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Ninth Circuit: Improper Screening of Prisoner's Grievances May Excuse Failure to Exhaust Under PLRA

In a ruling with potentially significant consequences, the Ninth Circuit held on September 27, 2010 that a prison official's improper screening out of a prisoner's grievances may excuse the prisoner's failure to exhaust administrative remedies, a prerequisite to filing a civil rights complaint under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

In 2002, California prisoner Ivan Sapp filed a series of grievances seeking medical care for an eye injury he had sustained in 1989. While it is unclear whether Sapp ever received the medical care he requested, it is uncontested that he never succeeded in exhausting the grievances he submitted through the three levels of formal review provided by prison regulations; the reason he did not succeed is also uncontested: defendant D. Kimbrell, the prison Appeals Coordinator, invoked various provisions of the regulations to "screen out" Sapp's grievances.

Proceeding pro se, Sapp filed his § 1983 suit against Kimbrell, Doctor D. Peterson, and two other defendants. The district court dismissed the claims against one defendant because he was never served. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b), it dismissed the remaining claims against the other defendants for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. In particular, with respect to the claims against Dr. Peterson, the district court held that Sapp's grievances were inadequate because they failed to mention Peterson by name.

On appeal, Sapp, represented by appointed counsel, pressed two grounds for excusing his failure to exhaust. First, he contended that his grievances were improperly screened out, thereby rendering administrative remedies effectively unavailable to him. Second, he argued that special circumstances, in particular his significant difficulty in pursuing the grievance process, warranted recognition of an equitable exception to PLRA's exhaustion requirement.

As to the second ground, the Ninth Circuit held that Sapp would not qualify for an equitable exception because the procedure for obtaining the medical care he requested was straightforward – all he had to do was file a Health Care Request form and then, if officials failed to respond, file an administrative grievance (Sapp filed the former but never the latter.)

As to the first ground, relying on Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007), the Ninth Circuit held that California regulations required Sapp only to "describe the problem and the action requested," but not to identify responsible parties by name. It acknowledged that improper screen-out of a prisoner's grievance would render administrative remedies effectively unavailable and thus excuse PLRA's exhaustion requirement. However, in the case before it, the Court found that all of Sapp's appeals were in fact properly screened out and, accordingly, that his failure to exhaust was not excused. See: Sapp v. Kimbrell, 623 F.3d 813 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Sapp v. Kimbrell