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Ninth Circuit: California Prisoner Need Not Appeal from Satisfactory Grievance Response in Order to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

Clarifying “the boundaries of proper exhaustion” within the context of California’s prison system, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner “has no obligation to appeal from a grant of relief, or a partial grant that satisfies him, in order to exhaust administrative remedies.”

In July 2004, Quillie Harvey, a prisoner at Salinas Valley State Prison, was extracted from his cell with pepper spray. He was charged with refusing to comply with a cell search.

Prison officials subsequently failed to hold a hearing on the charge within 30 days as required by policy. In January 2005, Harvey filed a grievance complaining about the delay and requesting alternative forms of relief – either that the charge be dismissed or that he be provided access to a videotape of the cell extraction, which he claimed would prove his innocence.

In a written decision, prison officials partially granted Harvey’s appeal, agreeing to provide a hearing as well as access to the videotape. However, no hearing was held and no access to the video was granted. Thus, five months later, Harvey filed a “reminder” grievance which prison officials construed as an appeal of the earlier (partially-granted) grievance, and accordingly rejected as being untimely. “This screening action,” Harvey was informed, “may not be appealed.”

Harvey filed suit in federal court alleging a violation of his due process rights. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground that Harvey had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

On appeal, the defendants argued that Harvey should have appealed the grievance decision granting him a hearing and access to the videotape. The Ninth Circuit flatly rejected that argument, finding no merit to the suggestion that a prisoner should appeal a satisfactory grievance response or that it is a prisoner’s responsibility to ensure that prison officials actually provide the relief they have promised.

Significantly, the Ninth Circuit also rejected the defendants’ argument that Harvey should have appealed the decision rejecting his “reminder” grievance as being untimely. “Even if we were to agree that a prisoner has an obligation to appeal the rejection of a grievance that he has no obligation to file,” the appellate court reasoned, “[t]here is no obligation to appeal from a decision when the rejection form states that the “action may not be appealed.”

In a cautionary note to prisoners, however, the Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of another of Harvey’s claims on the grounds that his administrative grievance related to that claim was in fact untimely filed and therefore not properly exhausted. See: Harvey v. Jordan, 605 F.3d 681 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Harvey v. Jordan