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Michigan: Class-action Suit Alleges Systematic Deficiencies in Prison Dental Care

A Michigan federal district court has allowed portions of a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of dental care provided to state prisoners to proceed.

Michigan prisoners Robert Johannes, Michael Woroniecki, Phillip Turner and Roger Stephenson alleged the dental care they received while incarcerated was constitutionally inadequate, and sought class-action status for their claims. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.33].

On September 25, 2015, the court denied without prejudice a motion to certify the class. The defendants, Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Director Heidi Washington and Dr. Dalton Sanders, then moved for summary judgment, and a magistrate judge recommended their motion be granted. Before the district court were the parties’ objections to that report and recommendation.

The prisoners asserted “systematic deficiencies in how the defendants choose to deliver dental care, due to the reduction in the number of dentists hired, and the issuance of a modified policy directive requiring a minimum two years wait once you enter a prison to even be placed on a waiting list and requiring a prisoner to wait five years for replacement of dentures.”

The amended complaint encompassed those and five class-related claims, including unwritten MDOC practices of extracting rather than repairing teeth, and refusing or delaying treatment for broken teeth, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The defendants argued the prisoners had failed to exhaust administrative remedies as required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The district court agreed in part and found one of the plaintiffs’ claims moot.

Stephenson claimed he “suffered severe and prolonged pain” while waiting for his dentures, which he received in June 2014. The court found that mooted his claim for injunctive relief and raised concerns regarding his representation of the other class members as to that claim, requiring further briefing.

The issue of exhaustion came down to an MDOC policy requiring prisoners to include “[d]ates, times, places, and names of all those involved in the issue being grieved.” It was undisputed the prisoners did not name either Washington or Dr. Sanders in their grievances.

The district court held that under Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199 (2007), a prisoner need not include the names of prison officials in grievances unless required by an institutional rule, while Reed-Bey v. Pramstaller, 603 F.3d 322 (6th Cir 2010) [PLN, May 2011, p.49] held that where prison officials overlooked the procedural failing and issued a merits-based ruling on the grievance, they waived the right to raise a failure-to-exhaust defense.

The court also found that the grievances contesting systematic MDOC policies gave prison officials notice of the plaintiffs’ claims, and that Washington could be held liable for policies that “plausibly [were] implemented or enforced by the Director of the MDOC.”

In the end, on March 31, 2016 the district court granted in part the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissed Woroniecki’s and Turner’s claims against Dr. Sanders, dismissed Johannes’ and Turner’s claims against Washington, and allowed all other claims to proceed.

The court found that Stephenson’s claim was moot because he had received his dentures while the suit was pending and he did not seek monetary damages. The case remains ongoing, with the plaintiffs represented by attorneys Daniel E. Manville and Robert Gittleman. See: Johannes v. Washington, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:14-cv-11691-LJM-MKM; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43165. 

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Related legal cases

Johannes v. Washington

Reed-Bey v. Pramstaller

Jones v. Bock