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Seventh Circuit Offers No Relief to Indiana Prisoner Held in Solitary Four Years

by Jacob Barrett

On March 10, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) defendants in a suit brought by a state prisoner, saying he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

In 2016, Corey Crouch, who was held by DOC for over a decade, was found guilty of a disciplinary violation. He was placed in Administrative Restrictive Status Housing (ARSH), a form of solitary confinement, where he remained for almost four years before being reclassified back to the general population.

Over that period Crouch received dozens of classification and status reports, including a “Report of Classification Hearing” (ROCH) and a monthly “Department Administrative Restrictive Housing Review,” also known as a 30-day review.

The ROCH was governed by a DOC policy that dictates classification decisions can be appealed. Crouch received over 35 ROCHs but did not appeal any of them.

The 30-day reviews are written reports mandated by Ind. Code § 11-10-1-7(b), which provides that DOC “shall review an offender so segregated at least once every thirty (30) days to determine whether the reasons for segregation still exist.” However, the policy was not clear on whether a prisoner could appeal the review.

In November 2017 Crouch began receiving 30-day reviews. Then in 2019, DOC added language to the policy explaining that they, like ROCHs, could be appealed. In the interim, Crouch received at least 21 of these 30-day reviews. He didn’t appeal any of them before or after the new language change. Together with his ROCHs, Crouch received at least 56 notices of decisions that he could appeal, but he never did.

In 2020, Crouch sued DOC employees in federal court for the Southern District of Indiana under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his due process rights because of his “‘prolonged placement in solitary confinement’ which ‘did not receive meaningful review.’”

Defendants moved for summary judgement, arguing Crouch failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The district court agreed and granted the motion without prejudice.

Crouch turned to the Seventh Circuit, arguing that he had exhausted his available administrative remedies. He testified that he had appealed a ROCH in 2018. But since he had no written proof, “[t]he district court rejected this argument”, the Court recalled, “finding there was no ‘designated evidence ... creat[ing] a genuine factual dispute to defeat summary judgment.’”

The district court went on the find that even if Crouch’s claim that he appealed the ROCH were true, “no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that Crouch appealed the ‘ROCH by submitting the proper form to the proper official by the applicable deadline.’”

The Seventh Circuit agreed, finding that “[t]here is no evidence that Crouch appealed a ROCH through the available administrative process.”

Crouch argued that the 2019 change in the language was meaningless because it was not accompanied by a change in DOC classification policy. That stated prisoners could appeal classification “decisions” but did not specifically mention “reviews” or “recommendations” as part of that appeal process.

The Seventh Circuit rejected this argument. The fact that the policy said he could appeal classification “decisions” but did not specifically mention “reviews” or “recommendations” did not excuse non-exhaustion, since Crouch did not produce any evidence to the district court or on appeal that DOC officials would have refused to consider such appeals.

While the district court had dismissed his case without prejudice, the Seventh Circuit held no amendment to the complaint could cure its problems. And since the deadline for exhausting administrative remedies had long passed, it made the dismissal final.

Crouch was represented on appeal by Indianapolis attorney Kyle L. Christie of Christie Farrell Lee & Bell. See: Crouch v. Brown, 27 F.4th 1315 (7th Cir. 2022)

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Related legal case

Crouch v. Brown