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Former Pennsylvania Prisoner’s Complaint Cures Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

The court’s precedential August 3, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Robert Downey. He was incarcerated from September 24, 2013 to January 26, 2017, and served most of his time at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Waymart. Upon his entry, he used eye drops to treat glaucoma.

At a December 22, 2014, exam, Dr. Richard Roth, an ophthalmologist, thought Downey “may need surgical intervention” due to elevated eye pressure. Despite SCI Waymert medical director Dr. David Tomazic finding Downey required urgent care, only two subsequent consultations were done by March 18, 2015. At that time, Downey’s right eye required emergency surgical intervention in one to two weeks to save his vision. Nothing happened until a consult on December 2, 2015.

At that consult, Dr. Daniel Lutz said Downey needed surgery “[a]s soon as humanly possible.”

He had surgery on his left eye on December 16, 2015 and on his right eye on February 2, 2016. The surgeries were too late to save Downey’s vision, and he is now blind. About one year later, Downey sued numerous defendants, including private medical vendor Correct Care Solutions.

He filed two amended complaints after his January 26, 2017, release. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Downey failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), so he could not pursue monetary damages. The district court granted the motion, and Downey appealed.

On appeal, the defendants pushed the same argument, but they added a sovereign immunity defense argument. The Third Circuit noted the PLRA mandates a prisoner must exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. It pointed out that the remedy must be available to the prisoner, and where a policy is susceptible to different interpretations, the prisoner “should err on the side of exhaustion.”

The court examined the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PDOC) 2013 Inmate Handbook. In explaining the grievance procedure, it stated that “[w]hen faced with an incident of an urgent or emergency nature, the inmate shall contact the nearest staff member for immediate assistance.”

“The record is replete with documents and testimony making clear that Downey’s severe glaucoma was so urgent that it required immediate care to prevent permanent vision loss,” the Third Circuit wrote. The defendants’ “attempt to downplay the urgency of Downey’s condition” was found unavailing. It was held that Downey was not required to exhaust administrative remedies concerning his care or to seek monetary damages after the fact.

The Third Circuit further noted that the amended complaints filed after Downey’s release cured any error. Exhaustion of administrative remedies is only required while imprisoned. The court held that so long as the amendment relates back to the initial complaint, the amendment cures a former prisoner’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies while imprisoned. Finally, the court held the defendants were entitled to sovereign immunity as to claims in their official capacity.

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Related legal case

Downey v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr.