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Prison Grievance Coordinator’s Responses Rendered Administrative Remedies Unavailable

by David Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that an Indiana federal district court erred in dismissing a prisoner’s civil rights action for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Court held the record indicated the prisoner was prevented from filing a grievance due to mixed or improper instructions from the grievance coordinator.

Indiana state prisoner Terry Davis filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint alleging that on January 5, 2014, guards David Mason and Blake Thrasher punched him repeatedly, put him in a chokehold and placed a plastic bag over his head. He sustained two black eyes, broken teeth and possibly a broken nose.

Upon the district court’s invitation, the defendants moved for summary judgment based on Davis’ failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The court subsequently granted the motion and Davis appealed.

In a February 6, 2018 ruling, the Seventh Circuit found that in the days following the alleged assault, “Davis tried several times to submit grievances complaining about the incident, but none were processed.” Davis’ first two grievances resulted in his receiving “Return of Grievance” forms, saying they would not be processed because they raised a classification issue and were not completely filled out. Contrary to policy, Davis was not told what the classification issue was or what was missing from the grievances. He also was instructed to contact his unit team and Internal Affairs, which is not required by the grievance procedure.

Third and fourth attempts to file a formal grievance were deemed untimely. The grievance coordinator, however, forwarded a copy of Davis’ complaint to Internal Affairs “because of the seriousness” of his allegations. The administrative trail ended there.

The Court of Appeals rejected the defendants’ claim that Davis had waived his challenge to the unavailability of the grievance process, noting the defendants had the burden of proving Davis did not exhaust administrative remedies.

“It was not Davis’s burden to establish that the grievance process was unavailable; it was the officers’ burden to show that Davis did not exhaust available remedies,” the appellate court stated. The defendants failed to meet that burden; in fact, the Seventh Circuit wrote, “the grievance coordinator kept rejecting Davis’s grievances based on his purported noncompliance with unannounced or unexplained requirements.”

The appellate court held that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude Davis did all he was required to do to exhaust his administrative remedies. The district court’s order was vacated, and the case remains pending on remand. See: Davis v. Mason, 881 F.3d 982 (7th Cir. 2018). 


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Related legal case

Davis v. Mason