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Ninth Circuit: Merits Decision Excuses Procedurally Flawed Exhaustion

by Mark Wilson

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a prisoner who fails to comply with prison grievance procedural requirements nevertheless exhausts administrative remedies if prison officials deny the grievances on the merits.

In January 2011, California prison physician Wesley Hashimoto recommended morphine and other pain medication for prisoner David Reyes' degenerative spinal condition. The prescription was initially approved by the prison's pain management committee, which included Drs. Christopher Smith and Scott Heatley.

In May 2011, however, Dr. Hashimoto informed Reyes that Drs. Smith and Heatley had ordered that his medications be gradually reduced and completely discontinued by June 2011.

Reyes filed a prison grievance challenging the "drastic changes" in his medication regimen, which caused him to suffer "unbelievable pain." Reyes requested examination by a physician, asserted that deliberate indifference to medical needs violates the Eighth Amendment, and cited Eighth Amendment cases.

A physician's assistant (PA) interviewed Reyes in response to his grievance. The PA ultimately denied the grievance because "the Pain Management Committee determined narcotics were not medically necessary." The PA found that morphine was not medically indicated.

Lawrence Fong, Chief Executive Officer of Health Care Services, denied Reyes' appeal of the PA's decision. Fong repeated that the "Pain Management Committee determined narcotics were not medically necessary." Fong also found that Reyes' medical care had been "appropriate and timely."

Reyes' third-level grievance appeal was denied by L.D. Zamora, Chief of the Office of Third Level Appeals for healthcare. Zamora again informed Reyes that the pain management committee had "recommended against narcotics," and found that Reyes was "receiving treatment deemed medically necessary." The order concluded, "This decision exhausts your available administrative remedies."

Reyes then brought federal suit, alleging that Drs. Smith, Heatley, and other prison officials were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) requires prisoners to exhaust all available administrative remedies before filing federal suit. 42 USC § 1997e(a). Exhaustion requires that a prisoner pursue every available step of the prison grievance process and adhere to the "critical procedural rules" of that process. See: Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90, 126 S.Ct. 2378 (2006).

Reyes undeniably exhausted all three steps of California's prison grievance system. His grievances did not, however, list the names of all staff members involved in the action he complained of, arguably violating California's grievance rules. See: Cal Code Regs. Tit. 15, § 3084.2(a).

The district court dismissed Reyes' claims against Drs. Smith and Heatley, finding that he violated § 3084.2(a) by failing to name those physicians in his grievance.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding "that a prisoner exhausts 'such administrative remedies as are available,' 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), under the 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."

The court observed that "all seven of our sister circuits to have considered the issue have" reached the same conclusion. The court also quoted the Supreme Court instruction that the "grievance process is only required to 'alert prison officials to a problem, not to provide personal notice to a particular official that he may be sued."' See: Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218, 127 S.Ct. 910 (2007).

Relying on its earlier holding in Griffin v. Arpaio, 557 F3d 1117, 1120 (9th Cir. 2009), the Court reiterated that the grievance "need not include legal terminology or legal theories," because the "primary purpose of a grievance is to alert the prison to a problem and to facilitate its resolution, not to lay groundwork for litigation."

Ultimately, the Court found that "Reyes' grievance plainly put prison officials on notice of the nature of the wrong alleged in his federal suit--denial of pain medication by the defendant doctors." It also noted that every grievance denial cited the pain management committee's decision. "Prison officials had full notice of the alleged deprivation and ample opportunity to resolve it," the Court held. "The grievance thus sufficed." See: Reyes v. Smith, F3d (9th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal case

Reyes v. Smith