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Seventh Circuit Revives Indiana Prisoner’s Claim Over Dismissed Grievance

by David M. Reutter

On May 4, 2023, the U.S. Court of appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment against a federal prisoner in Indiana who claimed he was subjected to a physical assault for filing grievances. But the Court affirmed judgment on two other claims that followed the initial incident.

The appeal ensued after the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted a motion for summary judgment by defendant officials with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in a suit filed pro se by Leroy N. Ingram, a prisoner at the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute. BOP argued that Ingram had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The district court agreed, and Ingram appealed.

Ingram filed three substantive grievances, two of which he failed to pursue to conclusion. One of those two asserted that guards failed to protect him from harm. That grievance was rejected because it lacked required attachments. Ingram took no action to cure the error nor to fully exhaust available administrative remedies. The Seventh Circuit, therefore, found no error by the district court on that claim.

A second grievance asserted staff retaliated against Ingram by withholding necessary medical care. BOP rejected that grievance because Ingram failed to take the required step of resolving the matter informally. The Seventh Circuit rejected Ingram’s argument he did not need to appeal that rejection because he did not receive the response until after he filed suit. Judgment was appropriate, the Court said, because a prisoner “cannot short-circuit the grievance process by running to court while the [grievance] process is ongoing.”

The remaining grievance was the first filed by Ingram. It complained about a beating by guards. Ingram filed the grievance with the prison’s warden, who rejected Ingram’s contentions. Ingram then appealed to BOP’s Regional Director. In an affidavit filed with the district court, Ingram asserted he waited several weeks for a response before asking “Officer Gore what was going on.” Gore allegedly responded that the prison had received the Regional Director’s response, “which would not be provided to Ingram.”

Ingram then filed a grievance about the operation of the grievance process and also filed suit. Three days after that, though, he received the Regional Director’s response. By then, it was too late to appeal to the General Counsel, for the lawsuit was pending and administrative remedies must be exhausted before filing suit, not parallel with the litigation, as laid out in Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S. 632 (2016).

The district court found that Ingram should have treated the prison’s initial failure to hand over the Regional Director’s decision as equivalent to a nonresponse and appealed to the General Counsel. But the Seventh Circuit said that was error.

Under 28 C.F.R. §542.18, Ingram was authorized to appeal if the Regional Director was silent. However, in this case it was undisputed that the Regional Director issued a decision. Therefore, 28 C.F.R. §542.15(b)(1) required Ingram to attach a copy of that decision to the appeal to the General Counsel.

The Seventh Circuit, as a result, said it may be found that administrative remedies were not available to Ingram, though it would require a hearing under Pavey v. Conley, 544 F.3d 739 (7th Cir. 2008), to take “testimony on the subjects such as whether the Warden refused to provide the Regional Director’s statement to Ingram or whether, instead, there was just a bureaucratic delay in handing it over.” Thus, that part of the lower court’s order was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s decision. See: Ingram v. Watson, 67 F.4th 866 (7th Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Ingram continues to proceed pro se. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Ingram v. Watson, USDC (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 2:19-cv-00486.  

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Related legal case

Ingram v. Watson