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Eighth Circuit: Procedurally Defaulted Grievances Decided on Merits are Considered Exhausted

On June 15, 2012, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a prisoner’s claims related to inadequate medical care.

Missouri state prisoner Mark E. Hammett, while housed at the Jefferson County Correctional Center, filed a federal lawsuit alleging insufficient medical care, retaliation and harassment claims. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss due to Hammett’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit joined the Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh and Tenth Circuits in holding that when a grievance could be denied for failure to comply with procedural requirements, but prison officials decide the grievance on the merits anyway, the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement is deemed satisfied.

Applying that rule, the appellate court determined that three of Hammett’s seven medical grievances “were fully exhausted because he pursued these grievances through all three steps of the process and his grievance appeals were denied on the merits.” Therefore, “dismissal of [his] § 1983 claims based on these grievances for failure to exhaust was improper.”

Even so, the Court of Appeals rejected Hammett’s argument that because three of the grievances had been properly exhausted, “all his medical claims survive defendants’ exhaustion defense.” Finding that four medical grievances were not properly exhausted, the Eighth Circuit held that any claims premised upon those grievances had been properly dismissed.

The appellate court also rejected Hammett’s argument that no administrative remedies were “available” within the meaning of § 1997e(a) for his retaliation and harassment claims, because, he contended, “the alleged retaliation was in response to his repeated medical grievances and directed by the correctional officials in charge of the grievance process.”

Citing Lyon v. Vande Krol, 305 F.3d 806, 808 (8th Cir. 2002) (en banc) [PLN, July 2003, p.36], the Court of Appeals recognized that “where a sufficient showing has been made, ‘we have held that inmates cannot be held to the exhaustion requirement of the PLRA when prison officials have prevented them from exhausting their administrative remedies.’” Hammett had not made that showing, however, and the Eighth Circuit therefore upheld the dismissal of his retaliation and harassment claims.

The judgment of the district court was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case remanded. Hammett represented himself on appeal. See: Hammett v. Cofield, 681 F.3d 945 (8th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Hammett v. Cofield