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Fifth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Texas Prisoners’ Challenge to Pandemic Prison Conditions for Failure to Exhaust

by Matt Clarke

On March 9, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of pandemic precautions taken by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), holding that there was no exception for a pandemic emergency to the requirement that prisoners first exhaust all administrative remedies before filing suit in federal court.

The four prisoners who filed the doomed suit pro se, Troy Daniel Thoele, Gregory Boone, Matthew Hansberger, and Ruben Ybanez, were held at TDCJ’s Boyd Unit, and all allegedly suffer comorbidities that would worsen the effect of COVID-19 should they become infected with the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. They claimed that TDCJ “failed to provide reasonable accommodations for their comorbidities and take other precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic,” in violation of their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 26 § 12101 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act (RA), 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.

After their suit was filed, the federal court for the Western District of Texas reviewed it under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, which outlines the grievance-exhaustion requirement for prisoner claims. In anticipation of failure on that review, Plaintiffs filed a “Memorandum on PLRA Exhaustion,” outlining TDCJ’s two-step grievance process and admitting that only one of them—Thoele—had filed a grievance, and even he had not followed that with a second-step grievance before the lawsuit was filed. But the prisoners contended that “they were not obligated to complete the grievance process” in this instance “because COVID-19 placed them in imminent danger and the TDCJ’s administrative procedures would not provide timely relief,” the Court later recalled.

Their argument was that the pandemic was so fast-spreading and deadly that it effectively made the prison system’s grievance process unavailable to them. TDCJ disagreed, of course, and moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by PLRA. The district court duly granted dismissal. Still proceeding pro se, Thoele appealed.

On review, the Fifth Circuit said that because the district court considered evidence outside the complaint—the prisoners’ admission of their failure to exhaust contained in the memorandum—the appropriate standard for review was to treat the dismissal as a summary judgment. But it went on to uphold the lower court’s ruling.

The Court began by noting that failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense that requires TDCJ to show whether administrative remedies were available to a prisoner and whether he then failed to pursue them. Since Thoele admitted the latter, the former question was the only one before the Court, which noted that the response to Thoele’s step one grievance showed that TDCJ was issuing masks and bleach to prisoners, providing extra soap upon request, and using a cleaning crew to sterilize common areas.

That was “some relief,” the Court held, citing its decision in Valentine v. Collier, 978 F.3d 154 (5th Cir. 2020). In that case, also filed over prison officials’ allegedly inadequate pandemic response, the Court said so long as the grievance process was capable of providing “some relief,” it must be exhausted whether or not the precise relief requested was unavailable.

In this case, the Court agreed with Thoele that TDCJ’s administrative procedure was “inadequate” to the challenge presented by the pandemic. But it wasn’t so inadequate as to make relief practically unavailable. Rather, the Court said, even an inadequate grievance system is still a system, which PLRA requires a prisoner to exhaust. Thoele’s failure to do so, the Court concluded, was sufficient for Defendants to successfully challenge his suit on the PRLA’s exhaustion requirement, so it affirmed the lower court’s decision. See: Thoele v. Collier, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 6237 (5th Cir.). 

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Related legal case

Thoele v. Collier