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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Indiana Prisoner’s Lawsuit, Holds Prison Officials Prevented Him from Pursuing Grievances

by Lonnie Burton

In an April 5, 2016 ruling, the Seventh Circuit reversed an Indiana federal district court’s order dismissing a lawsuit filed by a state prisoner who claimed prison officials failed to protect him from assaults by other prisoners. The appellate court held the lower court had improperly found the prisoner failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, because prison staff prevented him from doing so.

In 2012, Indiana prisoner Asher B. Hill sued several prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they failed to act or intervene to stop other prisoners from throwing feces on him through “cuff ports” on four separate occasions. The defendants quickly moved to dismiss, arguing that Hill had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies because he did not file formal grievances as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).

The district court agreed and dismissed Hill’s complaint on summary judgment, and he appealed. On review, the Seventh Circuit held that Hill had satisfied the exhaustion requirements of the PLRA for three of his four claims because prison officials prevented him from filing or pursuing grievances.

Hill attempted to file four separate grievances, one for each incident. On the first occasion he sought an informal resolution by writing a letter to staff as required by the prison’s grievance policy. When that was unsuccessful he initiated a formal grievance, which was returned unprocessed with no instructions on how to resubmit or correct it. Because the policy requires that prisoners be informed of what correction is needed to process a grievance, it was not up to Hill to guess what he was supposed to do next, the appellate court held.

As to the third and fourth incidents, the Court of Appeals accepted as fact at this stage of the proceedings Hill’s contention that staff refused to provide him with a grievance form, again as required by policy. Prison officials said Hill should have kept asking other staff members until he obtained one, but the Court was unpersuaded by that argument, saying the PLRA does not require prisoners to go on “scavenger hunts” to exhaust their administrative remedies.

The only incident the Seventh Circuit found unexhausted was the second one, in which Hill’s grievance was returned as informally resolved. Because the policy outlines a procedure to challenge such a determination and Hill did not pursue it, his claims related to the second incident had been properly dismissed by the district court.

The Court of Appeals thus vacated the judgment of the district court in part and remanded for further proceedings on Hill’s first, third and fourth claims. The case remains pending. See: Hill v. Snyder, 817 F.3d 1037 (7th Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

Hill v. Snyder