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Sixth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Suit Due to Non-Exhaustion and Statute of Limitations

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's summary judgment order that erroneously dismissed a Michigan prisoner's lawsuit for non-exhaustion and because it was time-barred.

On November 30, 2005, Michigan state prisoner Samuel Surles filed suit in federal court, alleging that prison officials at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility had confiscated his legal papers and computer disks on several occasions between April 4, 2004 and July 29, 2005.

The district court ordered Surles to show cause why his suit should not be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). He submitted documents showing that he had exhausted his remedies but the court dismissed the case anyway, without prejudice.

Surles filed a second complaint on August 23, 2007, alleging that between January 16, 2004 and October 21, 2005, prison officials "confiscated his legal documents, damaged or destroyed legal and religious papers and property, deprived him of court access, violated his First Amendment rights, retaliated against him and conspired to violate his rights." He attached copies of eight grievances to his complaint; each had been denied as untimely.

The district court ignored Surles's claim "that his attempts to exhaust his administrative remedies were thwarted" by a prison official "who refused to process his grievances, placed him on modified access for three months, and interfered with his grievances."

Concluding that Surles's claims arising from events that occurred before August 23, 2004 were outside the applicable three-year statute of limitations, and that he had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, the district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Surles appealed.

The Sixth Circuit reversed on May 8, 2012, noting that the "defendants bore the burden of proof on exhaustion" and "erroneously insist[ed] that they did not have to demonstrate exhaustion." See: Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199 (2007) [PLN, May 2007, p.36] and Napier v. Laurel County, Ky., 636 F.3d 218 (6th Cir. 2011). In short, "A PLRA defendant bears the burden of proving that a PLRA plaintiff has not exhausted his administrative remedies."

The Court of Appeals held that "the district court did not properly apply the Bock standard" in this case, because "an examination of the evidence presented on summary judgment confirms that Defendants did not show the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact as to Surles's exhaustion of administrative remedies. Therefore, the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants."

The appellate court explained that only when a "plaintiff contends that he was prevented from exhausting his remedies must the defendant present evidence showing that the plaintiff's ability to exhaust was not hindered." However, the "[d]efendants presented no proof that they did not interfere with Surles's ability to exhaust his administrative remedies."

Additionally, noting that Brown v. Morgan, 209 F.3d 595 (6th Cir. 2000) held that PLRA exhaustion tolls the statute of limitations, the Sixth Circuit found the district court had erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants on statute of limitations grounds. "A genuine dispute of fact exists as to how much time should be tolled while Surles was exhausting, or attempting to exhaust, his administrative remedies," the Court of Appeals wrote, as the defendants "were required to show that Surles's claims were untimely even after tolling for the period during which Surles was exhausting his administrative remedies." See: Surles v. Andison, 678 F.3d 452 (6th Cir. 2012).

The district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants was therefore reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings. Following remand, the court appointed counsel for Surles on October 31, 2012. The case remains pending.

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Related legal case

Surles v. Andison