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Ninth Circuit Declines to Enforce Procedural Bar When Prison Officials Waive Rule

In a January 12, 2016 decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner successfully exhausts “such administrative remedies as are available” under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) “despite failing to comply with a procedural rule if prison officials ignore the procedural problem and render a decision on the merits of the grievance at each available step of the administrative process.”

Before the Court was the appeal of California prisoner David Reyes, who alleged in his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. Reyes suffered from a degenerative spine condition in January 2011 when Dr. Wesley Hashimoto recommended a regimen of pain medications that included morphine.

The prison’s Pain Management Committee, which included Chief Physician and Surgeon Dr. Christopher Smith and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Scott Heatley, originally approved the medications but ordered they would be gradually reduced and discontinued entirely by June 2011. As a result, Reyes filed a grievance asserting he suffered “unbelievable pain” due to the “drastic changes” to his medication regimen.

In response to his grievance Reyes was interviewed by a physician’s assistant (PA), who determined that morphine was not “‘medically indicated’ because Reyes was functioning well with his current treatment.” The PA also stated “The Pain Management Committee determined narcotics were not medically necessary.” Reyes then pursued the next two levels of the grievance process with similar responses and denials. When the final step indicated he had exhausted his available administrative remedies, Reyes filed suit against Drs. Smith and Heatley, as well as other prison officials.

The district court agreed with a magistrate judge’s recommendation that the lawsuit should be dismissed under the PLRA due to Reyes’ failure to name the physicians in his grievance, contrary to a California prison rule that requires prisoners to “list all staff member[s] involved in the issue.”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found seven other circuits had dealt with the issue of a procedural bar under the PLRA for a prisoner’s failure to name all staff members during the grievance process. Each found that where “prison officials opt not to enforce a procedural rule but instead decide an inmate’s grievance on the merits, the purposes of the PLRA exhaustion requirement have been fully served: prison officials have had a fair opportunity to correct any claimed deprivation and an administrative record supporting the prison’s decision has been developed.”

The appellate court agreed and declined to enforce procedural rules where prison officials had failed to do so. Reyes’ grievance provided sufficient notice as to “the nature of the wrong for which redress [was] sought.” The district court’s order of dismissal was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings, where it remains pending. See: Reyes v. Smith, 810 F.3d 654 (9th Cir. 2016), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied

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Related legal case

Reyes v. Smith