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Merits Ruling on Procedurally Flawed Grievance Satisfies PLRA

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that district courts may not enforce a prison’s procedural rule to find a failure to exhaust administrative remedies after prison officials declined to enforce the rule themselves. The Court also found the district court failed to undertake the proper two-step process to resolve motions to dismiss for failure to exhaust.

Georgia prisoner Shawn W. Whatley alleged that he was beaten on January 12, 2011 by guards at the Telfair State Prison and transferred within hours to Ware State Prison. He also claimed he was denied medical treatment. In response to his civil rights lawsuit, prison officials filed a 300-page motion to dismiss arguing that Whatley had failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

The district court granted the motion. At issue on appeal were two grievances Whatley had filed. The first was a January 18, 2011 informal grievance in which Whatley addressed the beating and lack of medical care. He received a receipt for the grievance, but never received a response. About three months later he filed an appeal. There was no indication on the receipt as to what issues were raised in the informal grievance, which Whatley had appealed without filing a formal grievance as required by prison policy; the district court found that constituted failure to exhaust available remedies.

In Turner v. Burnside, 541 F.3d 1077 (11th Cir. 2008), the appellate court set forth a two-prong test for failure to exhaust. First, district courts must look to factual allegations in the motion to dismiss and those in the prisoner’s response, and accept the prisoner’s version of the facts as true. The court should dismiss if the facts as stated by the prisoner indicate failure to exhaust. Second, if dismissal is not warranted on the prisoner’s version of the facts, the court must make specific findings to resolve factual disputes and should dismiss if, based on those findings, the defendants have shown failure to exhaust.

The district court did not accept Whatley’s version of the facts as true when he described what he had written in his January 18 informal grievance and the efforts he made to exhaust available remedies. The court also failed to resolve factual disputes related to that informal grievance. The case was remanded for the district court to resolve disputed facts to determine whether Whatley had in fact exhausted his administrative remedies.

Next, the Eleventh Circuit addressed a procedural bar applied by the district court on another grievance filed by Whatley that was properly exhausted through the three-step prison grievance process. At the informal stage, the grievance did not include the beating and medical care issues. Yet those issues were raised in the formal grievance and addressed on their merits by the warden. The district court imposed a bar to exhaustion because prison rules require issues in grievances to be raised during the informal stage.

The Court of Appeals held that was error, stating “a prisoner has exhausted his administrative remedies when prison officials decide a procedurally flawed grievance on the merits.” The district court’s order of dismissal was therefore reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Whatley v. Warden, 802 F.3d 1205 (11th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, the magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation to grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss because Whatley had failed to exhaust administrative remedies for his remaining excessive force and deliberate indifference claims. The district court adopted the magistrate’s report on September 28, 2016 and dismissed the case without prejudice. Whatley has again appealed the dismissal to the Eleventh Circuit. See: Whatley v. Hart, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135899 (S.D. Ga. 2016).

This case exemplifies the need for prisoners to properly and completely exhaust the administrative grievance process prior to filing suit and, when possible, to document their efforts to do so, which may be needed for judicial review. 

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Whatley v. Hart

Whatley v. Warden