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Federal Court Rules on Exhaustion Issues for Joined Plaintiffs in Lawsuit Against CCA

On October 18, 2010, an Idaho federal court held that prisoners who were subjected to confusing rules and advice from prison officials regarding how to raise grievance issues had adequately exhausted their administrative remedies when they tried to raise those issues in disciplinary proceedings. The court also held that prisoners who joined the lawsuit had timely exhausted their administrative remedies when they completed the exhaustion process after the suit was filed but before joining.

Idaho state prisoner Marlin Riggs filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials at the Idaho Correctional Center (ICC), which is run by private prison firm Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), “failed to protect him from violence and were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs.” Riggs sought monetary, declaratory and injunctive relief.

Later, six other prisoners joined Riggs’ lawsuit based upon assaults that occurred after the case was filed. According to a 2008 study by the Associated Press, ICC had more reported violent assaults than at Idaho’s seven state prisons combined. The joined plaintiffs sought only declaratory and injunctive relief. The prisoners, represented by the ACLU, filed a motion for certification as a class-action suit.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the six joined plaintiffs had not properly exhausted their administrative remedies pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) because they had not completed the process before the suit was filed and some had raised issues during disciplinary proceedings instead of through the grievance system. The defendants also sought dismissal of one plaintiff who had been transferred to another facility and one who had been released on parole.

According to the complaint, plaintiffs Andrew Ibarra, Joe Rocha and Joshua Kelly were incarcerated in ICC’s North Wing when they were told to move to the West Wing. They informed prison officials that members of a rival gang were housed in that unit and they would be attacked if moved there. They were ordered to move anyway.

Two hours after they arrived in the West Wing, ten to fifteen rival gang members attacked and beat them during the evening meal. Plaintiffs Jose Piña and Ray Barrios, who were seated nearby, were also assaulted. Each of the five received disciplinary infractions for fighting even though they allegedly did not fight back. When they tried to grieve the failure of prison staff to protect them, they were told to raise the issue during their disciplinary proceedings.

The rules for filing grievances were confusing and also could be interpreted as instructing the prisoners to raise the failure to protect issue in disciplinary proceedings. Disciplinary officials refused to address the issue at the hearing or appellate stages. Only Kelly received any relief through the disciplinary process; he was found not guilty.

The district court held that, except for Rocha, all of the joined plaintiffs had sufficiently exhausted their administrative remedies because the confusing grievance rules and advice from prison officials led them to believe they had to raise the failure to protect issue in their disciplinary proceedings. Moreover, when they tried to address that issue in grievances they were rebuffed by CCA staff.

Rocha, however, did not mention failure to protect during his disciplinary proceedings or in a grievance, so he did not exhaust his administrative remedies; also, none of the plaintiffs had raised inadequate post-assault medical care in their disciplinary proceedings, thus that claim was deemed not exhausted.

Another plaintiff, Randy Enzminger, was subjected to multiple serious beatings after he refused to pay “rent” to prisoners demanding payment in his housing unit. Prison staff had failed to move him after he reported threats and told them he feared for his safety. They still refused to move him after two beatings. Enzminger exhausted his administrative remedies on the failure to protect issue, then joined the lawsuit.

The district court held that the joined plaintiffs only had to exhaust their administrative remedies before joining the suit, not before the suit was filed. Therefore, Enzminger, Ibarra, Piña, Barrios and Kelly had properly exhausted the failure to protect claim. Ibarra, who had been released on parole, and Barrios, who was transferred to another prison, were allowed to continue as prospective class representatives, at least temporarily, because the circumstances in the case were inherently transitory – an exception to the rule that cases become moot when the circumstances no longer apply to a plaintiff who represents a class.

The court dismissed Rocha from the suit and dismissed the deliberate indifference to serious medical needs claims of all the remaining plaintiffs except Riggs (Riggs’ medical care claim was later dismissed for failure to exhaust in a separate court order). Allowing Ibarra and Barrios to continue as prospective class representatives, the court ordered the plaintiffs to renew their motion for class certification. See: Riggs v. Valdez, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:09-cv-00010-EJL; 2010 WL 4117085.

On April 27, 2011, the district court denied the plaintiffs’ renewed motion for class certification and granted a motion to sever the damages claims in the case from the claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. The injunctive and declaratory relief claims were filed as a separate action in Kelly v. Wengler, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:11-cv-00185-EJL. Both cases settled as this issue of PLN goes to press and will be reported on in an upcoming issue.

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Related legal cases

Kelly v. Wengler

Riggs v. Valdez