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Disputed PLRA Administrative Exhaustion Issues Properly Resolved in Bench Trial

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held on June 18, 2015 that disputed issues of fact regarding exhaustion under the PLRA may be resolved in a bench trial. The appellate court also found the plaintiff had failed to exhaust one of his claims.

Before the Sixth Circuit was the appeal of Larry Lee, who filed a civil rights complaint after his release from a Michigan prison. “Lee, a homosexual man described as having effeminate mannerisms,” alleged a variety of claims against a number of prison officials that occurred from March 23, 2007 to May 9, 2007 at the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center.

The complaint claimed, in part, that several guards harassed Lee about being homosexual and/or made comments in front of other prisoners encouraging sexual advances. Lee alleged three guards refused to act when he sought protection from prisoners pursuing him for sex; he further stated that he had complained to several mental health professionals, including Dr. Kameshwari Mehra, a part-time psychiatrist.

Lee said two unidentified prisoners raped him in his cell on April 9, 2007, when he decided to forgo dinner. Following the sexual assault, Lee allegedly requested to see a mental health professional. He argued with an unknown guard who refused to provide a grievance form. The next day, guard Zischke denied him a form and called him a “faggot.” Lee claimed that he submitted a “substitute grievance” on prisoner stationery on April 10.

Dr. Mehra moved for summary judgment for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The district court found, and the Sixth Circuit agreed, that the matter of whether Lee submitted the substitute grievance was one that could be decided at a bench trial.

The evidence showed Lee had filed 13 grievances between April 5 and April 12, but his substitute grievance was not among them.

Testimony from Lee that two unit counselors spoke to him and moved him as a result of the substitute grievance was refuted by those employees’ testimony. There was no evidence that the substitute grievance was ever submitted, as there was no proof of it being received or acted upon by prison staff.

As such, the district court held that Lee had failed to administratively exhaust the claim against Dr. Mehra, and consequently dismissed that claim. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Lee’s claims against the other defendants were dismissed by stipulation. See: Lee v. Willey, 789 F.3d 673 (6th Cir. 2015).  

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Related legal case

Lee v. Willey