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Tenth Circuit Rules Oklahoma Prisoner Exhausted Administrative Remedies

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal of an Oklahoma prisoner’s civil rights lawsuit against prison officials for refusing to provide him with a vegetarian diet consistent with his faith. In reversing the district court, the Court of Appeals held the prisoner had exhausted his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

While incarcerated at the Mack Alford Correctional Center (MACC) in 2006 and 2007, Oklahoma state prisoner Gary Little requested a strict vegan diet in accordance with his religious practices as a Seventh Day Adventist. A vegan diet consists of plant foods only and does not contain any animal byproducts such as eggs or milk. Instead, because the prison provided only “meat free,” “pork free” and “kosher” as options for religious diets, the warden approved Little for a “meat free” diet.

Little filed a grievance, claiming that he often went hungry because the no-meat diet contained animal byproducts that he could not eat. Little’s grievance was returned, stating he would be placed on a no-meat diet with double portions of vegetables, peanut butter and fruit if available. Little appealed the warden’s decision to the “Administrative Reviewing Authority” (ARA), the last step available in the Oklahoma DOC’s grievance process. The ARA returned Little’s grievance unanswered, saying it was improperly filed because he included “more than one issue.”

On June 15, 2007, Little filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, claiming MACC officials had denied him a vegan diet in violation of his rights under the First Amendment and the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court dismissed the suit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the PLRA, as the ARA had returned Little’s grievance unprocessed. He appealed.

The Tenth Circuit reversed, finding that Little had exhausted his administrative remedies. The appellate court noted that “where prison officials prevent, thwart or hinder a prisoner’s efforts to avail himself of an administrative remedy they render that remedy ‘unavailable’ and a court will excuse the prisoner’s failure to exhaust,” citing Lyon v. Vande Krol, 305 F.3d 806, 808 (8th Cir. 2002) (en banc) [PLN, July 2003, p.36].

In Little’s case, the ARA had returned Little’s grievance unprocessed – which it lacked the authority to do – effectively rendering that step of the grievance process unavailable. The case was remanded for further proceedings. See: Little v. Jones, 607 F.3d 1245 (10th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Little v. Jones