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Prisoners Not Required to Take Unspecified Steps to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

On February 25, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded a prisoner’s suit had been improperly dismissed when he “failed to do something not specified, outlined, or required by his prison’s grievance procedure.”

Before the Court was the appeal of Ohio state prisoner Shannon E. Troche. The appeal followed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to prison officials on the grounds that Troche failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act because he did not file a step three grievance.

Troche’s civil rights action alleged that while he was housed at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) on August 20, 2001, guard Michael Crabtree “choked and assaulted him” in a secluded pan room, causing “multiple injuries that required medical treatment.”

According to his declaration before the district court, Troche initiated an Informal Complaint Resolution but never received a response. He then moved to the second step of the grievance process and submitted a notification of grievance form to the inspector of institutional services. He again received no response, so he sent correspondence to prison officials asking about the status of his grievance. Still not receiving a reply, he filed suit.

The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s Report and Recommendation, which found that “despite the alleged failure of the SOCF prison officials to respond to his earlier filings,” Troche should have filed a step three appeal under the prison system’s grievance procedure.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed. It found that Ohio instructs prisoners to proceed to step two after a “reasonable time,” but step two “imparts no authorization to proceed to step three of the grievance procedure to inmates who never receive a response.”

The appellate court found genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether Troche had exhausted his available administrative remedies. In its final point, the Sixth Circuit took issue with the magistrate judge’s interpretation of the holding in Risher v. Lappin, 639 F.3d 236 (6th Cir. 2011). There, a policy required prisoners to treat a non-response to a grievance as a denial, which is not the case with Ohio’s procedure.

“[A]ll prison grievance procedures are not made alike, and what a prisoner is required to do by one grievance procedure to exhaust his administrative remedies is not necessarily required by another,” the Court of Appeals wrote. Quoting from Risher, it added, “When pro se inmates are required to follow agency procedures to the letter in order to preserve their federal claims, we see no reason to exempt the agency from similar compliance with its own rules.”

The district court’s order was reversed and the case remains pending on remand. See: Troche v. Crabtree, 814 F.3d 795 (6th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal cases

Troche v. Crabtree

Risher v. Lappin