until another three months had passed.

Reed-Bly filed a grievance. Prison officials responded, stating that the delay was caused by DOC officials awaiting approval for the surgery from Correctional Medical Services (CMS). The grievance was denied on the merits at all three levels.

Reed-Bly filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action in federal district court alleging the DOC, CMS and their employees violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by denying him adequate medical care. The district court summarily dismissed the action because Reed-Bly did not properly exhaust his administrative remedies by naming all of the defendants in his initial grievance. Reed-Bly appealed and the Sixth Circuit reversed, citing a recent Supreme Court opinion holding that the PLRA did not require prisoners to name all defendants in their grievances.

On remand, the district court granted defendants’ summary judgment motions or motions to dismiss on the theory that his failure to name any of the defendants in his initial grievance was fatal to his suit despite the Supreme Court decision because DOC grievance rules required prisoners to “name all defendants” in their initial grievances.
Thus, according to the district court, Reed-Bly’s administrative remedies were not properly exhausted as required by the PLRA. Reed-Bly appealed.

The Sixth Circuit held that prison officials waived this defense when they denied Reed-Bly’s grievances on the merits. “When prison officials decline to enforce their own procedural requirements and opt to consider otherwise-defaulted claims on the merits, so as a general rule, will we.” This was in accord with previous decisions by the 3rd, 7th and 10th Circuits. Therefore, the Sixth Circuit reversed the summary judgments and dismissals and remanded the cause to the district court. See: Reed-Bly v. Pramstaller, 603 F.3d 322 (6th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Reed-Bly v. Pramstaller