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Ninth Circuit Reinstates Disabled Prisoner's Deliberate Indifference Claim

On November 5, 2012, the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a disabled prisoner with limited English proficiency who alleged that prison officials violated his constitutional rights by failing to honor a doctor’s order to house him in a ground-floor cell.

In December 2008, Javiad Akhtar, a disabled California state prisoner at Mule Creek State Prison, was informed that he was being moved from his cell to a triple bunk in a dayroom dormitory. Akhtar refused after showing staff documentation signed by a doctor indicating that his various medical conditions, as well as his mobility impairment, limited the locations in which he could safely be housed.

After twice being disciplined for refusing to move, Akhtar was moved to a triple bunk in the dayroom, around 75 feet from the nearest urinal. He subsequently fell from the bunk bed and broke his wrist. Further, he suffered embarrassment and humiliation on several occasions when, unable to reach the restroom in time, he urinated on himself.

Akhtar filed suit in federal court in October 2009, alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. He attached exhibits to his complaint indicating that he had exhausted his administrative remedies.

After the complaint was “screened out” pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), Akhtar filed an amended complaint to which he appended various medical documents, but not the grievances and administrative denials he had previously submitted to the court with his original complaint.

When the defendants responded with a motion to dismiss, Akhtar did not file a response. Concluding that Akhtar had waived any opposition to the motion, the magistrate judge recommended that the complaint be dismissed on the grounds that Akhtar had failed to exhaust administrative remedies or, alternatively, failed to state a claim under the Eighth Amendment.

Akhtar filed objections to the magistrate’s report and recommendations, attaching copies of the administrative appeals he had submitted with his initial complaint. He asked the district court to construe his objections as constituting an opposition, albeit belated, to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The district court declined Akhtar’s request and, after adopting the magistrate’s recommendations, dismissed the amended complaint with prejudice.

The Ninth Circuit held on appeal that, considering Akhtar’s status as a pro se litigant, as well as his disabilities and limited English skills, the district court’s refusal to consider the evidence that Akhtar had likely exhausted his administrative remedies constituted an abuse of discretion, notwithstanding his failure to present that evidence at the appropriate time; i.e., when he had an opportunity to file an opposition to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The Court of Appeals held that Akhtar’s grievance had been sufficiently detailed to put prison officials on notice of his Eighth Amendment claim, and therefore that he had exhausted his administrative remedies. It also held that his complaint set forth sufficient facts to state a claim for relief. Finally, the Ninth Circuit found the district court had erred by not providing Akhtar, then proceeding pro se, adequate notice of the requirements for opposing the motion to dismiss pursuant to Wyatt v. Terhune, 315 F.3d 1108, 1120 n.14 (9th Cir. 2003).

Accordingly, the order of dismissal was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. Akhtar was ably represented on appeal by the students and faculty of the UC Davis Civil Rights Clinic. See: Akhtar v. Mesa, 698 F.3d 1202 (9th Cir. 2012).

The defendants filed another motion to dismiss following remand, which was denied by the district court on June 7, 2013. This case remains pending.