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Seventh Circuit: Indiana Prisoner Who Failed to Formalize Grievance Also Failed to Exhaust Remedies

by David M. Reutter

On August 17, 2022, an Indiana prisoner learned a painful lesson from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. As PLN has repeatedly warned, courts are empowered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, to dismiss any lawsuit filed by a prisoner who fails to exhaust administrative remedies through the prison grievance system — no matter how redundant or petty that may seem.

The suit was filed by Shawn Williams, a prisoner at Wabash Valley Correctional Center suffering chronic tendonitis in his left knee, which required prescription pain medication. After injuring his pinky finger and receiving an x-ray, Williams was seen by Dr. Naveen Rajoli on July 19, 2019. The finger did not require further treatment, Rajoli said. But in an apparent error, he also discontinued Williams’ pain medication for his knee.

The next day, Williams filed a “Request for Healthcare” form indicating he was still experiencing pain in his knee. He was seen by nurse Tara Powers three days after that, on July 23, 2019. According to Williams’ complaint, she forced him to perform exercises while handcuffed, causing further pain to his knee. His medication was not reinstated, either.

Williams filed two “Request for Interview” forms by July 28, 2019, a required step before filing a formal grievance under policy of the state Department of Corrections (DOC). The first form complained about the discontinuation of Williams’ medication; the second concerned the allegedly shoddy treatment Powers provided.

After receiving no response, Williams submitted two more informal grievances on August 5, 2019, each on another “Request for Interview” form. Two more followed after that, filed on August 12 and 15, 2019. None received a response.

Williams then filed his first formal grievance on August 20, 2019. Nine days later it was denied. Why? Because Williams failed to comply with the filing deadline, which DOC policy set at ten days after the incident — in other words, on August 2, 2019.

Williams took no further administrative action. Instead he filed suit pro se in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, proceeding under U.S.C. § 1983 to accuse Rajoli and Powers of deliberate indifference to his serious medical need, in violation of his Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

Without ever reaching the merits of his case, the district court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Williams failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by PLRA. Williams appealed, and the Seventh Circuit recruited pro bono counsel from attorneys Minh O. Nguyen-Dang, with Mayer Brown LLP in Washington, DC, and Michael A. Scodro, with the firm’s Chicago office.

They pointed to DOC Admin P. No. 00-02-301, subsection X, which prohibits filing a formal grievance without evidence that an informal grievance has first been filed and denied. Since Williams never received a response to his “Request for Interview” forms, they argued, he couldn’t have filed a formal grievance.

But the Court said they misread the policy.

True, it requires prisoners to “attempt to resolve” complaints informally and says they need to “provide evidence” of that attempt. But the policy “doesn’t require a prison official to respond to the informal resolution request” before a prisoner proceeds to a more formal grievance, the Court declared. Because “[t]he need for evidence of an attempt at informal resolution isn’t linked to a response from prison officials,” the Court continued, “the policies don’t require specific documentary evidence to file a formal grievance.” And while “Williams believed otherwise, he should have ‘err[ed]on the side of exhaustion’ and timely initiated the formal grievance process when he did not receive a response before the ten-day deadline expired,” the Court concluded, citing Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S. 632 (2016).

As the Court explained, formal grievances that are returned because a prisoner failed to attempt informal resolution can be revised and resubmitted. At that point, the prisoner can either file an informal grievance or provide a copy of one already filed. Since Williams failed to do either and proceeded to file his complaint in federal court, it was his own action that made administrative remedies unavailable to him, the Court explained.

Williams had made a second argument on appeal: That his failure to timely file a formal grievance should be excused for good cause. But the Court also refused to consider the merits of this argument, deeming it waived because Williams failed to raise it either with prison officials or in the district court. Thus dismissal of his case was affirmed. See: Williams v. Rajoli, 44 F.4th 1041(7th Cir. 2022). 

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