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Second Circuit: N.Y. Detainee Didn’t Fail to Exhaust Administrative Remedies When Jail Grievance Procedure Excluded Matter Forming Basis of Claim

by Matt Clarke

On June 8, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated a New York jail detainee’s claim, saying he couldn’t be guilty of failure to exhaust his administrative remedies when the jail’s grievance policy specifically precluded him from grieving the matter at hand.

While held in pretrial detention at the Chautauqua County Jail, Samuel James Saeli was handcuffed behind his back with the backs of his hands facing each other, causing him intense pain. He tried to submit an informal grievance form, the first of the jail’s multiple steps in its grievance procedure. But a guard told him that the handcuffing policy was set by the county and not grievable; per jail policy, it was “outside the jail captain’s control.”

Later, Saeli was allegedly assaulted by guards as he left the shower and again handcuffed in the painful way. He filed another informal grievance form. But the jail lieutenant returned it to him and said, “don’t hand that in.” Saeli was also convicted of a disciplinary violation for disobeying orders in the shower incident and fined.

He then filed suit pro se in federal court for the Western District of New York to overturn the handcuffing policy, as well as his disciplinary violation arising from the shower incident. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he accused jail staff of preventing him from properly grieving the issues by refusing to accept the informal grievance forms and, in the case of the handcuffing policy, telling him the issue was not grievable. But the district court never reached the merits of the case before granting Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, citing Saeli’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. Saeil appealed.

At the Second Circuit, Saeli was appointed an attorney, Andrew Rhys Davies of Allen & Overy in New York City. Reviewing the case de novo, the Court began by noting three exceptions to the PLRA exhaustion requirement laid out in Ross v. Blake, 578 U.S. 632 (2016): where the process “operates as a simple dead end”; where it is “so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use”; or “when prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of [it] through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.”

The fact that a guard handed Saeli’s grievance back to him and said, “don’t hand that in,” was not sufficiently intimidating to be a denial of the process, the Court said. However, the jail’s grievance policy specifically excludes issues “outside the authority of the jail captain to control.” Defendants testified that the handcuffing policy is set by the Sheriff’s Department and that the jail captain is subject to it. Thus, the Court found the handcuffing policy was, “as a matter of law, outside the scope of the grievance policy,” and Saeli was not required to grieve it.

Therefore the district court’s judgment was vacated with respect to Plaintiff’s claim against the county, though affirmed with respect to the guards. See: Saeli v. Chautauqua Cty., 36 F.4th 445 (2d Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Saeli was appointed pro bono counsel on September 20, 2022, from attorney Jared K. Cook of Vahey Law Offices, PLLC, in Rochester. See: Saeli v. Chautauqua Cty., USDC (W.D.N.Y.), Case No. 6:17-cv-06221. 

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