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Dismissal of Pennsylvania Prisoner’s Legal Mail Claim Reversed

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment to officials at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Smithfield (SCI) in a civil rights action claiming they engaged in a pattern or practice of opening a prisoner’s legal mail outside his presence. It also held the district court abused its discretion by denying the prisoner leave to amend the complaint.

Between April 28, 2006 and July 15, 2008, prisoner John Diaz filed eight grievances complaining about SCI employees opening his legal mail outside of his presence. Of those grievances, only one was appealed through all three steps of the grievance process.

Diaz filed his complaint on December 3, 2007, naming as defendants SCI Superintendent John Palakovich, SCI Grievance Coordinator Lisa Hollibaugh, Mailroom Supervisor Peggy Everhart, and Mail Inspectors Jane Does I and II. In granting summary, the district court held Diaz could not show a pattern and practice of legal mail being opened outside his presence. It also denied substituting Staci Weaverling and Carolyn Weinfurther for the fictitious defendants would be futile.

The Third Circuit disagreed, for “a reasonable fact-finder could find that these defendants had knowledge of the violations through Diaz’s grievances and acquiesced in the violations by failing to address a practice of opening legal mail outside of a [prisoner’s] presence,” in reversing summary judgment. “The record demonstrates that Palakovich was copied on or responded to three of Diaz’s grievances, Hollibaugh acknowledged receipt of nearly every one of Diaz’s grievances, and Everhart had admitted knowledge of two violations and was directly responsible for supervising the mailroom…thus, all three had notice of the improper legal mail handling.”

The Third Circuit, furthermore, held the district court’s rationale for finding amendment of the complaint would be futile was flawed. In determining whether a pattern or practice could be proven, the district court failed to consider the seven grievances it considered were unexhausted.

While the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) prohibits certain administratively unexhausted or procedurally defaulted grievances from forming the basis for a prison conditions action, it must consider extrinsic evidence. In this case, the “seven other grievances are contemporaneous parts of the prison record as they all address the same practice of improper legal mail handling and directly bear on the fully exhausted grievance addressing the identical issue.” Moreover, those grievances had to be considered exhausted under the PLRA because the outcomes- “grievance resolved” or “uphold inmate” –were favorable.

“The District Court further erred in determining the Diaz’s failure to name individual defendants in his grievances amounted to a procedural default under the PLRA,” held the Third Circuit. The PLRA requires “proper exhaustion.” Although it has held that may include naming defendants in grievances, when, like here, the prison has identified them during the grievance process, the requirement is excused.

The matter was reversed and remanded. See: Diaz v. Palakovich, 448 Fed.Appx. 211 (3d Cir. 2011) (unpublished).

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Related legal case

Diaz v. Palakovich