Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pennsylvania Prisoner Loses Part of Leg, Wins Appeal in Precedential Grievance Process Case

When the plaintiff in the case, Steven Patrick Hardy, entered the State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill in July 2017, he was in urgent need of medical care. Part of a leg amputated due to diabetes had developed an infected open wound as a result of an ill-fitting prosthesis. Because of his condition, he was sent directly to the prison infirmary rather than to a cellblock.

As a result, he did not receive the normal orientation given new prisoners, nor was he issued a copy of the Camp Hill Inmate Handbook. Nevertheless, staff assured him that a handbook copy would be waiting for him in his cellblock, so Hardy agreed to sign an acknowledgment he had received it. But, in fact, the handbook was not awaiting him when he finally arrived on the cellblock.

Hardy requested a copy from a guard, who said he “should have already gotten one” and that obtaining one was now “[his] problem.” He was twice denied access to the library, which was the best “place to get a handbook,” because the facility was full.

Meanwhile his leg wound festered, and his complaints to medical staff were answered with advice to file a grievance. Hardy did so, but without the handbook to guide him through the three-level grievance-review process, his complaint was rejected for not being “legible, understandable, and presented in a courteous manner.”

“Between December 27, 2017, and March 30, 2018, Hardy filed no less than twelve grievances seeking medical care for his worsening condition, all of which were denied on varying grounds,” the court found. “A few months after the last rejection, Hardy’s fears came to pass and medical staff found it necessary to amputate more of his leg.”

That was when Hardy filed his federal civil rights action. But the district court granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Hardy had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the PLRA and concluding that prison staff’s advice was not a “clear misrepresentation” that made the grievance process unavailable.

When he appealed, the Third Circuit noted that no other Court of Appeals had articulated a clear test to establish whether a grievance process is unavailable to a prisoner because a misrepresentation thwarted the use of that process.

In establishing a test for that purpose, the court first considered the meaning of “misrepresentation.”

Under Ross v. Blake, 136 S.Ct. 1850 (2016), the critical test “is not whether a misrepresentation is ‘clear’ but whether that misrepresentation amounts to ‘interference with an inmate’s pursuit of relief [that] renders the administrative process unavailable.” The Third Circuit concluded that “it is imperative that prisons refrain from not only clear misrepresentations, but also misleading statements.”

The court then considered what a prisoner must show to establish that the misrepresentation thwarted his ability to take advantage of the grievance process, establishing a two-part test.

First, as an objective matter, the instruction must be of the sort that a reasonable prisoner would be “entitled to rely on” it even though it is “at odds with the wording” of the grievance process. It also must be so misleading to a reasonable prisoner that it interferes with his use of that process.

Second, as a subjective matter, the prisoner must persuade the court that he did in fact rely on the misrepresentation to his detriment, though this can be overcome with circumstantial evidence showing the prisoner actually knew how to navigate the grievance process.

The court then applied that test to Hardy’s case. It found the advice he received to file another grievance met both prongs. First, it had interfered with his ability to navigate the grievance process. Also, as a result of the misrepresentation, Hardy was never informed that there was more than one step to the process and that he needed to write “appeal” somewhere on the form to take the next step. There was no evidence that Hardy was ever informed of the appeal requirement.

As a result, the court found that the prison had “provided misleading instructions on which a reasonable inmate would rely.” The district court’s order was reversed, and Hardy’s complaint was remanded for reconsideration consistent with the newly established two-part test. See: Hardy v. Shaikh, 959 F.3d. 578 (3d Cir. 2020). 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Hardy v. Shaikh